BANJARMASIN, South Kalimantan, Indonesia, March 5, 2021 (ENS) – Muhammad Suranto and Muhammad Rizky Fauzan, who both live in Indonesia’s South Kalimantan province, were gathering forest products in an area near their homes when they stumbled upon an unfamiliar bird species. They caught and released the bird after taking some photographs.
The friends contacted Indonesian birdwatching groups BW Galeatus and Birdpacker, who suspected the bird might be the Black-browed Babbler, Malacocincla perspicillata, believed to be extinct for more than 170 years. After consultations with expert ornithologists from Indonesia and around the region, their hunch was confirmed.
“It feels surreal to know that we have found a species of bird presumed by experts to be 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 simply have never seen before,” said Fauzan.
The Black-browed Babbler was described by French ornithologist Charles Lucien Bonaparte in 1850. His description was based on a specimen collected sometime in the 1840s by German geologist and naturalist Carl A.L.M. Schwaner, during his expeditions to the East Indies.
Since then, no other specimen or sightings have been reported, and the origin of the Schwaner specimen has been shrouded in mystery. Even the island from which it was taken was unclear. Widely assumed to be Java, it was only in 1895 that 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 southeastern Borneo, ending the century-long confusion about its origins,” said Panji Gusti Akbar of Indonesian bird conservation group Birdpacker, lead author of a paper published February 25 outlining details of the rediscovery.
“We now also know what the Black-browed Babbler really looks like. The photographed bird showed several differences from the only known specimen, specifically the color of the iris, bill and leg,” Akbar said.
“These three parts of a bird’s body are known to lose their tint and are often artificially colored during the taxidermy process,” he said. “The discovery also confirms that this species remains extant despite the massive deforestation and habitat conversion in this little-known part of Borneo. There is, therefore, a very high possibility of it being severely threatened by habitat loss.”
Co-author Teguh Willy Nugroho, a staff member of Sebangau National Park in Kalimantan and founding member of BW Galeatus, observed that the remarkable discovery demonstrated the importance of networks of local people, birdwatchers and professional scientists in gathering information on Indonesia’s biodiversity, especially some of the country’s least-known species. This can be important in remote areas of the country not easily accessible to scientists.
“I think it is amazing that we managed to document one of the most remarkable zoological discoveries in Indonesia, if not Asia, largely through online communication in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, which had hampered us from visiting the site,” Teguh said.
The rediscovery of the Black-browed Babbler demonstrates how poorly known Indonesia’s sprawling avifauna is. It’s the largest in Asia with more than 1,700 species found across the archipelago’s numerous, little-surveyed islands.
“It’s sobering to think that when the Black-browed Babbler was last seen, Charles Darwin’s “Origin of Species” hadn’t even been published and the now-extinct Passenger pigeon was still among the world’s commonest birds,” said Ding Li Yong, flyways coordinator for BirdLife Asia and co-author of the study.
“Who knows what other riches lie deep within Borneo’s fabled rainforests – especially in the Indonesian part of the island – and the paramount need to protect them for future generations,” he said.
A further publication detailing the bird’s ecology is currently being prepared by the authors, while plans are ongoing to revisit the site where the species was discovered whenever conditions permit.
The full study is online here. Akbar, P.G., Nugroho, T.W., Suranto, M., Fauzan, M.R., Ferdiansyah, D., Trisiyanto, J.S. and Yong, D.L. (2020). Missing for 170 years – the rediscovery of Black-browed Babbler Malacocincla perspicillata on Borneo. BirdingASIA 34: 1314.