Monday, May 23, 2011

Animal Alphabet: H is for Hoatzin

This week's Animal Alphabet drawing is a little scruffy, but I am so out of practice with inking, and I was so pleased with my pencils on this one, that I decided to stick with a rough drawing (plus a spot of color and a few tweaks) so I wouldn't kill it.

For many years, in my mental collection of near-cryptozoological treasures, H has been for Hoatzin.

The hoatzin is a South American swamp bird, a majestically bemohawked turkey-goose-pigeon of a thing, an awkward, unwieldy flier because it feeds on leaves (and therefore has heavier fuel tanks than those warblers and wrens that eat more energy-dense meals). Apparently it's also smelly enough to have earned "stinkbird" as an alternate nom de plume.

I dig the hairstyle, but the major reason I like the hoatzin is that its chicks have an anatomical anomaly. They are born with small claws—"thumbs" at the wings' last joint and another small "finger" claw at the very point of the wing—that the baby birdies can use to clamber around in the swamp scrub from an early age, before they can fly. (You can see one in action here.) There's a lesson, if you ever needed one, in vertebrate homology.

A few years ago, when I was thinking about writing a sequence of animal-riddle-incantations with obscure answers, I came up with this little rhyme about the hoatzin:

Dragon's feathered mane, or turkey wattle?
Archaeopteryx, or Quetzalcoatl?
(Not much of a singer;
His wing has a finger.)

And really, if you were going to try to split the difference between archaeopteryx and Quetzalcoatl, I'm sure you'd come up with something like the hoatzin. If I could come up with a couple dozen riddles like that, do you think there would be a market for such a book? I figure it'd appeal to a particular sort of nerdling child.

If you do a google image search for "hoatzin chick" you may see a drawing or two in which people seem to have misunderstood the location of the little claws. Let me add my own doodle to that misinformation campaign:

That's not how the claws work...


Lula said...

If I recall correctly, they can fly up until they're fully grown, at which point they are too heavy and just give up and clamber around with their claws.

Isaac said...

You can see the adults flying in a couple of episodes of the BBC Life of Birds documentary, which is on YouTube, I think.