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Highly Commended in the International Category of the 2015 BBC Wildlife Blogger Awards

The Hapless Hoatzin

I have a confession to make. It’s hard for me, a lover of all creatures wild, to admit this, but… I have rather ambivalent feelings when it comes to the hoatzin. Surely, by the laws of nature, such an inept, ungainly, witless animal should be extinct by now?

Hoatzin, Manu National Park, Peru. Photo: Jessica Groenendijk, Words from the Wild

Hoatzins live along the shores of oxbow lakes, which, in Peru, also happens to be the preferred habitat of the giant otter, an animal I have studied in the wild for several years. So I have had the dubious pleasure, countless times, of watching these heavy, pheasant-sized birds do their thing of shuffling and flapping laboriously in low-hanging vegetation. That’s pretty much all I’ve ever seen them do: scramble and crash through foliage, broad wings held partially raised, as if they’re unsure of their balance. Wheezing peevishly all the while.

Hoatzin, Manu National Park, Peru. Photo: Jessica Groenendijk, Words from the Wild

Hoatzins don’t seem to get used to people – though there’s never been a reason to fear us, as far as I know - and have the appearance of being in a permanent state of shock, with their panic-button eyes, naked, blue faces, and feathers standing on end. They’re herbivorous but seem to live on air: I’ve never seen them eat anything, not even at dusk or dawn. It’s as though they’re perpetually too anxious.

In sum, they come across as fussy, fearful fowls. And decidedly dumb. I’m ashamed to say it, but the whole package just irritates me.

Once, years ago, my husband and I saw a hoatzin fly over a lake in Manu National Park. Not just from one branch to another, but across the entire lake. This was unprecedented, daring behaviour. We watched it fly straight and true and then… then it simply fell out of the sky. I repeat: one second it was in mid-flight, the next it plummeted like a rotten fruit into the water. It was as though somebody had cut through a string that held it aloft.

Frank and I stared. Even for a hoatzin, this was taking incompetence to a new low.

We picked up our jaws and our paddles and hastened to the crash site. By the time we got there (less than a minute later?) the hoatzin was barely afloat, its wings outstretched. Frank lifted it out of the water and examined the bedraggled bundle briefly before placing it on the floor of the canoe, by his feet. It was conscious and there seemed to be nothing visibly wrong. Quickly, we paddled to a suitable tree on the shore and perched it on the highest branch we could reach. It squatted there, and blinked. Thinking our presence would only add to its distress, we left so it could recover from its ordeal.

Whatever that was all about – a heart attack? Exhaustion? – I’m afraid it only deepened my scorn for the hapless hoatzin.

Earlier this year, however, in May, I finally witnessed something that suggested hoatzins are not completely spineless. I was paddling, once again, along the shore of a lake and spotted a group of them ahead. They were spreading their wings and calling hoarsely, as usual, and I thought they were objecting, as usual, to my approach. I sighed and was about to paddle past in a wide arc when I noticed they weren’t looking at me but at a large hawk perched on a branch a few metres above them. It was a juvenile great-black hawk, with spangled breast, lustrous eyes, and a beak the shape of a cat’s claw.

Juvenile great-black hawk, Cocha Cashu, Manu National Park, Peru. Photo: Jessica Groenendijk, Words from the World

Then I spotted the hoatzin nest, an exposed and shallow tangle of twigs (what more could one expect?) low over the water, with two speckled eggs huddling in the centre.

Hoatzin nest, Cocha Cashu, Manu National Park, Peru. Photo: Jessica Groenendijk, Words from the Wild

The behaviour of the hoatzins, charged with hostility, made me realise I had only ever been a mild nuisance to them. The birds were united in their antagonism towards this new threat and when one let loose a loud, fierce squawk, I found myself raising my eyebrows in astonishment. Never, in all the hundreds of hours I had shared a lake with them, had I heard a hoatzin utter such an emphatic sound.

The hawk did not seem cowed in any way, but nor did it attack the nest. After about five minutes, it turned, became airborne, apparently without effort, and headed into the forest.

I still don’t have much patience for hoatzins, but now, when I see them on the lake as I did just two weeks ago, I know they are not as silly and helpless as I once believed.

It remains a mystery to me, though, that they haven’t gone the way of the dodo.

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