Image: Bird
Iain Woxvold  /  University of Melbourne
Scientists stumbled upon this bald-headed, pink-faced songbird while surveying a limestone outcrop in Laos.
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updated 7/29/2009 8:01:17 PM ET 2009-07-30T00:01:17

A bald-headed songbird with a pink, nearly featherless face and distinctive calls has just been found in a rugged region of Laos, according to scientists from the Wildlife Conservation Society and the University of Melbourne who made the discovery.

Aside from its unique characteristics, the avian is noteworthy because it is the only known bald songbird in Asia.

The find additionally marks the first description in over 100 years of a new Asian species of bulbul, since the songbird has been placed in that family of birds. This bulbul was named Pycnonotus hualon, with "hualon" being the Lao word for "bald-headed."

Hardly a shy and retiring bird, the bald-headed bulbul foraged and noisily moved about the researchers during the day, making them wonder how this eye-catching bird went undiscovered for so long.

"Certainly one reason is that the bird appears to be truly restricted to some very harsh and inaccessible terrain in Indochina," Peter Clyne told Discovery News. Clyne is the assistant director of the Wildlife Conservation Society's Asia Program.

Hard to miss
Funded by a local copper and gold mining company, researchers Iain Woxvold, Will Duckworth and Rob Timmins recently surveyed birds at Pha Lom, a limestone outcrop in Laos. That's when the bald-headed beauty caught their eye.

"The bird had alighted directly overhead in a small, leafless tree, where it remained for two to three minutes, feeding casually on small fruits and cocking its head to gain a clear view of the observer," the researchers report in the latest issue of Forktail, the journal of the Oriental Bird Club.

Before long, the songbird was "joined by another, similar bird. The duo flew off soon after."

A nestful of amazing bird sightingsMore detailed analysis of the bird determined that, in addition to its bald head and pink face, it is thrush-sized with a greenish-olive body, light-colored breast and "bluish skin" around the eye extending to the bill.

P. hualon appears to be primarily tree-dwelling, but the birds were often spotted settling on the limestone substrate, "such as on the edge of a precipice or on jagged crags in steep terrain." It was hard to miss their songs, which the researchers variously describe as "bubbling," "churring," "whistled," and "excited-sounding."

Like an opera singer milking a final aria, the bird produces at least one song that rises distinctly and ends "abruptly in a higher, separate note." Yet another call was translated to human-speak as "ch-ch chi chi-chi-chi-chi," with the individual notes again rising in pitch.

A lovebird?
Birds of a feather in this case do flock together, as the researchers found little evidence of P. hualon joining other species.

In terms of mating, little is known at this point, but it's possible that the bald-headed bulbul is of the lovebird persuasion. Observed duos appeared to remain bonded to each other for lengthy periods, suggesting that couples may maintain these close connections yearlong.

The limestone karsts of Laos and nearby forests are gaining a reputation for unusual wildlife discoveries.

"Distinct animals thought to be restricted to the wet, evergreen forests include the Annamite striped rabbit and the Saola," Clyne said. The Saola, also called the Vu Quang ox, is a forest-dwelling bovine and is thought to be one of the world's most rare mammals.

In 2002, co-author Timmins described the then newly found Laotian rock rat, the lone-surviving member of an otherwise extinct genus, in the same region of Laos.

Of the new baldheaded avian find, Colin Poole, director of WCS's Asia programs concluded, "It's always exciting to discover a new species, but this one is especially unique because it is the only bald songbird in Asia."

Poole added, "The discovery also underscores how much there is still to learn from wild places around the world."

More on songbirds | new species

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