`Toxic' bird has science in a flutter

Tabubil, Papua New Guinea (Reuter) - Ornithologists are quietly confident they have found a second poisonous bird in the rainforests of north-western Papua New Guinea - the variable pitohui.

Phil Gregory, publisher of the country's ornithological journal Muruk, said yesterday ornithologists now believe the variable pitohui, like the hooded pitohui, is toxic.

"I was given a juvenile variable pitohui and when I licked the feathers I felt my mouth tingle and go numb," Mr Gregory said at Tabubil's one hotel, near the border with Irian Jaya. "This suggests this bird is toxic as well, but it is not proven yet and we need to net a couple of these birds and send them for testing before we can confirm this."

Ornithologists first realised birds could be poisonous four years ago when an ecology researcher near Madang discovered the hooded pitohui was toxic. The orange and black songbird, a little larger than a starling, pecked him on the finger and after he sucked the wound his mouth went numb. Toxicology studies found its feathers, skin and flesh contained a powerful natural nerve toxin called homobatrachtoxin.

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