22 Dec 2016

The world's rarest songbirds

Regent Honeyeater © HBW
Regent Honeyeater © HBW
By Alex Dale

We are proud to annouce that Volume 2 of the Illustrated Checklist of the Birds of the World goes on sale December 30th. Published  by Lynx Edicions in association with HBW and BirdLife International, Volume 2 chronicles the world's passerines (perching birds), and completes the most exhaustive illustrated checklist of birds ever compiled, with stunning, full-colour portraits of all the world's 10,965 extant species.

These portraits range from abundant, instantly-recognisable birds we see every day, to vanishingly rare species that will elude all but the most dedicated birder. We begin our weekly showcase of Volume 2 with a rundown of some of the rarest songbirds on our planet.


1. Tahiti Monarch

Pomarea Nigra

Many of the world's most threatened bird species are found only on small, remote islands, where they are reliant on delicately-balanced ecosystems that are ill-equipped to deal with outside influences. This monarch flycatcher and its flute-like call is restricted to a handful of lowland valleys in Tahiti, French Polynesia, where it has been driven to near-extinction by the spread of invasive plants and rats. Intensive habitat restoration work from our French Polynesian partner Société d'Ornithologie de Polynésie (SOP MANU) has helped recover the species from just 27 birds to around 50 today, but it remains one of the world's rarest birds.


2. Black-winged Myna

Acridothereres melanopteus

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This Indonesian endemic was previously known as the Black-winged Starling, until a closer look revealed that what we once thought was the Black-winged Starling was actually three different species: Grey-rumped Myna Acridotheres tertius (from Bali), Grey-backed Myna Acridotheres tricolor (South-east Java) and Black-winged Myna (Java, pictured). Sadly, all three of these birds are victims of the Indonesian people's love of keeping songbirds in cages; unsustainable trapping to meet demand for local trade means all three of these species are Critically Endangered, meaning they could disappear within our lifetimes. 

Tragically, the Black-winged Myna was common not so long ago. However, collectors began coveting the species as a replacement for the similar looking, and extremely rare, Bali Myna Leucopsar rothschildi. The two species now have more than just looks in common.


3. Taita Apalis

Apalis fuscigularis

Occupying a tiny range of just 1.5 square kilometres of fragmented forest in Kenya, this warbler has endured a population crash in recent years, with illegal logging further fragmenting its preferred montane forest habitat. Today, maybe fewer than 100 remain. BirdLife's Preventing Extinctions Programme, alongside our local Partner Nature Kenya, is now working to safeguard the remaining forest, and tree nurseries are being established in an attempt to reconnect the various scattered populations.


4. Regent Honeyeater

Anthochaera phrygia


This striking honeyeater (a family of nectar-feeding birds similar to, but unrelated to, sunbirds) is a gregarious, nomadic bird that loves to travel around south-east Australia in flocks. But in recent years its breeding range has become as patchy as the canary-yellow scales on its breast.  Habitat loss coming as a result of agricultural and residential development has hit the Regent Honeycreeper hard, and the few hundred birds that remain are now forced to compete with other sweet-toothed species for limited nectar resources.

5. Cerulean Paradise-flycatcher

Eutrichomyias rowleyi

Despite its vivid blue plumage, this ultra-elusive species, known only from the Indonesian island of Sangihe, evaded human eyes for over 120 years and was considered extinct, until a small population was discovered in 1998. Today, we know of fewer than 50 individuals. There is now a small bird tourism industry on the island, and the hope is this will incentivise locals to conserve what little montane forest remains on the island.


6. Liben Lark

Heteromirafra archeri


This grassland specialist is known in tiny numbers from remnant habitat patches in Ethiopia, and also formerly in Somalia. There are now fewer than 250 birds left, which is even worse than it sounds, because the species has a skewed sex ratio, so the effective population size is even smaller. Community-managed grassland conservation is aiming to halt declines that are predicted to reach 80% over the next three generations. And if it doesn't? Then the Liben Lark will get the dubious honour of becoming mainland Africa's first bird extinction.

7. Bugun Liocichla

Liocichla bugunorum



First spotted in 1995, and formally described as recently as 2006, this spectacular-looking babbler was the first new bird species to be discovered in India in over 50 years, and it is still only known from a tiny, mountainous area in the hills of the Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary in the state of Arunachal Pradesh. Named after the Bugun, the natives who live nearby, this species is staggeringly rare - perhaps as few as 14 individuals, and only three breeding pairs are known.

8. White-bellied Cinclodes

Cinclodes palliatus



Fewer than 250 of this bulky ovenbird remain in bog habitat at 4,400-5000m in the High Andes of Peru, where it faces a veritable bombardment of threats: overgrazing of habitat by alpacas, llamas and sheep, removal of peat for horticulture, mining and water extraction for irrigation. A bird with very specific and fussy requirements, the outlook is bleak unless conservation efforts increase.


9. Palila

Loxioides bailleui


One of the largest extant Hawaiian honeycreepers, the Palila feeds almost exclusively in the seeds of another Hawaiian endemic: the māmane plant. Although these seeds contain toxins that kill most other animals in minutes, they do not seem to faze this colourful bird. However, a prolonged drought that has reduced māmane pod production is in turn driving an extremely rapid population decline among the Palila.

10. Hawaiian Crow

Corvus hawaiiensis

Finally, we arrive at the rarest passerine of all - with a great fat total of ZERO individuals left in the wild. This bulky corvid was once a common sight on the island of Hawaii, but by 2002 it had been completely wiped out by habitat loss, persecution and, most likely, the introduction of avian malaria to the island. Today, it is one of five bird species that persists only in captivity, but an ambitious project to release six captive-bred individuals into one of the island's national parks is underway.


Want to see more? BirdLife readers can get an exclusive discount on orders of the Illustrated Checklist of the Birds of the World received by 31st January 2017. Order online at www.lynxeds.com and enter promo code ADBL1 for Volume 2, or ADBL2 for the complete set of Volumes 1 & 2.