Bare-faced Bulbul: A New Species Discovered in Laos

By Hugh Powell
July 30, 2009
Bare-faced Bulbul Bare-faced Bulbul by Iain Woxvold, University of Melbourne.
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In the dry limestone scrub of central Laos a remarkable bird lived unnoticed, even by locals, until late last year. That’s when a team from University of Melbourne and the Wildlife Conservation Society discovered a group of Bare-faced Bulbuls—assertive, thrush-sized songbirds with pink heads, devoid of feathers except for a fuzzy, mohawk-ish line along the skull.  The birds were traveling through low trees and eating figs and berries in the heat of the day.

The unnoticed part isn’t quite true. Thirteen years earlier and 100 miles to the northwest, one of the same researchers had glimpsed a flock of similar bare-headed birds for just a few seconds. Owing to the sighting’s “brevity and gross-level incompatibility with any known form,” the researcher, RJ Timmins, left the sighting out of his official trip report. In their paper describing the new species (in Forktail, the journal of the Oriental Bird Club), the authors note rather endearingly that Timmins “subsequently weathered a fair amount of good-natured ribbing on relating the sighting to sceptical colleagues.”

The birds seen last year were near a populated area at the edge of Laos’s hilly limestone karst country, a vast and nearly impenetrable region that stretches across central Laos between Thailand and Vietnam.  Yet locals didn’t recognize the bird when scientists showed them specimens—perhaps because the birds are restricted to very dry, rocky areas with stunted trees, little used for farming, hunting, or keeping livestock. If the Bare-faced Bulbul is restricted to these very dry areas, the researchers wrote, it could prove to be Laos’s first known endemic bird.

Mainstream news loves this story largely because the bird is so weird looking (some say ugly, but we won’t go that far), and because it’s the only bald songbird known from Asia. What makes birds evolve baldness? The thinking for vultures is that baldness avoids all the mess and fuss associated with repeatedly sticking your head into a rotting carcass – not a likely explanation for a robin-sized bird that eats fruit. The researchers note that many other bulbuls show some skin on the face, perhaps for use in displays. They suggest the Bare-faced Bulbul may be an extreme development of this trait.

Still, it got me thinking about bald songbirds elsewhere in the world. All I could come up with was the lovely Ocellated Antbird and a few relatives from the tropics—and they’re not even completely bald. Can you think of any I’ve missed?

(By the way, you might see bald birds like Northern Cardinals and Blue Jays at your feeders from time to time – but they don’t really count. Though they are really weird looking, they’re going through a molt and will soon grow those feathers and look normal again—this is one of our most frequent frequently asked questions in fall.)

From the paper “An unusual new bulbul from the limestone karst of Lao PDR” in Forktail, August 2009, by IA Woxvold, JW Duckworth, and RJ TImmins. 

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  • Anne Harlan says:

    You mentioned that the Bare-faced Bulbul is the only bald songbird in Asia. That implies that there are other bald songbirds elsewhere. If so, where and which birds are they?

  • Very interesting article! Who knows how many more species wait to be discovered….


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  • Michael Green says:

    The two species of Picathartes (Picathartidae) in west Africa have bare heads too.

  • zii genek says:

    There is a very common bald songbird in Australia – noisy friar bird (Philemon corniculatus).


  • It’s tremendously exciting to me. What a marvellous bird! I find it fascinating!

  • kai natavee says:

    that is great ,and i think there are a lot of spiecies lost ,and waited to be found.

  • Annette says:

    I wonder which is the policy nowadays with newly described species… how many specimens are collected and killed for its museum storage and study? Is there any kind of restriction or any museum in the world can still claim its right to possess an unlimited quantity of specimens?

    Does the conservation status of a species affect its collection?

  • DeLene says:

    Wow, this is really neat. Thanks for the post!

  • Frank Marro says:

    My mother who lives in Burnt Hills New York, has a “bald” Red Cardinal that has been coming to her feeder for about the past year. This bird has a black skinned head, bald down to the neck and appears perfectly heathly otherwise. It is quite ugly! I always thought genetic muation or something, or first thought it was illness? Any ideas?

    Debbie Marro

  • Elaine Long says:

    What does this mean? “Locals didn’t recognize the bird when scientists showed them specimens.” Were some of the newly-found species killed?

  • Kim Bostwick says:


    To answer your several questions in some detail (as I am happy to hear someone ask these important questions) the recommended policy is still to collect at least one individual when one describes a new species. This special individual upon which the species description is based will retain its status as the “name holder” until people no longer care about what birds are called. How many are collected? Usually very few (1 suffices, but it is “good” to have a representative of each sex, and if possible, a juvenile, beyond that a handful more may be collected to adequately sample individual variation, and provide more anatomical information (skeletal, myological, neurological, genetic) then can be provided by a single specimen).

    Is there any kind of restrictions; you bet there is! It is generally much harder for scientists to collect with the idea of helping science and conservation, then for farmers to kill thousands of “pests”, hunters to hunt, or for pet traders to poach and then legally trade. Museums must have federal and local permits from the places they collect, and strict limits on the number of individuals that can be taken from each species are always made; a “heavy” collecting permit nowadays would be 10 individuals per species, half of these are typically left in the country of origin, whether they can be properly care for or not.

