New Bird Discovered in India
for National Geographic News
|September 12, 2006|
An amateur bird-watcher has found the first new bird species to be
discovered in India in over 50 years.
The strikingly colored species was identified from feathers and photos taken in remote forests in the northeast part of the country.
No specimen was taken, because "we thought the bird was just too rare for one to be killed," said Ramana Athreya, the bird's discoverer, in a statement.
Named Bugun liocichla, the small bird is described as a type of babbler, a diverse family of birds that usually live in tropical forests.
The species has olive-gray body plumage, a black cap, orange-yellow eye markings, and yellow, red, and white patches on its wings.
An astronomer by trade, Ramana photographed Bugun liocichlas in the hills of the Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary in the state of Arunachal Pradesh, bordering China (India map, facts, video, and music).
Measuring 8 inches (20 centimeters) in length, the bird is named after the Bugun, a native people who live on the edge of the sanctuary.
Because the Bugun liocichla is so distinctive and doesn't appear to fear humans, experts say it must be extremely rare or it would have been discovered before now.
Ramana first spotted the species in 1995 and didn't see it again until 2005.
In May this year he returned with colleagues to the sanctuary, where they were able to net two specimens. Both were later released unharmed.
Feathers and Photographs
"With today's modern technology, we could gather all the information we needed to confirm it as a new species," Ramana said. "We took feathers and photographs, and recorded the bird's song."
"The only bird that looks remotely like it is the Emei Shan liocichla, which is known from only a few mountains in central China, more than 1,000 kilometers [620 miles] from Eaglenest."
Ramana says detailed comparisons of the two species revealed key differences in their calls and markings, confirming that the Bugun liocichla is new to science.
The findings are published in the latest issue of the journal Indian Birds.
Aasheesh Pittie, the journal's editor, hailed the discovery as "miraculous," adding, "It's a stunning species with no geographically close relatives, and in a part of the world where bird collectors have sampled birds for more than a century."
Richard Thomas of the bird conservation group BirdLife International, based in Cambridge, England, said, "It's absolutely staggering that this thing hasn't been seen before in India."
"Apparently they are not particularly shy or difficult to see," he said. "Clearly it must be very thin on the ground. It's not that this bird has been tucked awayit's just that it's very, very rare."
On average, a previously unknown bird is discovered every one to two years globally, Thomas adds.
(Related: "'Lost World' Found in Indonesia Is Trove of New Species" [February 2006].)
The known population of the Bugun liocichla consists of only 14 individuals and includes three breeding pairs.
Most of the sightings have been on hillsides covered by shrubs and small trees where larger trees have been logged for timber.
Ramana's report suggests that the bird is able to live in forests degraded by these practices.
"A lot of babblers are true forest birds, but by no means all," Thomas, of BirdLife International, said.
"These [Bugun liocichla] babblers actually don't go for pure forest. They tend to be scrub-edge [birds]."
Bird conservation experts say that, given the current known population, the loss of just one individual could set the Bugun liocichla on the road to extinction.
Researchers plan to survey the surrounding region for other populations using tape recordings of the Bugun liocichla's call.
While this liocichla species was found within a protected wildlife sanctuary, the birds may still be threatened by development, Thomas warns.
"Sadly, they are planning to put a road right through their core area," he said.
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