Asa Wright Oilbird Colony

The oil from the chicks was once used for torches.

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Asa Wright Oilbird Colony

One reason to spend the night at the Asa Wright Nature Centre is to see the oilbird colony.

Normally limited to the South American continent, the oilbird measures 18 inches in length but with a wingspan of 3 to 3.5 feet.

It has short legs, is rich brown in color with white spots and has a large hooked beak with conspicuous rictal bristles.

Oilbirds were given their name in 1799 by scientist Alexander von Humboldt who observed how the Venezuelan Indians and monks were taking the very fat young chicks from their nests and rendering them for cooking oil and oil for their torches.

The young develop slowly, staying on the nest for up to 120 days. They are also incredibly fat: at 70 days they may be 50 percent heavier than an adult.

Trinidad has at least 5 oilbird colonies, all protected by law. The one at Asa Wright has a population of about 130 birds.

When disturbed, the oilbirds scream, snarl and chuck, an incredibly weird and unforgettable sound from your worst nightmare. The Amerindians called oilbirds ?Guacharos,? meaning the ones that wail and mourn. Trinidadians refer to it as the "Diablotin."

The life of an oilbird probably appears dull, unless you are one. They stay on their nests (with or without young) in dark caves all during daylight. The nests, made mostly of regurgitated matter, are used year after year and eventually form into low cylindrical mounds. A clutch typically has two to four white oval eggs pointed at one end.

At dusk, oilbirds depart to dine on the fruit of palms, laurels, incenses and camphor, traveling as far as seventy miles away to feed.

Oilbirds are similar to bats not only in lifestyle but in their ability to employ echo-sonar for finding their way around obstacles in the dark. They are able to detect an object eight inches in diameter in total blackness. Oilbirds apparently see quite well, too, since they use sight whenever light is adequate.

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