Readers’ animal photos: a tawny frogmouth

February 3, 2012 • 7:27 am

Reader Nick sends us two pictures of one of my favorite birds: the tawny frogmouth (Podargus strigoides), found in Australia, Tasmania, and New Guinea.

I lived in Australia for 8 years and managed to take some pictures of the wildlife there. I was lucky to live and travel in areas where there was some amazing wildlife around and was able to capture some fantastic photos. I have many but would like to just start with these two.

Early one morning while I was getting ready for work, I noticed this lump on a palm tree frond. Because of the area we were living in, it could have been anything, for we were normally visited by all kinds of birds and there were lots of flying foxes around. Upon closer inspection, I noticed that it was a Tawny Frogmouth (Podargus strigoides). These birds are rather difficult to spot normally because they stick to certain types of trees or logs that work well with their defences, and palm trees normally aren’t one. As you can see from the picture, their camouflage doesn’t work that well.

The first picture shows the bird just sitting there and the second shows the typical defence position.

I have to admit to getting lucky here. The bird did seem rather sensitive to any noise, so opening the sliding door to our deck was difficult without making any noise. Once I took the shot it immediately went into defence mode, older DSLRs not being the most quiet cameras in the world. [Click to enlarge; note that you’re seeing the bird’s head, not its butt!]

I never saw another one there and the palm frond eventually dropped off during our time at that house.

Here’s a YouTube video, which I think I’ve posted before, of some captive frogmouths undergoing rehabilitation.

They have a morphology convergent with that of owls, though frogmouths are largely insectivores. Wikipedia notes the differences:

Tawny Frogmouths and owls both have anisodactyl feet – meaning that one toe is facing backwards and the other three face forwards. However, owls’ feet are much stronger than the feet of the Tawny Frogmouth as owls use their feet to catch their prey. Owls are also able to swing one of their toes around to the back (with a unique flexible joint) to get a better grip on their prey. Tawny Frogmouths have fairly weak feet as they use their beaks to catch their prey. Owls eat small mammals, like mice and rats, so their bones are shorter and stronger than those of Tawny Frogmouths which usually hunt smaller prey. Tawny Frogmouths typically wait for their prey to come to them, only rarely hunting on the wing like owls.

And Matthew Cobb reminds me that they’re also convergent with nightjars.  Here’s a grey nightjar (Caprimulgus indicus) from India, also an insectivore (photo from

11 thoughts on “Readers’ animal photos: a tawny frogmouth

  1. they’re also convergent with nightjars

    ? Why convergent rather than sharing ancestral traits for the Order Caprimulgiformes (to which both belong)?

    Very cool birds, in many ways. I found a hibernating poorwill once and have always loved watching nighthawks at dusk.

    1. Yep, you might be right; in fact, you’re probably right since I’ve had a look at photos of the species in that order. The phenotype might well have been conserved from the ancestor. But surely the resemblance to owls IS convergence.


    2. I was thinking the same thing. As a complete aside, I saw a recent molecular phylogeny of Aves that placed Apodiformes (hummingbirds and swifts) completely within Caprimulgiformes. I mentioned this to a fellow patron at the Milwaukee Zoo (while observing their frogmouth), and she simply gave me a bewildered stare, which I wasn’t sure whether to interpret as marveling at the magnificent evolution that had occurred or disdain that I would make such an offhand mention of evolution.

      1. You’re talking about the sister relationship between apodiforms and owlet nightjars (Aegothelidae), perhaps? This is now entirely uncontroversial; the result has been obtained from dozens of genes and has been published several times.

        The recent molecular phylogeny you’re thinking of might be Hackett, S. J., et al. 2008. A phylogenomic study of birds reveals their evolutionary history. Science 320:1763-1768. At least two other studies preceded it, though.

  2. A follow up to the snowy owl post from December 12, 2011:

    Local Chicago PBS show covered the influx of snowy owls. It seems they like the open lakefront and rats:

    One of the guests has a lot of spectacular video and pictures:

    NBC covered the “eruption” on the Nightly News this week:

    And some great pics taken by one of the people in the NBC story:

    1. Nice collection of links. Thanks!

      (One note: this sort of phenomenon is termed an “irruption,” not “eruption.”)

  3. One of my favourite birdies ~ from whence I derived my email address. Fascinating creatures brought to my attention when I was stationed in Hong Kong by my local friends who regarded them with exactly the same superstition, reverence [& sometimes fear] as owls are still regarded in the U.K.

    They have a ‘supernatural’ quality in their behaviour. [with the owls it’s the peculiarly silent flight, their nocturnal activity, the haunting calls & that wonderful Stedicam [?] eye/head stability that’s a mark of the predator.

    Thank you Jerry & Nick.

  4. We used to have a Tawny Frogmouth that would visit our floodlit tennis court at Chapel Hill in Brisbane. It would either sit on the court fence or in the surrounding trees, waiting for particular insects to be drawn to the lights. It would swoop at any time to pick its feed off the court; which was rather unnerving in the middle of a point! It seemed oblivious to humans.

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