After 60 years in hiding, wren-babbler is found

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The Independent US

For nearly 60 years it has been the world's least-known bird - until now. The rusty-throated wren-babbler, a small stub-tailed ball of feathers the size of a mouse, has been seen only once, when a specimen was captured in the Mishmi Hills of north-east India in 1947.

For nearly 60 years it has been the world's least-known bird - until now. The rusty-throated wren-babbler, a small stub-tailed ball of feathers the size of a mouse, has been seen only once, when a specimen was captured in the Mishmi Hills of north-east India in 1947.

But now two American ornithologists have found and photographed a new example of Spelaeornis badeigularis - by playing its own call back to it.

The American Museum of Natural History in New York disclosed at the weekend that one of its research associates, Ben King, had located the wren-babbler with a colleague, Julian Donahue, a retired curator at the Los Angeles Museum of Natural History.

The men travelled deep into one of India's least-known states, Arunachal Pradesh, in the eastern Himalayas close to the border with Tibet, which even Indians need a permit to visit.

Having procured the necessary three permits as westerners, they took a little-used road deep into the Mishmi Hills, which are 6,000ft high and covered with broadleaved evergreen forest.

At the forest edge Mr King, who is among the world's foremost experts on Asian birds, played a tape of the song of a close relative - the rufous-throated wren babbler - of the bird they were seeking.

A bird with a similar call replied; Mr King recorded this, and played it back. An even stronger response was elicited, and eventually, after an hour of watching the leaves and twigs move, the rusty-throated bird came into view. Subsequent photographs identified the bird beyond doubt.

"It was flying low along the ground and behind bushes and in the brush. We could hear it. And we could see glimpses of it ... It took an hour of chasing this very elusive, secretive bird before we could see enough to convince ourselves," Mr Donahue said.

It was difficult to say, he added, if this was actually the world's rarest bird, but as far as was known it was the bird that had been least seen.

The only previous evidence of the species had been a dead bird found about 30 miles away, during a 1947 expedition into the region led by another American ornithologist, S. Dillon Ripley, who was later to head the Smithsonian Institution in Washington.

"To see this thing alive in the wild is pretty monumental," Mr Donahue said. "Although it doesn't impress most of my friends because they are not bird watchers."

The wren-babbler is about 4 inches long and is distinguished by a triangular rust-colored patch on its throat. Much of its plumage is a chequerboard of brown and white. Its sole scientific distinction is its rarity.

What the world's rarest bird may be is a matter of dispute. Until 2000 it was Spix's macaw, a beautiful blue parrot from north-eastern Brazil, of which only one species survived in the wild; but in that year the wild bird was found dead.

Some people think that tiny numbers of the ivory-billed woodpecker of the United States, which has not been positively seen since 1944, may still survive in the dense forests of Georgia and Louisiana.

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