Last chance to see: The world’s rarest bird?

January 25, 2013 • 11:55 am

UPDATE: Where to donate to save this bird.

I’ve heard back from The American Bird Conservancy, and they’ve told us where we can give money to help out this rare bird:

Thank you very much for your inquiry about how individuals can donate to help protect the Stresemann’s Bristlefront. Here is a link to American Bird Conservancy’s donation page on our website.  If an individual then types “Stresemann’s” on the mailcode line, their gift will be earmarked for this imperiled species.

Save the highly threatened Stresemann’s Bristlefront by helping American Bird Conservancy and Fundação  Biodiversitas protect the Stresemann’s Bristlefront Reserve for conservation. This reserve, created by ABC and Biodiversitas in 2007, now totals more than 1,400 acres. However, the forest surrounding the reserve is under severe threat from agricultural expansion and deforestation, making diligent management of the land already under protection critical and urgent. Stresemann’s Bristlefront Reserve is a top priority for the Alliance for Zero Extinction (AZE), and is the only known site for this Critically Endangered species, and sixteen other globally threatened bird species are found there.


This Brazilian bird, Stresemann’s bristlefront (Merulaxis stresemanni), may be the world’s rarest bird. (If it isn’t, I’m sure I’ll hear from the many bird experts here!).  There are only about 15 of them left. Numbers like that mean almost certain extinction.

The details are given in a new piece at Scientific American‘s Extinction Countdown, “Almost extinct Brazilian bird observed in nest for first time” by John R. Platt. The reason for the post is that researchers have finally found a nest:

“This is the discovery of a lifetime made all the more gratifying by the fact that not only have we found live adult birds, but we have also found strong evidence of several chicks as well,” Alexandre Enout, the reserve’s manager, said in a press release issued by the American Bird Conservancy, which funded the establishment of the property in 2005. [The reserve is the the Mata do Passarinho Reserve run by Fundação Biodiversitas in the state of Bahia.]

Very little is known about the Stresemann’s bristlefront. The species was first seen in the 1830s, but scientists did not collect a second specimen until 1945. The third sighting was 50 years later, in 1995, when a single male was observed near the Una Biological Reserve in southern Bahia, where no further bristlefronts have been seen since. The birds were finally rediscovered further north in 2004 in the region that would later become the Mata do Passarinho Reserve , where surveys have since observed just six individual birds. Using those surveys, the organization BirdLife International estimates the total population for the species at 10 to 15 birds.

Here’s one of them. This species, like many, are named after the famous ornithologist Erwin Stresemann (1889-1972), mentor of the even more famous evolutionary biologist and ornithologist Ernst Mayr.

Photo by Ciro Albano
Photo by Ciro Albano

BirdLife gives more details about the species:

Distribution and population
Merulaxis stresemanni was known until recently from just two specimens, the type, collected near Salvador in the 1830s, and a second taken near Ilhéus in 1945, in coastal Bahia, Brazil. In 1995, it was rediscovered in the wild when a male was observed and tape-recorded at Fazenda Jueirana, near Una Biological Reserve, Bahia (Baudet 2001). Subsequent searches there have failed to produce further records (Baudet 2001, F. Olmos in litt. 2003). However, the species was subsequently found in the Jequitinhonha valley, Minas Gerais, near the border with Bahia (Ribon et al. 2004). Here, too, the future of the species seems to hang in the balance: it lives in a strip of humid valley-floor forest, much of which has recently been cleared to make room for agriculture (F. Olmos in litt. 2006) and pasture (R. Ribon in litt 2007).

Population justification
In the Jequitinhonha valley (the sole currently known population), at least four birds were found in a 100 ha area, but it was thought unlikely that this density could be extrapolated for the whole 5,000 ha partly fragmented patch of forest (R. Ribon in litt. 2006). The latest surveys of the Macarani / Bandeira area near Balbina (Sossego do Arrebol Forest) found just six individuals: five females and a single male (Fundação Biodiversitas in litt. 2010), with likely no more than 10-15 birds in total and none found in other forest fragments surveyed (R. Ribon in litt. 2011). It is therefore now suspected that there may be fewer than 50 birds remaining, and the population is placed in the band 1-49 mature individuals.

