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The Oilbird Cave Dwellers


Jason Radix

February 16, 2021

The only nocturnal fruit-eating bird in the world is the Oilbird (Steatornis caripensis).  Limited in its distribution to only a few parts of northern South America and Trinidad, it is one of over 480 documented bird species recorded for this country.  Also unique for its gregarious cave dwelling habits, and known to occur in eight remote colonies in Trinidad and the northerly offshore island of Huevos; it is a must-see species for Bird-Watchers and nature lovers alike.

Photo: Christopher Anderson

A relatively large brown and white spotted bird with a wing span of 42 inches and length of 18 inches, it is one of the larger members of the Caprimulgifomes Order, and the only member of its family, Steatornithidae.

Unlike other nocturnal birds such as owls, Nightjars and Night Hawks (not bats), all of which are predators, this fructivore feeds exclusively on the fruit of various types of palms, incenses and laurels species.  This fatty diet, combined with low predation and a long gestation period allows the young unfledged bird to become overweight; often reaching 50% heavier than the adult.  Native tribes favoured the young birds for their fat which liquefies into oil once the bird is boiled, hence the name Oilbird.

The species’ native Amerindian name is “Guacharo” (the one that wails and moans) possibly influenced by its snarling call, and “Diablotin” (little devil) perhaps inspired by the birds preference for living in perpetual darkness.

Photo: Christopher Anderson

As a cave dwelling and nocturnal species it is possible that most visitors and local wildlife enthusiasts will never see this bird, which also flies high and over long distances to forage.  The best opportunity to witness this natural wonder is to visit one of these remote colonies during the day while the birds roost.  The most accessible spot is at Dunston’s Cave, located at the Asa Wright Nature Centre.  Visits are restricted, short and offered only twice a week to guests of the facility so as to limit disturbance.  Other sites include the Aripo and Cumaca caves, which require qualified guides and/or hike leaders; while visiting the colonies on Huevos Island requires a boat guide and favourable tidal conditions.

Visitors wishing to discover this peculiar and sensitive bird, be aware that it is a protected species and requires a conservative ethic during visits.