Monday, May 13, 2013

The Bare-throated Whistler

A songbird that has recently interested me greatly is the Bare-throated Whistler.  It is endemic to the area in Indonesia known as Nusa Tenggara, or Lesser Sunda Straits.  This area comprises many small islands north of Australia, between the islands of New Guinea and Bali. One of these islands is Flores on which the BTW thrives but the Lesser Sunda Straits also include the islands of Komodo, Rinca and Padar that are part of the Komodo National Park where the Komodo Dragon lives. By-the-way, the name "Flores" is from the Portuguese Copa de Flores, or Island of Flowers.

The habitat of the BTW is relatively small, occupying a total area of about 20,000 sq km spread over many islands.  The species is classified by CITES as Least Concern.  Recently, though, some BTWs have begun to appear in the "pasar burung" or bird markets and if their popularity increases (which is likely as hobbyists get to know their marvellous song), they could become endangered in time.

The Lesser Sunda Straits have a dry tropical climate with the higher slopes of the islands having deciduous forests with tall conifers.  The BTW inhabits these forested hilly areas up to 5,000 ft.  I came across several Indonesian texts that mention that the birds occupying the area below 1,400 ft are not as good songsters as those above 1,400 ft.  Apparently, the repertoire of the birds that live higher up the mountains may be 40% more than those living below 1,400 ft.

Consider this. At sea level, the climate of the Lesser Sunda Straits is tropical.  Then, for every 1,000 ft above sea level, there is an approximate drop in temperature of 2.1 degrees centigrade.  At 1,400 ft, the difference in temperature from sea level is about 3 degrees C.  At 5,000 ft, we are in the temperate zone.

The climatic temperature of the hilly region where the BTW is found, therefore varies from tropical to temperate.  Apparently, the birds in the temperate zone sing better than those in the tropical.  I have provided below, a YouTube video of a singing BTW.  It is an exceptional songster.  Judging from the condensed breath emanating from its beak, which suggests cold, and the tropical plants near it, I would think that this particular bird's habitat is above 1,400 ft.  There are many differences in the singing ability of the BTWs in the YouTube videos and their habitat may be a main factor causing the difference.

I first came across a reference to the BTW in an article that described it as the Flores Nightingale.  It seemed to me that a bird whose song is comparable to that of the Nightingale, which is so highly prized in the western hemisphere, deserves further investigation.  I should say that the song of the BTW is nowhere similar to that of the nightingale. It is a better mimic and has a more varied song.  In fact, the songs and the birds ability to imitate, are more akin to that of the amazing Australian Lyre bird.

I researched and read all the articles that I could get my hands on in English and Indonesian on the internet and listened to many recordings of the BTW's song on YouTube and mp3, to try to learn as much as I could about the bird and its song, diet and the care that it requires. This post represents almost all the information that I was able to gather on the BTW but I cannot vouch for the accuracy and some of it may be more myth than fact.

In Indonesia, the BTW is popularly known as Burung Samyong.  When enquiring about the bird in the pasar burungs, this is the name to use.  In the Lesser Sunda Straits, the name by which the BTW is known is Burung Garugiwa.  When making an internet, or You Tube search for the BTW, type the words "bare-throated whistler", "samyong" and "garugiwa" to obtain the most useful results.

The BTW belongs to the family of birds known as Whistlers.  These include the Golden Whister which inhabits Australia and the Mangrove Whistler; birds that are known for their songs.  What little I know, suggests that the BTW outshines all other whistlers in their singing ability.

I understand an older name for the Whistlers is "Thickheads". The BTW certainly has a large head and a strong beak.  It is a somewhat stocky bird of about 6 ½” to 7” of which 1/3 comprises the tails.  It is about the size of a Golden Oriole or 2/3rds the size of a common mynah. 

The name Bare-throated Whistler at once brings to mind that the bird has no feathers in the area of the throat.  However, this is deceiving.  When you first see a bird that is not singing,  you will not see any bare throat. The entire head and neck forming a collar at the breast are closely covered with black feathers.  The lower parts of the bird are olive while the wings and upper body are a darker green while the tails are black, but a lighter shade than the head.

The red wattle, or the patch of red skin at the throat only becomes visible when the bird is in full song.  It then stretches its neck while it belts out its song and this exposes the bright red skin of the neck which slightly balloons as it throbs with song.

The female BTW is a drab light green color in contrast to the male's quite bright colors set off by the wattle at his throat.  The female does not have a wattle. The species is dimorphic which means that the sexes are clearly distinguished by their different colouring.

During courtship the female will answer the male's song with her own.  The nest is cup-shaped and made up of twigs, bark and leaves.  The incubation period is about 15 days.

In one description of the songs of the BTW, the singing of a pair was described as "anamorphic",  suggesting that when the pair sing to each other during courtship, it may be difficult to place the exact source of the song. Perhaps it is this trait and the fact that the bird is often heard but seldom seen in the wild that has given rise to the belief among some, that the bird is a spirit.

The song of the BTW has been described as deafening at close range.  It is certainly much louder than that of the shama.  Unlike the song of the shama which often has stretches of melody, the song of the BTW is more a series of loud whistles that are strung together for several notes before changing to a different type of whistle.

A comment on the BTW that I found on an Indonesian blog mentions that a caged bird sings much better than a BTW in the wild.  Another comment that I found was that the bird sings most between 8pm and 10 pm. I guess, the writer meant am and not pm.

The BTW is a good imitator and it tends to mimic the sounds that it hears and incorporate the sounds into its songs.  Here is a video of a bird that has incorporated the sound of a car alarm into its song:

The song of the BTW is diverse and melodious with sounds that it has heard forming part of its songs. It is such a good mimic that it will readily learn and incorporate sounds into its songs that we may not find to be pleasant. For instance, it will quite realistically imitate the mewing of a cat.  Being such a good imitator, the bird in the home will need to be kept away from unpleasant sounds.

Here is a video of a BTW that has incorporated a car alarm, cock crowing and cat mewing into its songs:

The song of the BTW is apparently within the same pitch as the song of the white-rumped shama and the shama will readily imitate the BTW.  In fact, the recorded song of the BTW will excite the shama like no other bird song. What would be interesting would be to keep the BTW and the shama within earshot of each other for an extended period to see the extent to which each will incorporate the song of the other into its repertoire and what the resulting song turns out to be.

The BTWs are insectivorous.  In captivity, they should be fed a diet similar to the shama.  The pelleted food that we feed our shamas should also be suitable for the BTW once they are converted to such food. My experience with the shama suggests that in captivity, their main diet should be pellets with live food at the end of the day.  The reason for this suggestion is that the farm bred crickets and mealworms that form the main live food for our birds seem to lack sufficient vitamin B with the consequence that the BTW, like the shama, may suffer from vitamin B deficiency with resulting fits, if they are fed solely on this type of live food.


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    thank you