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New Bird Species Sings Sweetly In Sulawesi


Birds are one of the most widely studied forms of life on the planet. They are attractive; they make nice sounds. You'd think we'd have seen them all by now. But there are still new species to discover, as one young researcher found recently in a forest in Indonesia.

CHRISTOPHER JOYCE, BYLINE: In 1997, in a forest in Sulawesi, part of the Indonesian archipelago, a biologist saw a flycatcher unlike any other. But he couldn't be sure it was actually a species new to science. Fast forward 15 years. Another ornithologist, Berton Harris from Princeton University, was camping where the first sighting had been, hoping he might see that strange bird. After two months, on the last day of his trip, he was pretty sure he caught a glimpse of it. He returned a year later, set up nets in the trees, but still couldn't catch this flycatcher. Then a local hunter dropped by.

BERTON HARRIS: He walked up to us and had one of these flycatchers in his hand, so that was really lucky. So he was happy to give us that bird 'cause he wasn't going to eat it.

JOYCE: The hunter had shot it. The bird was small and gray, no eye-catcher this. But Harris and his colleague, Pam Rasmussen from Michigan State University, were able to record one of these birds in the forest just once - a melodious, high-pitched song.


HARRIS: It was dusk. It was just having a little fun before it went to sleep, and that was the only time we ever heard it sing. And that's the only recording that exists of the bird as far as we know.

JOYCE: They called the bird Muscicapa sodhii and described it in the journal Plos One. DNA and other physical characteristics proved it to be a new species. And Harris, just a few years into his scientific career, had made his mark.

HARRIS: It's fantastic. It's great. I've been, you know, interested in birds my whole life and always dreamed of finding a new species. So it's a point of pride for sure.

JOYCE: Harris says the bird apparently is not in danger of losing its preferred habitat - a cacao plantation, grown there to supply the world's increasing demand for chocolate. Christopher Joyce, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Christopher Joyce is a correspondent on the science desk at NPR. His stories can be heard on all of NPR's news programs, including NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition.