Animal Fact Sheets

Range Map

sunbittern range map

Stable in the Wild

SUNBITTERN

(Eurypyga helias)
 

Classification and Range

The sunbittern is the only member of the Eurypygidae family of birds and is related to rails and bustards.

The sunbittern's range is confined to the tropical areas ranging from Guatemala to northern Brazil.

Habitat

The sunbittern frequents the well-wooded banks of streams and creeks with shallow wading water and is found at elevations up to 3,000 feet (909 m).

Physical Charateristics

The sunbittern is an elegant bird with long legs, a slender heron-like neck and a long bill. It is about 18 inches (45.7 cm) in length, with a stout body and relatively small head. The sunbittern's body plumage is full and soft with an intricate design of colors. The head is almost all black with white striping above and below its ruby-red eyes. The sunbittern's neck, breast and shoulders are brown, and the belly, throat and undertail are a pale buff white. Hidden under the brown plumage is a rich orange-chestnut patch near the tip of each wing. The lower jaw and legs are a bright orange color.

The size, coloration and decoration of the sunbittern does not differ between males, females or even juveniles. As a sunbittern spreads its wings, it reveals conspicuous patches of chestnut and orange on the primary wing feathers and bands of the same color across the tail.

With its slow, deliberate walk on orange-colored legs and its long neck held parallel to the ground, the sunbittern resembles the sun-flecked forest interior.

This spectacular frontal display is for threat or defense rather than courtship and is usually accompanied by a low hiss and bowing.

Life Span

Life span in the wild is unknown; up to 15 years in zoos.

Diet

In the wild: Sunbitterns are usually found singly or in pairs, walking with a deliberate gait along the muddy stream or lake shores, among rocks, rushing water, or wading in shallow waters. Sunbitterns hunt fish, amphibians, crustaceans and insects, which they catch by striking quickly, using their long necks and spear-like bills.

At the zoo: Soaked dog chow, baby mice, smelt, greens, fruit and tofu.

Reproduction

Nests are usually built in a tree or bush, 10 to 20 feet (3-6 m) above the ground, and less frequently on the ground. Nests are made of sticks, mud and decaying vegetable material. The shallow cup of the nest contains a clutch of two or three eggs. The eggs are light brown or buff with dark spots and blotches. Both parents take turn incubating the eggs, which hatch after 27-28 days. The male and female protect and feed the chicks in turn during the first two weeks, never leaving the nest unattended. Thereafter, chicks are left alone for several hours each day as both parents hunt for food.

 

Graceful Flight

The sunbittern's flight is light and graceful with slow wing beats. They walk for the most part, periodically making short flapping flights across deep water. When frightened, sunbitterns will fly to perch high in trees.

Location at the Zoo

Woodland Park Zoo's sunbitterns are located in the Tropical Rain Forest. As visitors enter the Tropical Rain Forest, they are immersed in a garden of tropical rain forest plants such as fan palms, bananas, cocoa, figs and hanging liana vines. Look closely at the floor of the sunbittern's exhibit because they are well camouflaged.

Conservation Connection

While not currently endangered or threatened, sunbittern populations are diminishing due to habitat loss.

How You Can Help!

The effort to save endangered species requires cooperation and support at the international, national, regional and individual levels. You can help in this cause. Join and become active in Woodland Park Zoo and other conservation organizations of your choice. Recycle forest products. Eliminate or reduce pesticide use.

Contact Woodland Park Zoo at webkeeper@zoo.org to find ways you can support conservation programs at the zoo. Learn other ways you can help conserve wildlife and their habitats by visiting our How You Can Help page.

Sources and Suggested Reading

Blake, Emmet R. 1977. Manual of Neotropical Birds, Volume 1. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL. 674 p.

Harrison, Dr. C.J.O. 1978. Birds Families of the World. Harry N. Abrams, Inc., New York, NY. 264 p.

Hoyo, Josep del, et. al. 1997. Handbook of the Birds of the World, Volume 3. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona, Spain. 821 p.

Scott, Sir Peter. 1974. The World Atlas of Birds. Crescent Books, New York, NY. 272 p.

 

Sunbittern Taxonomy

Phylum: Chordata
Class: Aves
Order: Gruiformes
Family: Eurypygidae
Genus: Eurypyga
Species: E. helias

Sunbittern Fascinating Facts

  • When the sunbittern unfolds its tail, a sunburst of color and an enormous eye-like design are revealed. The "eyes" are often used to frighten predators!
  • Sunbitterns are difficult to locate in the wild, partly because they rarely socialize with more than one other bird!
  • Sunbitterns are known to make noises which resemble mechanical rattling!ating a loud "whoosh, whoosh" sound as they fly above the canopy of the forest!
 
 
 
 

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