    Your reference to “any Museum in the world claiming its right to unlimited quantities of specimens” is unfortunately a very common misperception of museum science. Such collecting has not existed in the museum world for decades, especially in birds, when regulation began in the US on 25 May 1900 with the signing of the Lacey Act, and is now global in scope with regulations like CITIES.

    In the meantime, global climate change is going to “rock” our planet and every creature on it, and we know very very little about the basic ecological details of our birds. Nowadays, specimens are being used to tell us about where a bird grows its feathers, where they migrate, where they feeds in the food chain, the population structure, the genetic “health” of a species, etc. All sorts of things with important conservation implications. For more on this, check out an article I recently wrote for Birdscope:

    For those concerned about the taking of specimens, I would ask you to consider that the handful of birds taken for the description of this new species of bulbul will form the foundation upon which real conservation efforts can be initiated. Further, the commmunity of people who collected them, ie. the museum community, constitutes the single greatest contributor to bird research and conservation worldwide. We too love birds, and perhaps unlike SOME collectors from decades ago, we are not stamp collectors as many be people imagine.

    Kim Bostwick,

    Cornell University Museum of Vertebrates

  • Kim, thank you for elaborating on the taking of specimens. I take comfort in the knowledge that, as you said “birds taken for the description of this new species of bulbul will form the foundation upon which real conservation efforts can be initiated”.

  • Kim Bostwick says:

    Hi Elaine,

    See my post to Annette above for some details about collecting.

    A lot of people equate new species with rare species. It is easy to see why: often newly described species are not widespread, and therefore will be “rare” in the sense of having a very restricted distribution. In this way, every species restricted to a single island is “rare”. But, if the habitat in which this species lives is vast and relatively untrameled by people, as seems to be the case for this species, then it is likely the species is existing unmolested as it has for thousands of years, and is repopulating itself as any healthy species would.


  • Annette says:

    Thank you very much for the information, Kim, I wil read your article.

    I am glad that nowadays there are restrictions to the collection of specimens (some species of reptiles in the Mediterranean were brought almost to extinction due to excessive collection). I understand that the obtention of some specimens is useful for the study of the species. But, at the same time, can’t some of the data and information that you mention, be obtained from in vivo studies?

    I think that nowadays there are many techniques that allow thorough studies of live individuals, and at least this may reduce the number of needed specimens.

    One of the reasons of my concerns is that I have witnessed practices at small local museums in South America, which seem to have a big desire to collect rare birds, when in reality, they are not doing any research at all with them, just storing the specimens.

    Yours sinecerly,

    Anna Gallés

    naturalist and nature illustrator


  • finchwench says:

    And the Ocellated Antbirds also have the blue eyeshadow effect, but they have the “metallic shimmer” version, while the Bare-faced Bulbul goes for more of a early-mid 80s, powder blue, matte finish.

  • Scott Olmstead says:

    Got a couple more “bald” birds from South America for you:

    Lots of antbirds, especially the professional ant-followers (such as the Ocellated Antbird mentioned above and the fancy bare-eyes in the genus Phlegopsis) have some bare skin on their faces, usually around the eye. The Bare-crowned Antbird has taken this feature a step farther; the bare skin surrounds the eye and meets on the forecrown. See a front view photo here:

    The function of the bare facial skin in antbirds is debated.

    Then there is the recently described (2002) Bald Parrot, found in the Amazon Basin in Brazil. This parrot has a completely featherless orange head! Photo:

    And we can’t forget the bizarre Capuchinbird of the Cotinga family, found in the Guianas and Venezuela.


  • Robert Dean says:

    Many thanks for the interesting article.Here’s three bald birds-all in the neotropics:-

    Bare-crowned Antbird


    Orange-headed Parrot,(closely related to Vulturine Parrot which is almost bald but not quite.

  • Hugo says:

    take a picture of the =bald= Red Cardial and show it to the birders around the world

  • Chris Willett says:

    The bulbul’s baldness: Perhaps for a similar reason as to why vultures are bald,(picking around the innards of a large animal), similarly, the bulbul, might have evolved the lack of feathers on its head to resist the stickiness of fruits. Ever had gum in your hair?

  • Elijah Shiffer says:

    Isn’t there a bald starling in the Philippines?

    also, is the new bulbul different enough to get its own genus? You could call it Calvoixos laoensis.

  • Alison says:

    There are some species of fruit eating parrots that are bald too – presumably from the messiness of the fruit.

  • Jaime Pujals says:

    Some Antbirds of Central and South America are bald, like Gymnocichla n. nudiceps. the Male Bare-crown Antbird.

    It has a bare bright blue crown and orbital area.

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  • Juris Krumins says:

    As for bald songbirds what about the wattled starling Creatophora cinerea? The males are not only bald, but seasonally bald, making them (I think) the only seasonally gymnocephalic bird in the world… I have had this species in my (live) collection for a number of years, and never fail to be amazed at how when spring rolls around, not only does the wattle quadruple in size, but every feather on the head is lost, while the skin underneath turns bright yellow and develops an orange-peel texture.

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