Saturday, March 12, 2011

China: Wuyuan - Rare Birds and Ancient Trees

An ancient camphor tree (Cinnamomum camphora) is a magnificent thing - a view that has been shared by generations of Chinese, who have planted them outside their houses and around their villages, and protected them as they grew old. Not long ago, ornithologists discovered an unsuspected beneficiary of this practice. Groves of ancient camphor trees around villages near the city of Wuyuan in Jiangxi Province are apparently the only habitat left (except for an equally tiny area in southwest Yunnan) for one of the rarest birds in the world, the Blue-crowned or Courtois's Laughingthrush (Dryonastes courtoisi). 

The laughingthrush, only recently recognized as a full species, was the chief reason Zhang took me to Wuyuan, and certainly the reason we began our birding day - July 2, 2010 - in a camphor grove, across a river flowing behind a tiny traditional village.

As we crossed the river, we were eyed with curiosity by women washing their clothes on the bank -- about as far removed from the almost crazed bustle of Shanghai as one could imagine.

There were a number of more or less common birds in the grove; this is one of them, a Grey Treepie (Dendrocitta formosae), a species widespread in southern and southeastern Asia.

And then there were, as advertised, the laughingthrushes.  It was hard for me to believe that these birds, bold and noisy in their family groups, were not simply another common species, adapted to human-modified landscapes, and that there were not equally-bold parties of them behind every village for hundreds of miles around.  But, as far as we know now, there are only between 150 and 160 Courtois's Laughingthrushes left in the world, in perhaps 20 loose colonies.

Why are they so rare?  I don't know, and I'm not sure anybody else does either.  The bird actually went unseen by ornithologists between 1919 and 2000.  It seems, though, that the camphor groves protected by Wuyuan villagers have preserved a combination of habitat elements - low elevation, large trees, a nearby river - gone everywhere else in the region, but essential to the birds' strict requirements.  The Oriental Bird Club Bulletin article I have linked to at the beginning of this post pretty much sums up what we know (though it was written before courtoisi was recognized as a distinct species); I recommend reading it.

In the meantime, I will leave the bird as the hero of this short post.  It is sobering to think that Courtois's Laughingthrush may owe its continued existence to the Chinese people - as does, for instance, Père David's Deer (Elaphurus davidianus), a much more famous endangered species that survives only because a herd was kept in the Imperial Hunting Park, the private property of the Emperor of China.  Given what is happening to the environment in much of the rest of China, it would be nice to think that Chinese conservationists will yet prevail, and that the ancient traditions that have preserved the laughingthrush might one day reassert themselves more widely and save still more of China's considerable wildlife heritage.

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