BALD BIRD PICTURE: New Songbird Sports Wispy "Mohawk"

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July 29, 2009—Sporting a mostly bald head, this new songbird species, dubbed the bare-faced bulbul, has been discovered on rugged limestone peaks in Laos.

The thrush-size creature is the first bald songbird yet discovered in mainland Asia and one of only 40 or so known bald songbirds in the world, say experts with the Wildlife Conservation Society and Australia's University of Melbourne, who found the species.

The bulbul, described in the current issue of the journal Forktail, is covered with greenish-olive feathers. The bird mostly lacks plumage on its face and head, with the exception of a mohawk-like line of wispy feathers down the center of its crown.

Researchers found the new species in forests growing on the sides of tower-like limestone structures called karsts.

Most of Laos's forested karsts lie within legally protected areas. Still, there's a chance that quarrying limestone for road construction in similar but unprotected areas could endanger the songbird and other wildlife, experts say.

(Related: "Animal-Rich Limestone Towers Face Rocky Future in Asia.")

Any exact risks to the bird are still unknown, as the team spotted only a handful of the birds living on a single rocky outcropping, so the species' total population size and range have yet to be determined.

Scientists are also not sure why the Laotian bulbul—or any of its songbird relatives, for that matter—is bald.

In famously bald-headed vultures, a lack of head feathers is thought to help the scavengers keep clean.

"Vultures bury their heads in carrion, and cleaning all that would be difficult," said WCS conservationist Peter Clyne, who was not involved in the discovery.

The reason for baldness in songbirds is less clear, but it may have something to do with mating displays, Clyne said.

—Ker Than

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