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Black-browed babbler in real life

Birdwatchers rediscover a long-lost bird

The black-browed babbler Oriental Bird Club/Photo by Muhammad Rizky Fauzan

Black-browed babbler in real life

Until recently, the only black-browed babbler researchers had seen in more than 170 years was a stuffed specimen Napoleon Bonaparte’s nephew caught during a survey of the East Indies. But thanks to the efforts of a local birdwatching club, researchers have proof that one of Indonesia’s most enigmatic birds still persists in the wilds of Borneo.

In October, Muhammad Suranto and Muhammad Rizky Fauzan were collecting forest material near their home in southeastern Indonesia when they happened upon a bird they did not recognize. The two men captured it, snapped some photographs, and looked up local birdwatching groups that might be able to identify the specimen. They eventually released the bird.

They texted the photos to a leader of BW Galeatus, a birdwatching group on the Indonesian side of Borneo where Suranto and Fauzan live. Perplexed, the BW Galeatus member passed the photographs along to Java-based birdwatching expert Panji Gusti Akbar.

Akbar thought the bird could be the long-lost black-browed babbler. “I started pacing around my house, just trying to contain my excitement,” he told The New York Times.

He sent the photograph to other experts. Some thought he was pranking them with a photoshopped image of the rare bird.

The bird in Suranto and Fauzan’s photographs look similar to the aging specimen Charles Lucien Bonaparte captured sometime between 1843 and 1848. Both have a distinctive black eye stripe. But the modern photograph shows the living bird with dark crimson eyes rather than the stuffed 19th-century specimen’s artificial yellow eyes.

Akbar published his preliminary description in Birding ASIA, giving Suranto and Fauzan co-authorship along with other researchers who helped him make a positive identification of the bird. Akbar said he intends to travel to Indonesia after coronavirus pandemic travel restrictions are eased to study the bird.

John Dawson

John is a correspondent for WORLD. He is a graduate of the World Journalism Institute and the University of Texas at Austin, and he previously wrote for The Birmingham News. John resides in Dallas, Texas.


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