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Michael Palin presents the oilbird, from a Venezuelan cavern

Michael Palin presents the oilbird, from a Venezuelan cavern. Demonic screeching's and the rush of unseen wings mixed with a volley of strange clicks are the sound backdrop to oilbirds.

Oilbirds are known in Spanish as guacharos .."the wailing ones". These bizarre-looking brown birds with huge mouths, long broad wings and long tails were seen in 1799 by the explorer Alexander von Humboldt in 1817 who described their sounds as "ear-splitting". They're similar to nightjars, their closest relatives, but unlike them, oilbirds feed on fruit; ..... they're the world's only nocturnal flying fruit-eating bird.

In their dark breeding caves, they navigate using echolocation like bats. Young oilbirds grow fat on a diet of fruit brought in by their parents and can weigh half as much as again as the adults. These plump chicks were once harvested by local people and settlers for oil which was used in cooking and, ironically for a bird which spends its life in darkness, for lighting lamps.

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2 minutes

Oilbird (Steatornis caripensis)

Webpage image courtesy of Tui De Roy /

NPL Ref 01402255 © Tui De Roy /

Recording of oilbird by Scott T Olmstead / Ref: ML 168752

This programme contains a wildtrack recording of the oilbird kindly provided by The Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology; recorded by Scott T Olmstead on 22 Mar 2008; in Shaime, Zamora-Chinchipe, Ecuador.


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