Mystery bird has been rediscovered in Indonesia, 172 years after it was last seen

What’s the story?

Way back in the 1840s, the nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte, Charles Lucien, caught a mystery bird with a black stripe across its brow during an expedition to the East Indies. He described it to science and named it the black-browed babbler (Malacocincla perspicillata).

Then, sometime between 1843 and 1848, the German naturalist Carl A.L.M. Schwaner collected the only known specimen of the species. It had been assumed Schwaner discovered this finding in Java – although some years later in 1895, Swiss ornithologist Johann Büttikofer pointed out that Schwaner was in Borneo at the time the bird was collected.

The black-browed babbler was never seen in the wild again. That was until October 2020, almost two centuries later, when two local men Muhammad Suranto and Muhammad Rizky Fauzan caught, photographed and released a bird they did not recognise in Indonesia’s South Kalimantan province.

After consultations with expert ornithologists from Indonesia and around the region, it was confirmed that they had in fact accidentally caught the mysterious black-browed babbler.

This most recent sighting confirms this little bird does indeed come from south-eastern Borneo, ending the century-long confusion about its origins.

Why is this positive news for the planet?

It’s perhaps not surprising that this little bird has remained a mystery for so long. More than 1,700 species of bird can be found across the archipelagos islands, few of which have been studied scientifically. But the discovery that the black-browed babbler has survived in this region, despite massive deforestation in lowland Borneo is a positive sign, that comes with a warning.

“There is […] a very high possibility of [the black-browed babbler] being severely threatened by habitat loss,” said Panji Gusti Akbar, of the Indonesian ornithological group Birdpacker, who was the lead author of a paper detailing the bird’s rediscovery.

Conservationists plan to visit the site where the bird was photographed as soon as coronavirus restrictions allow.

Ding Li Yong, of BirdLife International, a co-author of the paper published in the Oriental Bird Club’s journal Birding Asia, said:

“It’s sobering to think that when the black-browed babbler was last seen, Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species hadn’t even been published and the now extinct passenger pigeon was still among the world’s commonest birds. Who knows what other riches lie deep within Borneo’s fabled rainforests, especially in the Indonesian part of the island?”

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Charli Ferrand Higgins

After a decade working for global and boutique PR and Marketing agencies in Sydney, with clients that included some of the biggest consumer brands in the world, Charli returned to her homeland of the UK in 2017 and decided the time had come to use her professional skills and experience for good. She has since split her time between supporting passionate, purpose-driven small and medium-sized businesses to grow through conscious content marketing, managing and editing the planet-positive content hub Earth Collective (, and hosting the podcast Easy Being Green? Lessons in sustainable business for SMEs.

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