Missing bird rediscovered in Borneo’s rainforest for 172 years

Mr. Muhammad Suranto and Mr. Muhammad Rizky Fauzan, both native to the Indonesian province of South Kalimantan, were collecting forest products in an area not far from where they lived when they accidentally came across an unknown species of bird. They caught it and released it after taking some pictures.

The friends contacted the local bird watching groups BW Galeatus and Birdpacker, who suspected the bird might be the missing black-browed babbler Malacocincla perspicillata. After consulting with experienced ornithologists from Indonesia and the region, their prediction was confirmed.

“It feels surreal to know that we’ve found a species of bird that experts believe is extinct. When we found it, we didn’t expect it to be that special at all – we thought it was just another bird that we just hadn’t seen before, ”said Rizky Fauzan.

Black and brown babbler, courtesy of Birdlife International

The black-browed babbler was described in 1850 by the well-known French ornithologist Charles Lucien Bonaparte. His description was based on a specimen that the German geologist and naturalist Carl ALM Schwaner had collected in the 1840s during his expeditions to East India. No other specimens or sightings have been reported since then, and the origin of the “type specimen” is puzzling. Even the island it was taken from was unclear: it was widely believed to be Java. It was not until 1895 that the Swiss ornithologist Johann Büttikofer pointed out that Schwaner was in Borneo at the time of his discovery.

“The sensational finding confirms that the black-browed babbler comes from southeast Borneo, which ends centuries of confusion about its origin,” said Panji Gusti Akbar of the Indonesian bird protection group Birdpacker, lead author of a paper published today detailing the rediscovery.

“We now also know what the black-browed babbler really looks like – the photographed bird showed some differences to the only known specimen, in particular the color of the iris, beak and leg. These three parts of a bird’s body are known to lose their tint and are often artificially colored during the preparation process. The discovery also confirms that despite massive deforestation and habitat transformation, this species is preserved in this little-known part of Borneo. So there is a very high probability that it will be seriously threatened by habitat loss. “

Co-author Teguh Willy Nugroho (employee of Sebangau National Park in Kalimantan and founding member of BW Galeatus) noted that the remarkable discovery demonstrated the importance of networks of locals, bird watchers and professional scientists in gathering information about Indonesia’s biodiversity – especially some of the least known species in the country. This can be important in remote areas of the country that are not easily accessible to scientists.

“I find it amazing that we have managed to document one of the most remarkable zoological discoveries in Indonesia, if not Asia, mainly through online communication amid the coronavirus pandemic that prevented us from visiting the site” remarked Teguh.

The black-browed blabber’s dramatic rediscovery shows how little known Indonesia’s sprawling avifauna is, the largest in Asia – with more than 1,700 species found on the archipelago’s numerous, under-explored islands.

“It’s sobering to think that Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species hadn’t even been published the last time the black-browed babbler was seen and that the now-extinct passenger pigeon was still one of the most common birds in the world,” said Ding Li Yong, Flyways coordinator for BirdLife Asia and co-author of the study. “Who knows what other riches lie deep in Borneo’s fabled rainforests – especially in the Indonesian part of the island – and the primary need to protect them for future generations.”

Another publication, in which the ecology of the bird is described in detail, is currently being prepared by the authors. There are currently plans to revisit the site where the species was discovered if conditions permit.

Full information on the Rediscovery, released today by the Oriental Bird Club, a UK-based bird conservation charity, can be found here.

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