Not Dead Yet: The Bird That Cheated Extinction

After nearly three-quarters of a century, researchers set out to find a mysterious songbird—or declare it extinct for sure.

(Photo: Robert Tizard)

Mar 6, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Emily J. Gertz is an associate editor for environment and wildlife at TakePart.

An Asian songbird long thought to be extinct has been rediscovered. How that happened reads a bit like a suspense story—natural history style. It also offers hope that even in an era of biodiversity loss so extreme that experts call it “the sixth great extinction,” other long-lost animals may still be out there.

The story begins in 1862, when British surgeon and amateur ornithologist Thomas Caverhill Jerdon first saw a long-tailed songbird with a chunky beak in the floodplain grasslands of Burma and named it “Jerdon’s babbler.”

Naturalists reported additional sightings in the late 1870s, and then in 1941—not long before prudent Westerners exited Burma ahead of Japanese forces, which occupied the capital city of Rangoon during World War II.

Burma gained independence from the British Empire in 1948. A military coup in 1962 overthrew its democratic government, and in the ensuring years the country saw little wildlife observation or conservation work by outsiders. Rice and other crop farming began to overtake the floodplain grasslands, pushing native birds into smaller and smaller habitats.

The Jerdon’s babbler had not been seen for decades in the country (renamed Myanmar in 1989) when last year, after several years of slowly easing authoritarian rule, a team of biologists and conservationists decided to learn once and for all if the bird was extinct.

Robert Tizard, a specialist with the United States–based Wildlife Conservation Society, used satellite images to pick out potential remnants of the songbird’s grassland habitat. He and three colleagues set out in late May 2014 to explore several promising spots. But after several days in the field the team had seen no Jerdon’s babblers, and just one site was left on their itinerary.

That final location was an abandoned agricultural research station on Myanmar’s Sittaung River plain. There they found a large expanse of native grassland that had “remained intact through a combination of luck and neglect,” according to an article the scientists wrote for the journal BirdingASIA.

“After just an hour in this habitat,” the team “detected an unusual song reminiscent of sound-recordings of Jerdon’s babbler from north-east India,” they wrote. It wasn’t long before “a magnificent adult” appeared. It was the first Jerdon’s babbler seen in Myanmar in 74 years. They found several more of the songbirds over the next two days at the site.

To save the species from extinction, the team has urged that this patch of grassland be protected from encroaching agriculture and livestock operations, possibly by turning it into a bird-watching destination.

Finding species thought to be extinct is not that common, Tizard said in an email. Wildlife scientists and enthusiasts who hope for more of the same should focus on small mammals, reptiles, and amphibians, he said.

“Unfortunately many of these [rediscovered] species are not large mega fauna, but are smaller species that still surprise us by turning up in small habitat fragments,” Tizard said. “I hope the rediscovery of Jerdon’s babbler in Myanmar will encourage others to look for these other lost species. Maybe we’ll even find a few more lost species in Myanmar one of these days.”