A sunbittern at the National Aviary displaying its wings.
By Robert Mulvihill, National Aviary ornithologist
This is one of a series presented by the National Aviary, which works to inspire respect for nature through an appreciation of birds.
"It's got the wings of a painted lady. It's an avian butterfly."
This is how acclaimed nature writer and artist Julie Zickefoose described the sunbittern, a species she observed recently while leading a birding trip in Costa Rica. The metaphor is appropriate, because the strikingly colorful pattern of a sunbittern's wings, like that of some butterflies, is hidden when its wings are folded, which is most of the time. But when it is threatened, it spreads and fans its wings, making it look much larger and revealing two bright false "eye spots" in a display that can startle a would-be predator.
At other times, as when it is foraging along a river, the sunbittern's plumage is cryptic, blending with its surroundings. Its camouflage is enhanced by the bird's slow, deliberate movements as it searches for food. It stalks like a heron, and it captures aquatic prey (insects, snails, fish and frogs) like a heron, too, with a quick lunge and jab of its long neck and bill. But, it is not a type of heron. In fact, scientists cannot agree on what kind of bird the sunbittern is.
Using observed patterns of morphological, anatomical and genetic similarity, taxonomists classify species into increasingly broad categories: genus, family and order. These higher taxonomic categories are based on shared evolutionarily derived traits, called synapomorphies. For example, species placed in the same genus are hypothesized to share a common ancestor that had a specific morphological traitor set of traits that only the descendant species in that genus possess. Similarly, related genera may share a set of traits with a more distant common ancestor that places them together within the same family, and so on.
Ornithologists agree, the sunbittern is unique, being the sole species in the genus and family in which it is classified. Even at the next higher taxonomic level, which is order, scientists have concluded the sunbittern shares evolutionary traits with only one other living species, the kagu, a very different looking long-legged, crested bluish gray bird from the South Pacific island of New Caledonia. These two species alone comprise the Eurypygiformes. Beyond this taxonomists cannot agree which other avian orders the sunbittern and kaguare are related to: possibly the rails, maybe the herons or perhaps even the pelagic tropic birds! In short, the taxonomic distinctiveness of the sunbittern is most unusual among the world's more than 10,000 living bird species.
You can see this one-of-a-kind bird at the National Aviary almost anytime; however, the species is crepuscular, meaning it is much more active at dawn and dusk. So, if you would like to see it and have the chance to hear its haunting, ventriloquial call, attend National Aviary at Night, an "after hours" event for 21-and-older visitors on the third Thursday of every month. Details at www.aviary.org.
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