Subscribe to BirdNote

Sign up to receive a weekly email preview of the following week's shows!

Sign Up
Support BirdNote

Help BirdNote tell more stories, reach more people, and inspire action.


You are here

The Oilbird's Lightless life

One of nature's oddities

Nature has produced some exceptionally odd and unique animals. One such creature is the Oilbird of northern South America. The Oilbird prefers a diet of wild berries and fruits, especially lipid-rich fruits like palm nuts and avocados (which leads to fatty young and the Oilbird's name). This unusual-looking bird is a leafy reddish-orange color, longer than a crow, with big eyes and a tiny bill protruding from a giant mouth. Oilbirds reside in extensive colonies that roost in large caves. When the sun sets, Oilbirds emerge from their caves, like huge bats, to forage throughout the countryside for food. Thus, Oilbirds spend most of their lives in complete darkness.

Full Transcript


The Lightless Life of the Oilbird
Written by Bob Sundstrom

This is BirdNote. [Calls of Oilbirds:] 

The Oilbird of South America, whose freakish snarls you are hearing, lives perpetually in the dark. It spends its days in the utter lightlessness of a cave, and its nights flying out in search of food.  

So wholly dark-adapted is the Oilbird that - like a bat - it uses reflected sound -  echolocation - to find its way in the pitch black of its cave. [Oilbird echolocation clicks and calls]  

The reflected sound from these clicks enables Oilbirds to gauge the nature of their surroundings, and figure out where they are. 

Once outside, they use night vision that rivals that of owls to fly under the starlit sky. The Oilbird is extraordinary in other respects, too.  It is the sole member of a unique family of birds (Steatornithidae). It has no living close relatives. Fossils suggest it diverged from other bird families more than 50 million years ago. A foot and half long with long slender wings and tail. Rich brown in color with large white spots. Its beak is hooked, like a hawk's. But the Oilbird forages entirely on tree fruits, which it finds thanks to its keen sense of smell, plucks, on the wing - and swallows whole.

And it does it all in the dark of night. 

For BirdNote, I'm Michael Stein. 


First set of bird sounds provided by The Macaulay Library of Natural Sounds at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York: Oilbird calls [4559] recorded by David W Snow in Trinidad and Tobago's Arima Valley, in 1959. 
Oilbird echolocation clicks and calls recorded by Andrew Spencer in Ecuador
BirdNote's theme music was composed and played by Nancy Rumbel and John Kessler.
Producer: John Kessler
Executive Producer: Dominic Black
© 2015 Tune In to  January 2017 Narrator: Michael Stein

ID#     oilbird-01-2015-01-27 oilbird-01 

Sights & Sounds


By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.

Related topics: