Meet the Frogmouth, One of Nature’s Most Elusive and Fascinating Birds

May 7, 2020 Updated: May 7, 2020

It’s one of nature’s best camouflage artists, so much so that you might have a hard time spotting this bird except when it opens its beak, revealing a gaping maw to catch insects, lizards, and mice. Meet the frogmouth, a distinctive bird that is often mistaken for an owl.

The frogmouth is a part of the nightjar family and can be found in forests of the India subcontinent, parts of southeast Asia, and Australia. These unique birds are mainly active during the night and spend their day time hiding on tree branches.

According to the Wildlife Junior Journal, the Podargidae family includes 15 species of frogmouth.

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Beautiful large frogmouth (Wang LiQiang/Shutterstock)

So what do these birds eat? Australian wildlife expert Tim Faulkner explained in a video that “they eat anything that’s small enough to fit in their mouth, and they gobble it down whole.” While their food of predilection is insects, Faulkner notes that “they will eat frogs and small mammals like mice.”

While its iconic mouth is the most immediately distinguishing feature, the frogmouth’s strangeness also includes the things it can do with its body to stay hidden. During their early life as hatchlings, they look less like birds and more like eucalypt flowers with white spikes going in all directions.

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(L Twomey/Shutterstock)

As they grow older, they continue to blend in with their surroundings. Gisela Kaplan, an emeritus professor in Animal Behaviour in the School of Science and Technology, told Australian Geographic of her country’s particular species, the Tawny Frogmouth (Podargus strigoides), that “[t]hey tend to use trees that match their patterns so even when they’re just sitting there it’s quite difficult to spot them.”

Kaplan, who has studied the bird for over 25 years, added that “[t]hey’ll also stretch their necks upwards so that their beaks form a line with their elongated neck making themselves look slimmer and taking the shape and appearance of a dead branch.”

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Besides their amazing camouflage techniques, these birds have notable gazing skills and the ability to stay completely still—so still that other animals aren’t sure what to make of it.

Kaplan gave the example of an encounter with a group of magpies that were uncertain about how to proceed upon spotting a tawny frogmouth. “They looked at each other, looked at the tawny and then looked back at each other while they seem to be vocalising ‘What on earth is this?’” she said.

She further added, “They inspected the bird for a good 10 minutes, then deemed it wasn’t a risk and they flew away.”

In another situation, a frogmouth at a veterinary hospital managed to stay so still that people and other animals didn’t notice it. Kaplan recalled that once a Great Dane approached one of the tawny frogmouths and was sniffing it; however, once the tawny frogmouth opened its eyes and stared at the Great Dane, “this huge dog was so startled, it immediately jumped backwards,” she said.

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(Jamil Bin Mat Isa/Shutterstock)

Besides their great defense mechanisms, tawny frogmouths, which mostly breed in the spring season, also have a unique family structure in which males and females play equally important roles. In order to keep their hatchlings safe, they keep strict 24-hour surveillance of the nest.

“The male seems to sit during the day and the female during the night, and they feed the chicks equally,” Kaplan observed. “They never leave their offspring on their own, even when they have fledged, usually squashing the youngsters between them when they roost.”

For a bird that lives in semi-tropical and tropical environments, where there are plenty of predators, this gives them a unique advantage.

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(Anne Powell/Shutterstock)

Additionally, the tawny frogmouths have small weak legs and aren’t the strongest fliers.

Although frogmouths have been threatened by the destruction of the forests they live in as well as the Australian wildfires, they are very adept at living in cities. Managing to spot them, on the other hand, is almost never guaranteed.