The world’s ugliest bird?

July 1, 2013 • 1:32 pm

Far be it from me to apply “lookism” to animals, but I must say that the potoo is not exactly your avian Robert Redford.  This imgur gallery gives a selection of potoo photos, all hair-raising. Here are three:


Potoos (genus Nictibius) are a family of nocturnal insectivorous birds (seven species) that live in Central and South America.  They’re famous for their camouflage; I saw one perched atop a tree in 1973 in Costa Rica, but only when it was pointed out to me.  Wikpedia notes:

The large head is dominated by a massive broad bill and enormous eyes. In the treatment of the family in the Handbook of the Birds of the World, Cohn-Haft describes the potoos as little more than a flying mouth and eyes. The bill, while large and broad, is also short, barely projecting past the face. It is delicate, but has a unique “tooth” on the cutting edge of the upper mandible that may assist in foraging. Unlike the closely related nightjars, the potoos lack rictal bristles around the mouth. The legs and feet are weak and used only for perching.


Potoos are convergent in both appearance and behavior to the tawny frogmouthsof Australia, a bird I’ve posted about before. Unlike nightjars and potoos, the frogmouths are not closely related to the others, and their resemblance must have evolved independently.


This video of a potoo mom is one of the best bird videos I’ve posted. Be sure to watch the whole five minutes so you can hear the incredibly melancholy call of the male.

What the potoo lacks in beauty it makes up for in tenacity. What a remarkable creature!

Also, check out the BuzFeed site “The potoo bird always looks like it just saw something absolutely horrifying

h/t: Matthew Cobb

48 thoughts on “The world’s ugliest bird?

          1. Even aside from the major characters, I could swear I remember something that looked remarkably like that, possibly from a movie. The Dark Crystal? Labyrinth? Might even have just been an animated part of the set rather than a character….


  1. The potoos camouflage is not that impressive. We have politicians who freeze and do nothing for decades!

  2. What happens when a hawk decides to land on that particular dead stub? A downside of good camouflage?

  3. If you had not provided video, I would have said that those pictures were fakes. Especially that first one. I swear there is a monster like that in one of the sci-fi moves from the late 50s / early 60s.

        1. That lost in space bird does look like this bird. It is funny that this conversation has now influenced the interwebs!

  4. That second photo shows the bird with differently-sized pupils. I am not a medical professional, but recall all kinds of possible Bad Things from first-aid training. Like head trauma, aneurysm and other life-threatening conditions.

    Hopefully though, that’s all fine if you’re a potoo.

      1. Other nocturnal birds have independently-controlled pupils, so in my mind the question becomes one of common descent or convergent evolution.

  5. The relationship between frogmouths and potoos is still up in the air….some phylogenies place them as descendants of a common, probably-nocturnal ancestor, while others suggest they had independently evolved nocturnal adaptations from a diurnal ancestor.

  6. What Lou Jost said, to a degree. Nobody knows the relationships of the families within the order Caprimulgiformes (which is paraphyletic, but that doesn’t affect the story). But it seems pretty clear that the whole bunch is nocturnal, and so that’s probably the ancestral condition.

    And you have misspelled Nyctibius.

    1. John, the diurnal family Trochilidae (hummingbirds) is embedded in the clade in an uncertain position. Either one lineage of nocturnal birds became diurnal, or the nocturnal habit was evolved independently multiple times from a common diurnal ancestor. As far as I am aware, we don’t yet know.

      1. One wonders what wonders will be revealed when we have a complete DNA-derived phylogenetic tree of life.

        One also gets rather depressed when one realizes that such an endeavor could be done for a fraction of the resources and effort spent by the US government in illegally and unconstitutionally spying on its own citizens….


      2. No, the position of Trochilidae is quite certain. It’s embedded within a group of mostly nocturnal or crepuscular birds: swifts, helmet swifts, and owlet nightjars are successive outgroups. That much is clear. What isn’t clear is the relationships among that group and the other caprimulgiform families, and we so far have no good evidence to resolve that polytomy.

        So yes, the most parsimonious hypothesis is that hummingbirds are descended from nocturnal ancestors. Parsimony isn’t certainty, but it’s the way to bet, and the bet looks strong to me.

  7. The bright yellow eyes are sexually selected I assume, but I wonder what it eats that it needs such a huge mouth.

    1. But if it is a night bird why would they be yellow? Also, the pupils would be much larger at night.

  8. The potoo gets different sister groups in the very nice study with an extremely good stem-fossil and in a general DNA study of birds.
    D.T. Ksepka, et al 2013. Proc. R. Soc. B 2013 280, 20130580, published 1 May 2013;
    S. J. Hackett, et al., 2008. Science 320, 1763

  9. I’ve seen uglier birds, tbh.

    Some male ducks, chickens, turkeys, vultures and condors are pretty hideous (with loads of warty red skin growths on their faces – which the ladies, no doubt, find irresistible!). And many unfeathered chicks look like weird scrota – baby parrots and pigeons are particular offenders.

    Arguably the ugliest bird I can think of is the Marabou stork (surely a face only a mother could love…

    I think this pic of the potoo is what the internet refers to as ‘creepy cute’:

  10. It’s crossed my mind before that the “ugliest” creatures often tend to be nocturnal/live in the dark (e.g. potoos, aye aye, angler fish etc)? Could it be that there is some form of objective beauty at work in nature through sexual selection? For daytime creatures this exerts an evolutionary pressure that (broadly) keeps them “attractive”. But for nocturnal creatures this effect is reduced allowing them to diverge from the norm and become “ugly”?

    Pure speculation on my part I know. But it’s something I’ve long wondered.

    1. Beautiful or ugly is subjective. Being a product of natural selection yourself biases you.

      1. I’m certainly inclined to agree with you. But, if so, why do the “ugliest” creatures (in the generally accepted definition of the term) tend to be nocturnal or live in the dark? (Assuming that premise is true, which granted it may not be. Perhaps the examples I gave are simply exceptions to the rule.)

  11. Quoted from first potoo:

    There’s supposed to be food going forward. Has anyone seen any food going in?

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