Nyctibiidae – Potoos

Great Potoo Nyctibius grandi ©James Lowen Website

The Nyctibiidae or Potoos are a group of near passerine birds related to the nightjars and frogmouths. They are sometimes called poor-me-ones, after their haunting calls. There are seven species in one genus, Nyctibius, in tropical Central and South America.

They are nocturnal insectivores which lack the bristles around the mouth found in the true nightjars. They hunt from a perch like a shrike or flycatcher. During the day they perch upright on tree stumps, camouflaged to look like part of the stump. The single spotted egg is laid directly on the top of a stump.

The potoos are a highly conservative family in appearance, with all the species closely resembling one another; species accounts in ornithological literature remark on their unusual appearance. They range from 21cm to 58cm in length. They resemble upright sitting nightjars, a closely related order (Caprimulgiformes). They also resemble the frogmouths of Australasia, that are stockier and have much heavier bills. They have proportionally large heads for their body size and long wings and tails. The large head is dominated by a massive broad bill and enormous eyes. In the treatment of the family in the Handbook of the Birds of the World, Cohn-Haft describes the potoos as little more than a flying mouth and eyes. The bill, while large and broad, is also short, barely projecting past the face. It is delicate, but has a unique ‘tooth’ on the cutting edge of the upper mandible that may assist in foraging. Unlike the closely related nightjars, the potoos lack rictal bristles around the mouth. The legs and feet are weak and used only for perching.

Their eyes are large, even larger than those of nightjars. As in many species of nocturnal birds, they reflect the light of flashlights. Their eyes, which could be conspicuous to potential predators during the day, have unusual slits in the lids, which allow potoos to sense movement even when their eyes are closed. Their plumage is cryptic, helping them blend into the branches on which they spend their days.

They have a Neotropical distribution. They range from Mexico to Argentina, with the greatest diversity occurring in the Amazon Basin, which holds five species. They are found in every Central and South American country except Chile. They also occur on three Caribbean islands: Jamaica, Hispaniola and Tobago. They are generally highly sedentary, although there are occasional reports of vagrants, particularly species that have travelled on ships. All species occur in humid forests, although a few species also occur in drier forests.

They are highly nocturnal and generally do not fly during the day. They spend the day perched on branches with the eyes half closed. With their cryptic plumage they resemble stumps, and should they detect potential danger they adopt a ‘freeze’ position which even more closely resembles a broken branch. The transition between perching and the freeze position is gradual and hardly perceptible to the observer.

There are just 7 species of Potoo currently recognised by the IOC; they are:

Great Potoo Nyctibius grandis
Long-tailed Potoo Nyctibius aethereus
Northern Potoo Nyctibius jamaicensis
Common Potoo Nyctibius griseus
Andean Potoo Nyctibius maculosus
White-winged Potoo Nyctibius leucopterus
Rufous Potoo Nyctibius bracteatus

Number of Species
  • Number of bird species: 7

Useful Reading
  • Nightjars

    A Guide to the Nightjars and Related Nightbirds by Nigel Cleere and Dave Nurney Pica Press 1998 ISBN: 1873403488 Buy this book from
Photographers & Artists
  • Northern Potoo Nyctibius jamaicensis


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