Nyctibiidae – Potoos

These nocturnal insectivores can see even with their eyes shut, never letting their guard down

Potoos are among the most intriguing avian groups, primarily due to their nocturnal habits and exceptional camouflage skills. Found across Latin America, from Mexico to Argentina, potoos are a symbol of the mystery and magic of the tropical forests and savannahs they inhabit.

Potoos are characterized by their disproportionately large eyes, which are an adaptation to their nocturnal lifestyle. These eyes can reflect light, much like many nocturnal animals, which can make them appear to glow when illuminated at night. The size of their eyes allows for a larger surface area to capture light, enabling them to see well in the dark as they hunt for flying insects.

During the day, potoos become masters of disguise. Their gray and brown mottled plumage perfectly mimics the appearance of tree bark or branches, aiding them in remaining undetected by both predators and prey. They assume a “freeze” posture, standing perfectly still with their beaks pointed skyward, which, along with their cryptic coloration, makes them nearly indistinguishable from their perches.

Potoos have a unique slit in their eyelids that allows them to sense movement even when their eyes are closed, an adaptation that offers protection during their daytime rest. This slit is a small gap in the eyelid which allows them to detect changes in light intensity, such as the shadow of an approaching predator.

Their hunting strategy is one of patience and precision. At night, potoos perch silently on a branch, waiting to catch insects on the wing with sudden, swift movements. They have wide mouths and a soft, bristle-like structure around their beaks that helps in catching their prey.

Potoos are solitary birds, and their vocalizations are rarely heard, adding to their enigmatic nature. When they do call, it is often a haunting and melodic sound that resonates through the night forest.