New Delhi: A birdsong has led a team of scientists to India’s first new bird species in a decade and the fourth since 1947. The bird, which has been named the Himalayan Forest Thrush, has been described from northeastern India and adjacent parts of China by a team of scientists from India, Sweden, China, the US and Russia.
Per Alstrom from the department of animal ecology in Sweden-based Uppsala University and Shashank Dalvi from the Wildlife Biology and Conservation WCS-India Programme at the Bengaluru-based National Centre of Biological Sciences, discovered the species when they were studying birds at different elevations in the mountains of western Arunachal Pradesh.
It was there that they first noticed that two birds found at different elevations that were seemingly of the same species, called the Plain-backed Thrush, had two different song types.
“The one below the tree line had a beautiful song and that intrigued us. There were also physical differences such as a longer bill, shorter wings and shorter legs, but we noticed them much later. The first clue was the song,” said Dalvi. What was thought to be Plain-backed Thrush in the coniferous and mixed forest had a melodious song, but the ones found in the same area but on rocky habitats above the tree-line had a “much harsher, scratchier, unmusical song”.
The initial observation was followed by recordings of the bird from different places along with DNA samples.
Studies of specimens from 15 museums in seven countries revealed consistent differences in plumage and structure between birds from these two populations.
It was found that the species breeding in the forests of the eastern Himalayas had no scientific name, and so it was named Zoothera salimalii after Salim Ali, who made significant contributions to ornithology in India. Further studies of plumage, structure, song, DNA and ecology from throughout the range of the Plain-backed Thrush revealed that a third species was also present in central China, which the scientists called the Sichuan Forest Thrush. This bird’s song was found to be even more musical than that of the Himalayan Forest Thrush.
Ironically, the Himalayan Forest Thrush is a very common bird in these areas. “It was hidden in plain sight. It was so similar to the Plain-backed Thrush that unless you hear the song, it is hard to make out the difference,” said Dalvi.
The Himalayan Forest Thrush is only the fourth new bird species to be described in India since Independence. While two others were found in Arunachal Pradesh, one was found in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. The last new species to be discovered was the Bugun Liocichla in 2006 in Arunachal Pradesh.
“I have always maintained that Arunachal Pradesh and the entire northeast are so underexplored that one day a couple of new species will come from there. Finally a new species has been described since 2006. This is also the first bird in India that commemorates Salim Ali in its scientific name. The other bird named after Salim Ali is found in China,” said ornithologist and conservationist Bikram Grewal.
There are, however, sub-species of two birds found in India—the Finn’s Weaver and Rock Bush Quail—that are named after the famed ornithologist.
The study describing the new species appeared in Avian Research, an open-access peer reviewed journal on Wednesday.