The great potoo is the largest of all seven potoo species found worldwide. Often mistaken for owls due to similar physical features and nocturnal habits, they are closer in relation to nightjars and frogmouths. These birds are most well-known for their very unsettling calls throughout the night, which help create an eerie atmosphere in the forests they inhabit.
German naturalist Johann Freidrich Gmelin described the species in 1789.
Size: Length: 18.90 to 23.62 in (480 to 600mm) Weight: 12.69 to 22.91oz (360 to 650g)
Wingspan: 27.56 to 31.65 in (700 to 804mm)
Body and coloration: Their head is large in comparison to the rest of the body. They have large eyes, with irises ranging from yellow to brown. Their beak is short but broad, the tail is elongated, and they have elliptical wings.
Their plumage is mixed, consisting of black, burgundy, white, and gray. The tail, in addition, has a series of white bars.
They are spread throughout Central and South America, including southern Mexico, northeastern Guatemala, southeastern Brazil, and Bolivia.
It prefers humid and semi-humid regions, with the main requirement being that trees must be present. The great potoo thrives in various environments such as dense rainforests, clearings, forest edges, second-growth forest (regrown after a harvest), plantations, meadows, and foothills.
Primarily insectivorous by nature, common prey for these birds include crickets, katydids, grasshoppers, and large birds. Sometimes even small vertebrates like bats and smaller birds may become part of their meal as well.
The lifespan of the great potoo remains unrecorded, but as per assumptions, they live for 12-14 years on average like other bird species.
These shy birds are solitary, spending a major part of their time hiding between the tall branches with their eyes partially closed. Significant interactions take place only between the parents and their young.
The great potoo is nocturnal, performing most of its activity at night and remaining still during the day. If they sense danger, they will “freeze” up to stay camouflaged.
While hunting, this bird remains high above the ground, sitting on a perch matching its plumage. When a potential meal passes by, it swoops down and pounces on it, then returns to its original position to feed on its prey.
It grooms itself by raising its foot over its wing to scratch its head.
Like all potoo species, the great potoo also stands out due to its unique call. Their two most common vocalizations include an eerie “whoap” and a frog-like “baaaao”. The former is more commonly heard from both perched birds and those in flight.
While adults have few predators, some species target the eggs and nestlings in the birds’ nest. These include monkeys like the white-headed capuchin, the mantled howler, and the black-handed spider monkey, as well as tayras and collared forest falcons.
Its cryptic plumage acts as perfect camouflage. If it remains motionless on a preferred branch, it can become virtually indistinguishable.
Their eyelids have a slit in them, allowing them to keep an eye out for threats even when they close their eyes.
Mating and Reproduction
They are monogamous, pairing during the wet seasons and staying together for several seasons. However, pairs only come together during the mating period. After breeding, the female lays a single egg in a branch or a depressed crevice of their preferred tree, as these birds do not build nests.
The egg is white, sometimes slightly spotted, and has dimensions around 5.2 x 3.8 cm (2 x 1.8 inches). While the incubation period remains unknown, fledglings have been spotted after 55-60 days, with only one parent seen with them at a time. The adults brood the chicks at night and feed them by regurgitation. The chicks are entirely white initially but start growing darker feathers after two weeks. After a month, they begin to move around in the surrounding areas, and leave the nest by the time they become three months old.
The IUCN lists the great potoo as “LC” or “Least Concern”. The population is assumably stable because the bird occupies a vast geographic region with variable environments. The only potential threat to them is the clearing of rainforests.
In 2020, a woman in Colombia got a massive fright when she encountered a great potoo up close after initially mistaking it for a stick.
This bird is a minor food source for the local people of Brazil but generally aren’t hunted for their meat as they are hard to find and do not provide much sustenance. However, there is a belief that their body parts like feathers provide chastity or ward off seduction, so they still end up hunted sometimes.