Skip to main content

Birdwatchers twitching with excitement over new species in Cambodia

By Peter Shadbolt, CNN
updated 12:35 PM EDT, Tue July 2, 2013
Scientists say the Tailorbird's unremarkable habitat may have kept it hidden from birdwatchers
Scientists say the Tailorbird's unremarkable habitat may have kept it hidden from birdwatchers
  • Birdwatchers discover previously unknown species of bird in Cambodia
  • The Cambodian Tailorbird was photographed near a construction site in Phnom Penh
  • The rare find indicates there may be more species yet to be discovered in the region
  • Until now, 50 years of human conflict had made parts of Indochina off-limits to bird watchers

(CNN) -- At a time when most birdwatchers are counting the bird species on the way to extinction, to find a new species previously unknown to science might be cause to pop the champagne corks.

But to find one in plain view on a construction site in urban Phnom Penh in Cambodia is nothing short of a sensation in ornithological circles.

The Cambodian Tailorbird (Orthotomus chaktomuk) is one of only two bird species found exclusively in Cambodia (the other is the Cambodian Laughingthrush) and its discovery has the world's "twitchers" -- as birdwatchers are known -- twitching with excitement.

"The modern discovery of an undescribed bird species within the limits of a large populous city -- not to mention 30 minutes from my home -- is extraordinary," said Simon Mahood of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), who was part of the team that investigated the new species.

How eagle-snatches-baby vid was made

"The discovery indicates that new species of birds may still be found in familiar and unexpected locations," he said in a statement.

Escaped eagle returns to zoo handlers

Described by the WCS as a "wren-sized small gray bird with rufous cap and black throat," birdwatchers have since found it in abundant numbers in floodplain scrub on the outskirts of Phnom Penh.

While scientists say the birds can still be found in numbers, they say its habitat is declining and have recommended that the species be classified as Near Threatened under the International Union for Conservation of Nature's (IUCN) Red List.

The remnant floodplain scrub that exists within the Cambodian city of 1.5 million people, however, may go some way to explaining how the bird went unnoticed in the city for so long.

The bird was discovered by a member of the WCS who took photographs of what was first thought to be a similar, coastal species of Tailorbird at a construction site on the edge of Phnom Penh.

The bird in the photographs defied identification and further investigation revealed that it was an entirely unknown species.

"Asia contains a spectacular concentration of bird life, but is also under sharply increasing threats ranging from large scale development projects to illegal hunting," Steve Zack, WCS Coordinator of Bird Conservation said in a press release.

The modern discovery of an undescribed bird species within the limits of a large populous city is extraordinary
Stephen Mahood

"Further work is needed to better understand the distribution and ecology of this exciting newly described species to determine its conservation needs."

According to the Oriental Bird Club publication "Forktail", a half century of human conflict in Indochina -- which made the region off-limits to bird watchers -- has made Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam a fertile zone for twitchers, with the past two decades witnessing a flush of new bird discoveries.

The publication said that while the modern discovery of an undescribed bird species close to sea-level within the limits of a large city in a populous country was extraordinary, it was not unprecedented, citing the discovery of new species of marsh bird close to Sao Paulo in Brazil in 2005.

It said the sheer ordinariness of the Tailorbird's scrubby habitat may have kept it hidden until now.

"This habitat is of little interest to birdwatchers and ornithologists because the other species that it supports are some of the most widespread and abundant birds in tropical South-East Asia," the publication said.

"Even if its habitat were to attract more attention, the denseness of the habitat and the species' skulking habits would more often than not render it invisible to the casual would-be observer."

Part of complete coverage on
Science news
updated 3:34 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Nichelle Nichols has spent her whole life going where no one has gone before, and at 81 she's still as sassy and straight-talking as you'd expect from an interstellar explorer.
updated 7:52 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
The world's largest flying aquatic insect, with huge, nightmarish pincers, has been discovered in China's Sichuan province.
updated 8:10 AM EDT, Mon June 23, 2014
As fans of "Grey's Anatomy," "ER" and any other hospital-based show can tell you, emergency-room doctors are fighting against time.
updated 7:59 AM EDT, Thu May 29, 2014
Ask 100 robotics scientists why they're inspired to create modern-day automatons and you may get 100 different answers.
updated 12:35 PM EDT, Fri June 13, 2014
From the air, the Namibian desert looks like it has a bad case of chicken pox.
updated 12:43 PM EDT, Wed May 28, 2014
The trend for nature-inspired designs has spread across industries from crab-style deep-sea vessels to insect-inspired buildings.
updated 8:22 AM EDT, Sun May 25, 2014
Consider it the taxonomist's equivalent of a People magazine's Most Beautiful List.
updated 11:32 AM EDT, Fri May 9, 2014
For the first time, scientists have shown it is possible to alter the biological alphabet and still have a living organism that passes on the genetic information.
updated 7:48 AM EDT, Mon May 5, 2014
Do we really want to go the route of "Jurassic Park"?
updated 8:44 AM EDT, Fri May 2, 2014
Catch a train from the sky! Perhaps in the future, the high-rise superstructures could help revolutionize the way we travel.
updated 10:58 AM EDT, Mon May 5, 2014
In a nondescript hotel ballroom last month at the South by Southwest Interactive festival, Andras Forgacs offered a rare glimpse at the sci-fi future of food.
updated 10:12 AM EDT, Thu March 20, 2014
For a Tyrannosaurus rex looking for a snack, nothing might have tasted quite like the "chicken from hell."
updated 6:29 PM EDT, Fri March 14, 2014
Everyone is familiar with Tyrannosaurus rex, but humanity is only now meeting its much smaller Arctic cousin.
updated 12:12 PM EST, Thu March 6, 2014
At about 33 feet long, weighing 4 to 5 tons and baring large blade-shaped teeth, the dinosaur Torvosaurus gurneyi was a formidable creature.
updated 6:43 AM EST, Fri February 21, 2014
This Pachyrhinosaurus can go to the head of its class.
updated 8:04 AM EDT, Thu March 27, 2014
Science is still trying to work out how exactly we reason through moral problems, and how we judge others on the morality of their actions. But patterns are emerging.
updated 7:06 PM EST, Thu February 27, 2014
A promising way to stop a deadly disease, or an uncomfortable step toward what one leading ethicist called eugenics?
updated 8:07 PM EST, Fri February 14, 2014
Seattle paleontologists safely removed the largest fossilized mammoth tusk discovered in the region from a construction site.
updated 6:13 AM EDT, Tue April 23, 2013
A mysterious, circular structure, with a diameter greater than the length of a Boeing 747 jet, has been discovered submerged about 30 feet underneath the Sea of Galilee in Israel.
updated 5:25 PM EST, Fri January 17, 2014
Every corner of the planet offers some sort of natural peculiarity with an explanation that makes us wish we'd studied harder in junior high Earth science class.
updated 8:20 AM EST, Thu November 14, 2013
Deep in a remote, hot, dry patch of northwestern Australia lies one of the earliest detectable signs of life on the planet, tracing back nearly 3.5 billion years, scientists say.
updated 3:10 PM EDT, Wed September 4, 2013
We leave genetic traces of ourselves wherever we go -- in a strand of hair left on the subway or in saliva on the side of a glass at a cafe.