In less than two weeks I will be traveling to Guyana to explore the possibilities of psittacine research and avitourism there. I go as the guest of Foster Parrots to this fascinating land that is unique among South American countries in that they speak English and still allow legal capture and trade in parrots. I am delighted to go to see what I can do to help, and also to see beauty and to marvel at the birds and peoples there.
One bird I have always wanted to see is the Hoatzin, the national bird of Guyana. What intrigues me is that it is unique among birds in having an enlarged crop used for fermentation of a vegetable matter, much like the digestive system of mammalian ruminants. This species also is somewhat unusual in that its chicks have claws on two of their wing digits. Claws are also present in ratites, gamebirds, waterfowl, divers, storks and kin, finfoots, owls, New World vultures, the Secretary bird Sagittarius serpentarius, waders and many others.
Not only do birds have claws, but also spurs, spikes, and clubs. These characteristics occur on their appendages, with spikes and clubs located where their wing terminates into what are really hands. Prehistoric birds had rather impressive developments of these anatomical structures, capable of great harm to others, as do several species today. Writes Darren Naish of modern species, “Angry waterfowl, chickens, raptors and gulls can be real nasty: powerful and gutsy enough to fight off and injure (even kill) mammals bigger than they are.
Indeed, last month a man was killed by a rooster in central California. Chickens (Gallus gallus domesticus) naturally have spurs on their legs, and in this case a knife had been attached to its limb to augment its chances in an illegal cockfight. “Cockfighting is an illegal sport in the United States, in which specially bred roosters are put into a ring and encouraged to fight until one is incapacitated or killed.”
Like humans, with artificial accoutrements, birds can kill. We tend to do so with a variety of dangerous objects, including guns, saws, factories, cars, traps, and cages.
Hoatzin’s shed their claws at about 100 days of age. Perhaps in time we humans will shed our propensity to harm, and the danger of extinction at our hands will go extinct. This is the dream, and the goal of our journey to Guyana. Stay tuned here to see what we find, and if I can indeed see a Hoatzin.