Jerdon’s Babbler rediscovered in Myanmar

Jerdon’s Babbler, rediscovered in Myanmar in May 2014 © Robert Tizard / WCS

5th March 2015—Jerdon’s Babbler Chrysomma altirostre has been rediscovered in Myanmar by a scientific team from WCS, Myanmar’s Nature and Wildlife Conservation Division – MOECAF, and National University of Singapore (NUS).

Jerdon’s Babbler had last been seen in Myanmar in July 1941 and was considered by many to be extinct in the country.

News of the exciting rediscovery has been unveiled in the latest issue of BirdingASIA, the six-monthly journal of the Oriental Bird Club.

The printed article will be distributed to Club members, while an electronic version can be downloaded here: BirdingAsia22 pp13-15 (PDF, 50 KB)

The team rediscovered Jerdon’s Babbler on 30th May 2014 while surveying grasslands near the town of Myitkyo, Bago Region near the Sittaung River, close to an abandoned agricultural station.

After hearing a distinctive call, scientists played back a recording and were rewarded with the sighting of an adult Jerdon’s Babbler.

Jerdon’s Babbler, Myanmar © Robert Tizard / WCS

During the next two days, the team repeatedly found Jerdon’s Babblers at several locations in the immediate vicinity and mistnetted individuals to obtain blood samples and high-quality photographs.

The small brown bird, about the size of a House Sparrow Passer domesticus, was initially described by British naturalist T. C. Jerdon in January 1862, who found it in grassy plains near Thayetmyo, Myanmar.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the species was common in the vast natural grassland that once covered the Ayeyarwady and Sittaung flood plains around Yangon. Since then, agriculture and communities have gradually replaced most of these grasslands as the area has developed.

“The degradation of these vast grasslands had led many to consider this subspecies of Jerdon’s Babbler extinct. This discovery not only proves that the species still exists in Myanmar but that the habitat can still be found as well. Future work is needed to identify remaining pockets of natural grassland and develop systems for local communities to conserve and benefit from them,” said Colin Poole, Director of WCS’s Regional Conservation Hub in Singapore.

Jerdon’s Babblers in Myanmar are currently considered as one of three subspecies found in the Indus, Bhramaputra, and Ayeyarwady River basins in South Asia. All show subtle differences and may yet prove to be distinctive species.

Further analysis of DNA samples taken from the bird will be studied at the Department of Biological Sciences at the NUS Faculty of Science, to determine if Jerdon’s babbler in Myanmar should be considered a full species. If so, the species would be exclusive to Myanmar and be of very high conservation concern because of its fragmented and threatened habitat.

“Our sound recordings indicate that there may be pronounced bioacoustic differences between the Myanmar subspecies and those further west, and genetic data may well confirm the distinctness of the Myanmar population,” said Professor Frank Rheindt of NUS’s Department of Biological Sciences and a key member of the field team and leader of the genetic analysis.

This work was carried out as part of a larger study to understand the genetics of Myanmar bird species and determine the true level of bird diversity found in the country. Already Myanmar has more species of bird than any other country in mainland Southeast Asia and this number is likely to increase as our understanding of birds in this long isolated country continues to grow.

WCS’s work in Myanmar which led to this discovery was supported by The Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust.

Oriental Bird Club, UK registered charity 297242, is for birders and ornithologists around the world who are interested in birds of the Oriental region and their conservation. The Club’s aims are to encourage an interest in wild birds of the Oriental region and their conservation, to promote the work of regional bird and nature societies and to collate and publish information on Oriental birds. The Club is run by a team of dedicated volunteers.