Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Amazing Wings

One of my favorite monotypic families is the Sunbittern, Eurypyga helias, only living member of the family Eurypygidae. It looks cool, it acts cool, it has phylogenetic sublimity. So of course I was ecstatic when I finally saw one in Venezuela last fall!

A Sunbittern bathed in heavenly golden light

These guys inhabited swampy, vegetation-choked forest on the ranch. They were very skittish - I only got lucky enough to get a photo during my last week on Masaguaral. Everytime I caught a glimpse of them, it was a bird first flushing away from the trail, then perching on an obscured horizontal branch to peer back cautiously at me. They would quietly give their weird call (listen to it on xeno-canto), walk around the branch, and fly away deeper into the forest if I so much as reached for my camera bag.


One time, though, an individual was feeling uppity enough to give a warning display. As it paced back and forth on its branch, it would slowly lift a wing at a time, flashing one of the coolest wing patterns out there.

Here's a closer look at that wing plumage from specimens from my ornithology class (definitely click to view a larger version).

These patterns are used in the warning display I saw, but I didn't see the full courtship display:

(image source: Wikipedia)

My friend Rae had a different experience. She somehow managed to observe multiple Sunbitterns out in the open on the ranch, getting this video as they walked around and called.

(video courtesy of Rae Okawa)

(If the embed doesn't work: link:

If you're trying to figure out the Sunbittern's closest relatives or analogs among North American birdlife, there are none. The Sunbittern, as mentioned, is a monotypic family containing only one species. This family has traditionally been placed among the Gruiformes order - containing also the cranes, rails, coots, kagu, bustards, finfeet, limpkin, trumpeters, and others. Recent molecular work has shown this order to be a polyphyletic assemblage of largely unrelated families.

Kagu (image source: Wikipedia)

The Sunbittern is independent of other families, showing no clear, close relatives except one - the Kagu (Rhynochetos jubatos) is another monotypic family: Rhynochetidae. This is a very different-looking bird endemic to the island of New Caledonia, northeast of Australia. One trait that the Kagu does share with the Sunbittern is the spread-wing display (see my work on avian relationships here for more information).

Aren't Sunbitterns awesome? (photo by Rae Okawa)


  1. Awesome bird, indeed! I would be utterly speechless if I ever saw one in the wild. Its strange sounding song reminds me of a rusty gate blowing in the wind.

  2. Your photos remind me of my days at the Nat Aviary with the Sun Bittern that they had there!

  3. Wow - gorgeous plumage! I knew that I had not heard of this bird before, and after seeing how beautiful it is, I am disappointed that it is not native to North America!

  4. Gorgeous they are :) Thanks for comments, all.

  5. That's pretty cool - I didn't know they were monotypic family. Killer pics from the collection too!

  6. Haha, because they look like all of those other Sunbittern-y birds? ;)