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Meet the bare-faced bulbul, a newly discovered 'bald' bird species found in Laos

July 30, 2009 | 10:44 pm

The newly-discovered bare-faced bulbul

A newly discovered and bizarre-looking songbird has been found by scientists in the central region of Laos, in southeast Asia. The scientists -- a team from the Wildlife Conservation Society and Australia's University of Melbourne -- say the bald-headed bird is the first new species from the bulbul family to be discovered in Asia in more than 100 years. It's also the only "bald" songbird ever found in mainland Asia. 

For obvious reasons, they've named it the bare-faced bulbul.

The team first noted the strange bird last December, during an expedition funded by the mineral company MMG, which operates gold and copper mines in the area. In short order, they had used a process called "mist netting," in which fine, dark-colored netting is placed in the birds' flight path, in order to catch specimens of the new species. But the process doesn't hurt the birds, Dr. Peter Clyne of the Wildlife Conservation Society was quick to tell the BBC. "They're perfectly safe. You collect the bird out of the net, then you can take measurements of its weight and wing length for example," he said.

The birds' habitat -- a sparsely forested area on outcroppings of limestone karst -- is seldom visited. "Its apparent restriction to rather inhospitable habitat helps to explain why such an extraordinary bird with conspicuous habits and a distinctive call has remained unnoticed for so long," Dr. Iain Woxvold of the University of Melbourne told Britain's Telegraph.

The scientists wrote about the bare-faced bulbul in the July issue of the Oriental Bird Club's wonderfully-named journal Forktail. They describe it as about the size of a thrush, greenish-olive in color, with a lighter-colored breast. Since only a few of the birds have been found thus far, it's unclear what the species' total population size may be and how far its range stretches. 

A featherless head, for a species such as a vulture, makes a certain amount of sense from an evolutionary perspective -- vultures' heads get understandably messy when eating carrion, and a bald head is easier to keep clean than a feather-covered one.  But, according to National Geographic, scientists are unsure how baldness benefits a songbird such as the bare-faced bulbul; some speculate it may be related to a mating ritual.

-- Lindsay Barnett

Photo: Iain Woxvold / AFP/Getty Images

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