An Unlikely Bird in an Unlikely Place

June 26, 2013

A new species of bird turns out to have been hiding in plain sight: in Cambodia’s capital city limits of Phnom Penh, home to 1.5 million people.

It can be easy to go unnoticed in a big city, and that may describe how the Cambodian tailorbird kept its low profile for so long. A team of scientists discovered the new red-headed, wren-sized bird in Cambodia’s urbanized capital Phnom Penh and several other nearby locations, including at a construction site. It is one of only two bird species found solely in Cambodia. The other, the Cambodian laughingthrush, is restricted to the remote Cardamom Mountains.

Scientists describe the new bird in a special online early-view issue of the Oriental Bird Club’s journal Forktail. Authors include: Simon Mahood, Ashish John, Hong Chamnan, and Colin Poole of the Wildlife Conservation Society; Jonathan Eames of BirdLife International; Carl Oliveros and Robert Moyle of University of Kansas; Fred Sheldon of Louisiana State University; and Howie Nielsen of the Sam Veasna Centre.

The Cambodian tailorbird’s scientific name, “chaktomuk,” is an old Khmer word meaning four-faces, perfectly describing where the bird is found: the area centered in Phnom Penh where the Tonle Sap, Mekong and Bassac Rivers come together. Only tiny fragments of floodplain scrub remain in Phnom Penh, but larger areas persist just outside the city limits where the bird is abundant.

“The modern discovery of an undescribed bird species within the limits of a large populous city – not to mention 30 minutes from my home – is extraordinary,” said Mahood. “The discovery indicates that new species of birds may still be found in familiar and unexpected locations.”

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