The Rare and the Beautiful

The Rare and the Beautiful

There are approximately 10,000 known species of birds in the world, of all shapes, sizes, and colors. Most of us will be familiar with the most common birds like the songbirds who visit our yards or feeders, or the birds we can see in the nearby forests and woods, and on rivers, lakes, and coasts. But with so many different species around, it stands to reason there are going to be some that everyone would love to see, but hardly anyone has – and time may be running out.

In today’s blog we’re going to look at seven species of the world’s most seldom seen and beautiful birds.

1. The South Philippine Dwarf Kingfisher

Threatened by habitat loss, this stunning lowland forest kingfisher has two subspecies, both of whom now number between 2,500 to maximum 10,000 or so left – they are on the decline and there are currently no conservation programmes dedicated to their survival.

Their range spans from north to south parts of the eponymous archipelagic country: the northern subspecies has dark-blue spotted wings and ears, and the southern has a more noticeable lilac hue with more uniform orange plumage overall. Both share the characteristic of having mostly orange wings, back and head with a white belly and a vibrant vermillion beak. Preferring areas with high rainfall, if you do want to seek this glorious bird out, prepare to get wet.

2. The Rufous-headed Hornbill

With a drastically dwindling population, this large sociable bird also lives in the Philippines, but only on two of the seven thousand islands that comprise the nation. That huge bony casque on their face is thought to help with thermoregulation and enhancing their mating calls, and it is made of thin and hollow keratin structures.

Courtesy of Callan Bentley, Wikimedia Commons

Severe deforestation, hunting, and poaching for their bills to make belief-based medicine has led to a plunge in numbers. These birds are referred to by the locals as the farmers of the forest – they eat fruit and are vitally important to seed dispersal and plant reproduction.

3. The Cebu Flowerpecker

Staying in the Philippines just one more time, we head to Cebu, one of the most biologically devastated islands in the world. Found in just three sites there, the second part of this bird’s scientific name is quadricolor – the white, blue, yellow, and red distinctive banding of their plumage makes this bird a joy to see.

Alas, there are thought to only now be about 700 individuals left in the world; it was believed to be extinct since the beginning of the 20th century, but a sighting in 1992 brought this bird crashing back into the conservation world’s focus.

A painting of Cebu Flowerpecker. Courtesy of Joseph Smit, Wikimedia Commons

Education about the flowerpecker to the authorities and the local communities has led to a slight surge in numbers and has brought pride and ownership to the new wardens. There is hope for this little one yet.

4. The Kakapo

One of the most iconic birds from the world of conservation, the kakapo is beloved by many but seen by so very few. Nocturnal and ground-dwelling, these large flightless parrots are endemic to New Zealand. Their yellowy green plumage and distinctive facial disc with forward-facing eyes give this bird a hint of the comical, almost as if it has stepped out of the mind of Jim Henson.

Kakapo. Courtesy of Department of Conservation, Wikimedia Commons

As it doesn’t fly, it is extremely vulnerable to invasive predators, and was considered very near extinction with 86 left in 2002. Thanks to the love and hard work of the country’s indigenous Māori tribes and other conservationists, a recent 2022 report cited their numbers experiencing a welcome boom, with 252 now dwelling in mostly secret, protected parts of the Southern Island.

5. The Eskimo Curlew

Heading to the opposite end of the planet, this small wader sadly hasn’t been seen since 1963, and is now considered either critically endangered or possibly even extinct; chance sightings in recent times of our previous birds helps keep curlew-lovers’ hope alive.

Finding out about them proves to be very hard due to their summer location, with a clue in the name – the frozen tundra of Alaska, Canada, and the Arctic circle. Their mottled brown and cinnamon wings used to carry them far to the other end of the Americas when they would migrate to Argentina, darkening the skies in their millions along the eastern fringes of North America.

Eskimo Curlew. Courtesy of Jim, the Photographer, Wikimedia Commons

People would hear their sleigh-bell-like jingling calls across the wind as they navigated their way in huge flocks. Mass hunting in the 1800s silenced that; hunters used to call them doughbirds, a reference to the ample fat reserves they would build up for their migration. They were hunted in 11 months of every year; and are now quite probably no more.

6. The Snow Petrel

The dazzling, pristine whiteness of this aptly named bird only stands out against the clear blue skies above the Antarctic; on the ground, only the small jet-black bills and eyes, and perhaps a hint of blue feet, would give away its resting spot. Sharing the distinction of being only one of three species of birds ever seen at the geographic South Pole, it has the most southerly breeding site in the world.

Despite these staggeringly harsh life conditions, this bird is not rare at all – viewed as being of Least Concern, it is estimated that there are around 4 million of them ranging across the icy wastes. We included it in this list because, well, have you ever seen one?

Snow Petrel. Courtesy of Ilya Grigorik, Wikimedia Commons

If you are one of the few people who have, you’d probably know about their highly effective defense mechanism if you get too close to their nests – a well-aimed stream of projectile vomit consisting of foul-smelling, oily, semi-digested krill.

Just knowing these birds are (hopefully) still out there is a step in the right direction for conserving them. The more awareness we can spread about all of these birds and more, and the dangers they face, especially those clinging on to survival in some dark pocket of ancient forest not yet cleared, or flying above a melting ice cap, the old adage must be adapted: out of sight should not mean out of mind.

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