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How a New Bird Species Was Discovered Right in the Middle of Phnom Penh

How a New Bird Species Was Discovered Right in the Middle of Phnom Penh
Oriental Bird Club

It's heartening that city wildlife is robust enough that researchers are still finding new species lurking about. Recently there was the discovery of that eensy-weensy ant doodling about on Manhattan's traffic medians, and now scientists have spotted a previously unknown "Cambodian tailorbird" living it up in Phnom Penh.

Experts from the Wildlife Conservation Society, BirdLife International and other avian concerns found this fluttering critter in both the Cambodian capital – whose 2.3 million residents must have noticed it before, but perhaps were too polite to point it out to the Western birdwatchers with their nets and binoculars – and in a construction site outside of the city. This type of tailorbird, called Orthotomus chaktomuk, is now the second bird known to live exclusively inside Cambodia, the other being the pleasantly named laughingthrush giggling away in the Cardamom Mountains.

The tailorbird lives in patches of dense scrubland and went unnoticed to ornithologists for decades, despite having a look-at-me! "rufous" head and a twittering screech not unlike a rape whistle. The scientists say that the males produce lengthy ballads that are sometimes more than a minute long and strung with "overslurred" trills, while the females give a "nasal squeak consisting of a single note with harmonics." You can hear a sample of this beautiful music here.

Ornithologists have become quite interested in South Asia, due to the high number of new species popping up there and the high chance that they're endangered or heading there. Here's the Wildlife Conservation Society on the state of the region's birdlife:

The last two decades have seen a sharp increase in the number of new bird species emerging from Indochina, mostly due to exploration of remote areas. Newly described birds include various babbler species from isolated mountains in Vietnam, the bizarre bare-faced bulbul from Lao PDR and the Mekong wagtail, first described in 2001 by WCS and other partners....

Steve Zack, WCS Coordinator of Bird Conservation, said, “Asia contains a spectacular concentration of bird life, but is also under sharply increasing threats ranging from large scale development projects to illegal hunting. Further work is needed to better understand the distribution and ecology of this exciting newly described species to determine its conservation needs.”

Indeed, the scientists are recommending that the tailorbird be put on the "Red List" of threatened species maintained by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. There are more details about this novel animal in the August edition of the Oriental Bird Club's journal, the Forktail, although be warned there are photos of dead birds lined up in sad little arrays.

Top image: Video still from Oriental Bird Club/Forktail

Keywords: Species, Animals, Birds, Cambodia

John Metcalfe is a staff writer at The Atlantic Cities. All posts »

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