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This is one of the world’s weirdest birds. In fact, it’s unique. In taxonomic terms, it has its own family, the Opisthocomidae, its own suborder, the Opisthocomi, and its own genus, Opisthocomus. This is Opisthocomus hoazin, common name Hoatzin, also known as the stinkbird. In 2015, examination of its DNA proved that the Hoatzin is the last surviving bird of a line that branched off from the avian family tree around the time of the extinction of the dinosaurs, 65 million years ago.

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My encounter with these incredible birds happened during the eighteen months I lived in Peru. In August 2011, I took advantage of an extra-long holiday weekend to take a trip to the Peruvian Amazon in the Manu National Park. As our guide Abraham poled us slowly around Machu Wasi Lake on a wooden raft, these primitive creatures made evil hissing noises when we approached their perches in the trees surrounding the lake. Abraham explained that the Hoatzin have prehistoric-looking claws on their wings to help them scramble amongst the branches, and they’re called stinkbirds because they have a digestive system unique among birds: they ruminate like cows and use the bad smell that this process creates to scare away their enemies. I’m glad we didn’t get too close but it was certainly an incredible encounter with one of Nature’s little miracles.

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