Very little is known, but its behaviour and habitat preferences appear similar to those of M. ater (Baudet 2001). The male in 1995 was observed foraging on the ground and on fallen tree trunks in an area of drier forest between two humid valleys (Baudet 2001). It was found in humid forest at 700-800 metres along the Jequitinonha and Pardo River valleys (R. Ribon in litt 2007). The species has subsequently been observed apparently feeding on insects on dry litter and under fallen logs (Fundação Biodiversitas in litt. 2010). Birds are very responsive to play-back, approaching the observer to 2 m (R. Ribon in litt 2007). The average territory size of three birds was 2.36 ha, based on initial studies, but more data are required (Fundação Biodiversitas in litt. 2010).

Platt goes on:

The bristlefront, like many in its genus, is a ground-nesting species which does not migrate. The researchers saw a tennis-ball sized hole in a vertical edge of earth about one meter above the surface of the forest floor and realized that it was like other Merulaxis nest. They saw a male on two different days and noticed that he was bringing food though the hole, back to the nest, including one small frog and an earthworm. Getting closer, they used a micro-camera to partially survey the inside of nest, which they estimated to about 1.8 meters deep. Although no other birds were observed, male’s activity led to them to believe that there must have been at least one chick somewhere in the unseen part of the nest.

“No one is going near the nest now, and there are no plans to try to see all of the way into it,” Wiedenfield says. “No one wants to disturb a nest of a species that is that rare! [David Wiedenfield is a a conservation expert with the American Bird Conservancy.]

Your own chances of ever seeing the Stresemann’s bristlefront are slim to none, but check out this one-minute video shot by Ciro Albano of NE Brazil Birding:

Well, prayers that the species be saved are useless, of course, but I’m trying to find out where one can donate to help save either the bird or its reserve. I’ll post that at the top when I get the information.

Remember, when a species is gone, it’s gone for good, and with it every bit of genetic, evoluitonary,  and behavioral information it carried with it.

h/t: Ed Yong via Matthew Cobb

8 thoughts on “Last chance to see: The world’s rarest bird?

  1. Wow this is super exciting- this is broadly within the region where I’ve been working (except I’m on the marine end of a joint Baian Atlantic Rainforest- coral reef effort).

    We don’t really even know all the freshwater fishes in that part of the Mata Atlantica, and I’m not convinced we know all the bugs either. Colleagues and I were birding a bit in the forest closer to Porto Seguro with Town Peterson last September and that was a delightful revelation.

    1. Well whatever you find or bring out to be scientifically described, let us hope survives. This is such an ineffably sad story, that it should come to this.

  2. “No one is going near the nest now, and there are no plans to try to see all of the way into it,” Wiedenfield says.

    I’d been cringing at the decription of all the previous interventions.

  3. It may seem that bird populations this small are doomed, but there have been numerous cases where birds endangered have been successfully brought back from the brink of extinction. In Ecuador, over the last few years the Fundacion Jocotoco managed to bring back the Pale-headed Brush Finch. It was presumed extinct in the 70’s, but in 1998 Jocotoco researchers rediscovered a tiny population of 10-15 pairs. They then bought the land and managed it for the bird, and now there are perhaps 230 individuals. So all you conservationists out there, don’t give up on this Bristlefront! Support efforts to protect its habitat; with enough help, this can be saved.

  4. “There are only about 15 of them left. Numbers like that mean almost certain extinction.”

    Aren’t cheetah’s thought to have gone through a bottleneck not much bigger than this? They’re all virtually identical genetically, no? And the California Condor was down to c. 30 individuals, I believe but is making a modest recovery with a good deal of help. Even with small numbers there is hope and “almost certain” may be a bit too strong. Numbers like that mean extraordinary efforts are required.

  5. There may have been a post about this earlier, but in the 80’s the Black Robin (Petroica traversi) of New Zealand was down to as few as five individuals with only one breeding female. Now there are about 260 on a tiny island off the mainland. This is not to say they’re saved, but it certainly looks like a successful breeding program. (Their genetic variability is another story.)

  6. Reblogged this on DownHouseSoftware and commented:
    All but extinct: the Stresemann’s Bristlefront.
    This article states that only about 15 of these birds remain alive. Consider why this might be considered too few animals to ever recover. To what number can a species be reduced and have a chance to recover? (this is not necessarily a question that can be reasonably answered, but on interesting thought experiment and a consideration that wildlife conservationists make regularly.) Given the unliklihood of this species’ recovery, should resources still be spent to try to maintain them? What is the value of a species (i.e. what is lost when they are gone)?

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