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Weird & Wonderful Creatures: The Potoo

The potoo is a type of bird found in Central and South America. If you haven't heard of these birds before, don't worry—they are an elusive group of species, masterfully camouflaging themselves during the day, becoming active only at night. Fossil remains of the potoo have been found in western Europe, dating back to the Eocene era (56 to 33.9 million years ago). Today there are only seven species of potoo in one family (Nyctibius).

Potoos are insectivores, and spend their nights perched on tree stumps or branches, moving only to snatch a passing insect from the air. Nighttime is also when their distinctive calls can be heard: potoos are famous for their mournful-sounding calls, which inspired their nickname of "poor-me-ones." (Check out the video below to listen.) During the day, potoos can be found perched in a tree in plain sight, relying on their excellent camouflage for protection: their mottled grey and brown plumage helps them blend in seamlessly to look like an extension of their perch. Meanwhile, these birds strike their signature "freeze" pose—turning their heads straight up and closing their eyes—which helps keep their enormous mouth and eyes from catching too much attention.

The "freeze" pose is learned early by baby potoos as well, which look like clumps of tree fungus when they adopt the pose with their fuzzy white feathers. Potoos are monogamous birds, forming pairs and laying just one egg at a time in a dent in a branch or stump. The parents trade off duties while incubating the egg and tending the chick after it hatches. The fact that potoos don't build nests in which to raise their young is a testament to their amazing environmental adaptations—they rely entirely on their camouflage to keep themselves and their chicks safe.