New Bird Species Discovered in Peru, Named for Cornell Lab Director

August 6, 2012
sira barbet by Mike HarveyOne of the few photographs of a live Sira Barbet in existence. Photo by Michael G. Harvey.

A colorful, fruit-eating bird with a black mask, pale belly, and scarlet breast—never before described by science—has been discovered and named by Cornell University graduates following an expedition to the remote Peruvian Andes. The Sira Barbet (Capito fitzpatricki) is described in a paper published in the July 2012 issue of The Auk, the official publication of the American Ornithologists’ Union. A painting of the barbet is featured as the issue’s cover illustration.

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The new species was discovered during a 2008 expedition led by Michael G. Harvey, Glenn Seeholzer, and Ben Winger, young ornithologists who had recently graduated from Cornell at the time. They were accompanied by coauthor Daniel Cáceres, a graduate of the Universidad Nacional de San Agustín in Arequipa, Peru, and local Ashéninka guides.

The team discovered the barbet on a ridge of montane cloud forest in the Cerros del Sira range in the eastern Andes. Steep ridges and deep river gorges in the Andes produce many isolated habitats and microclimates that give rise to unique species.

Mike Harvey was first to see the new species on October 8, 2008. “It was sitting about 60 feet up on a bare branch,” he said. “At first we thought it was the Scarlet-banded Barbet (Capito wallacei), but the more we looked at it, the more we saw obvious differences in its plumage.”

Though clearly a sister species of the Scarlet-banded Barbet, the Sira Barbet is readily distinguished by differences in color on the bird’s flanks, lower back, and thighs and a wider, darker scarlet breast band. By comparing mitochondrial DNA sequences of the new barbet to DNA sequences of its close relatives in the genus Capito, the team secured genetic evidence that this is indeed a new species in the barbet family (Capitonidae). The genetic work was done by coauthor Jason Weckstein at The Field Museum in Chicago.

The team chose the scientific name of the new species, Capito fitzpatricki, in honor of Cornell Lab of Ornithology executive director Dr. John W. Fitzpatrick, who discovered and named 7 new bird species in Peru during the 1970s and 1980s.

“Fitz has inspired generations of young ornithologists in scientific discovery and conservation,” says Ben Winger. “He was behind us all the way when we presented our plan for this expedition.”

The 2008 expedition was made possible by funding from a special gift to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and donations to the Lab’s student World Series of Birding team, Rawlings Cornell Presidential Research Scholars, National Geographic Young Explorers’ Grant, and the Explorers Club. Since the discovery, Harvey and Seeholzer have enrolled as Ph.D. students at Louisiana State University, and Winger is a Ph.D. student at  the University of Chicago.


  • Ernest Davis

    Another lifer I will never be able
    To list.
    OH Well.

  • What a wonderful article and how cool it is that we still can find new species. Now if the world’s population would just remember to care for the habitats so this can continue for many more years.

  • What a great discovery! Well done and thanks for finding and sharing this new species of birds.

  • Deb Martin

    Please please tell us that the barbet they shot was not the only one seen by this expedition. Haven’t we come a little farther than Audubon? This pains me and I am a biologist as well. There must be a better way to document new species. AOU should research this and stop the killing.

  • Hugh

    Hi Deb, Yes, the team surveyed the area and ascertained the birds are fairly common in the right habitat—another indication of how unexplored the region is. Collecting small numbers of specimens, when done responsibly by trained scientists, is still an essential part of biology—examples of why are discussed in the main article about the expedition (linked in the post). Threats to species from habitat destruction and pollution far outweigh the small numbers of birds collected, and knowledge obtained from the specimens can help in combating these larger problems. Thanks for your concern – Hugh

  • LT

    I’m–not very pleasantly–amazed that new species are still being identified by being killed first. Sounds very Empire. I realize that birds are tiny and delicate creatures, but is it impossible to use some sort of tranquillizing dart if it is essential to actually have contact with the bird? Can one not conduct genetic study through a sample of skin, feathers, or the bird equivalent to saliva? No doubt I am naive about the scientific capabilities that are available, but I had been under the impression that most modern-day field biologists were relying on actual field studies rather than “sacrificing” their subjects. I am usually a moderate on research issues, but honestly…killing a new species in order to identify it negates much of the value of the work, doesn’t it? Perhaps I have misunderstood some of the comments above, in which case I would be happy to be educated.

  • Hugh

    Hi and thanks for writing in with your concerns. The birds are not being killed as a way to identify them—the biologists on the expedition are extremely skilled birders able to identify pretty much all the birds they found by sight or sound. But while field ornithology has indeed advanced far beyond the days of indiscriminate shooting, there’s still a need for small numbers of responsibly collected scientific specimens when a new bird is found. The information that can be drawn from a specimen can be used to answer questions that no one has thought to ask yet—this is what happened, for instance, when discovery of the effects of DDT led scientists to look for a causal link between the pesticide and eggshell thinning. The answer came from specimens in museum collections, and helped turn around an ongoing environmental disaster. The main article describes a few more of the many examples of the long-term value of keeping scientific specimens. Digital images, recordings, tissue samples, etc., all provide useful but nevertheless incomplete information about a species. Please understand that everyone involved in the expedition cares deeply about birds and conservation, and they acted in accordance with carefully laid-out practices in their field designed to minimize the impact of their work. Thanks – Hugh

  • I agree with you and feel why these innocent living has to lose their life for the sake of human, who become famous of taking others life.

    Its good news that we find new species..

New Bird Species Discovered in Peru, Named for Cornell Lab Director