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The Bird that Barks

An ornithologist discovers a curious new species high in the Ecuadorian Andes
It looks like a duck, but sure doesn't walk or talk like one: This new bird--a antpitta species--hops and, well, barks. Robert S. Ridgely, Director of the Center for Neotrpical Ornithology at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, announced the find on June 11.

Ridgely and fellow birder John Moore first heard the creature's canine cry last November as they trekked through the Andes in Southern Ecuador near the Podocarpus National Park. They were routinely recording bird sounds in the area when a barking noise stopped them in their tracks--at least momentarily. "What was that?" they both asked.

Ridgely
Image: ACADEMY OF NATURAL SCIENCES, PHILADELPHIA
FEATHERED FRIEND. Robert S. Ridgely met this new species of Antpitta on a hike through the Andes. It is one of the largest birds discovered within the past 50 years.

Half a mile later, Ridgely heard the call--a mix between a bark and a hoot--once more. He made a quick recording and played it back, hoping to lure the animal to him. The trick worked. Within seconds, the mystery bird landed some 25 feet away. It was clearly an antpitta--a class of notoriously secretive and nearly-flightless insect eaters from the forests of Latin America. But the bird bore many distinctive features.

Barking aside, it was large for its kind and had unique markings. Long bluish legs dangled beneath its gray belly and brown back, and its little black head bore a prominent white patch across the face. "No other antpitta has this pattern," Ridgely told the Philadephia Inquirer.

Ridgely--along with David Argo, the academy's collection manager, and Doug Wechsler, the academy's director for Vireo--returned to Ecuador last January to study and try to capture some of the birds. This was not easy task among moss-covered trees at an elevation of 11,000 feet. Even so, they gathered enough data to begin preparing a paper for peer review.

The ornithologists are holding off on naming the bird officially until its description appears in a scientific journal. (We'd suggest some variation on Antpitta avis canis Ridgely , but who knows what will happen when the taxonomists go into action.)

Ridgeley's antpitta is one of the largest birds discovered within the past 50 years. He suspects that it went undetected for so long because either it has a very small range or it barks only during a short breeding season. It may have been found in the nick of time: the bird's habitat is threatened by deforestation and Ridgely and others have now launched a campaign to raise enough money to buy the land on which the bird lives.

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