Critter of the Week #18: Potoo

Image by Maire Kirkland


When you take one look at the comical-looking common potoo it seems as if nature had a sense of humor when creating them. Yet, there is a purpose for everything! These birds are incredible masters of disguise and are accomplished hunters.


Image By Hector Bottai 


They are a medium-sized bird native to Central and South America that hunts aerial insects primarily at night. This is why they have such strikingly large eyes, which enables them to spot insects with incredible precision.




They also have uncanny camoflaug and will even position their body upright on trees and snags posing perfectly still so they blend in and look just like a stump or branch. 



Image by Sandro Henrique


In fact, they are so confident in thier camouflage that oftentimes they won't even move until the very last moment!




Scientific Classification

Kingdom : Animalia

Phylum : Chordata

Class : Aves

Order : Caprimulgiformes

Family : Nyctibiidae

Genus : Nyctibius

Species : Nyctibius griseus


Conservation Status

The common potoo is classified as least concern by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. There are no current threats to their population and their numbers seem to be stable.

Behavior & Description 

 Image by Dennis Faure

The common potoo is a relatively large bird with an overall length of 1-12 inches and a wingspan of 2 and a half feet. They are comparable to the size of a crow or raven. 


They are highly evolved to catch insects in mid-air with great success. Their unusually large heads sport huge yellow-orange eyes that give them acute vision and that helps them spot even the tiniest insects in the pitch dark. If you look carefully they have a second pair of clear eyelids they use to protect their eyes during hunts.


Image by Brooks Crockett

Their gaping mouths give them the best chances at catching insects right out of the air much like a frog.


The common potoo exhibits disruptive coloring and is a master of camouflage during the day. Their mottled appearance makes them look like a branch or tree bark with lichens growing on them. It is not only their coloration that helps them blend in, but also how they position their body.


 Image by Julian Londono

They will pose perfectly still all day and look just like a snag or branch, and will only move if disturbed and appear almost completely invisible even to humans. 


The wings of a potoo are broad and stocky; birds with wings like this are excellent at navigating through the forest. They can hunt and catch insects without ever hitting or crashing into a branch, a truly remarkable feat!


The common potoo is mostly solitary, only interacting with other birds during breeding season. It is territorial and will use its haunting call to advertise its territory to other potoos.


In this video you can hear their call for yourself and get a close up of a potoo at night. 



See the common potoo's amazing camouflage during the day.



The common potoo is a nocturnal insectivore. They can eat hundreds of flying insects each night and sometimes even bats! 


 Image By Nigel Voadin

They hunt from perches close to their daytime roost waiting for insects to fly nearby before swooping into action and catching them. Perches can sometimes be just a few meters off the ground or higher.


Reproduction & Life Span

Image by Julian Londono


Potoos do not build nests, but will lay a single egg in tree hollows or on top of a depression in tree branches, snags, or logs. They will nest during the wet season, which varies depending on the region they live. 


They are monogamous and will pair with the same mate for life. Both the male and female look so similar it is hard to tell which is which sometimes. 


In about one month, the egg hatches and a tiny white chick is born, when both the male and female will help rear the young and bring it insects through regurgitation. In about 50 days, the chick is ready to fledge.


Interestingly, the common potoo has such a strong instinct to camouflage itself that even the young birds adopt the characteristic upright posture that mimics a log or branch.


Surprisingly, for such a common bird, the lifespan is unknown in the common potoo.


Distribution & Habitat

The common potoo is found throughout Central and South America and prefer gallery forested areas. These are areas where trees are concentrated around rivers or streams and nearby more open woodlands and grasslands. This makes for perfect hunting grounds by night where the birds fly more in the open at the edge of the forest, and great cover by day, where they perch in trees concealed in the forest.



No official population surveys have been conducted for the common potoo, but they are common throughout their range.


Relationship with People

Potoos have many characteristics that keep them safe from any exploitation, persecution, or common threats to other birds from humans. 


They are well-camouflaged, are active only at night, and hunt insects. Most would consider them beneficial since they eat many flying insects and are cryptic and keep to themselves. 

They are not hunted for food or the pet trade and as long as nothing changes too much, should be around for a long time.


If you want to see a potoo, travel to South American in any of the national parks or forests and shine a light toward the tops of trees, and if you are lucky, you may spot one!