Birds in Bagan
Ashy woodswallows (Artamus fuscus), gathered on their night roost on the spire of a pagoda. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
White-throated babbler (Argya gularis) is common in Bagan. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Male purple sunbird (Cinnyris asiaticus), feeding in flowers of a species of lion’s ear, Leonotis nepetifolia. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
A huge area around the town of Bagan, central Myanmar, is dotted with the remains of c. 2,200 Theravada Buddhist pagodas and temples, of which the major part lie in ruins. During the height of the Bagan Kingdom, between the 11th and 13th Centuries, more than 10,000 temples, pagodas, and monasteries were built in this area.
Bagan is situated on the shore of a branch of the largest river in Myanmar, the mighty Ayeyarwadi, in the British colonial time known as Irrawaddy. The habitat in this area is dry shrubland, dominated by acacias and a cactus-like species of spurge, Euphorbia antiquorum.
During a visit to Bagan in 2007, Judy and I stayed in a charming hotel in the centre of the shrubland, and we found the area so pleasant that we stayed here for more than two weeks. We spent the time walking around in the shrubland, occasionally resting at the shore of the Ayeyarwadi, or in the shade, provided by the many pagodas. During our stay, I succeded in taking pictures of a large part of the local bird species.
The text below is largely based on the website Wikipedia, the etymology often on The Helm Dictionary of Scientific Bird Names. Systematics and nomenclature follow the IOC World Bird List (worldbirdnames.org).
Columbidae Pigeons and doves
A large family with about 50 genera and c. 345 species. The word pigeon generally denotes larger species, dove smaller species. These birds are found on all continents except Antarctica.
A rather large genus with about 35 species, widely distributed in the Old World. Previously, a number of American pigeons were placed in this genus, but they have been moved to a separate genus, Patagioenas.
The generic name is Latin, meaning ‘dove’, the feminine form of columbus (‘male dove’), a Latinized version of the Greek kolumbos (‘diver’). This name was applied by Greek comic-writer Aristophanes (c. 446-386 B.C.) to the common rock pigeons, due to the ‘swimming’ motion made by their wings in flight.
Columba livia Rock pigeon
Wild populations of this bird have a patchy distribution from the Mediterranean and northern Africa eastwards to Sinkiang, India, and Sri Lanka, with disjunct populations on several Atlantic island groups, and in Ireland and Scotland.
However, the species was domesticated at an early stage, and numerous forms are found in most parts of the world, including feral pigeons, which often form huge populations in cities around the world.
This rock pigeon, sitting on the rail around the Lawkananda Pagoda, has a plumage like the wild form, and it may be either wild or feral. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Accipitridae Hawks, eagles, and allies
A huge family, comprising about 66 genera and c. 250 species of small to large raptors, distributed worldwide, with the exception of Antarctica.
The family name is derived from the Latin accipiter (‘hawk’), from accipere (‘to grasp’), naturally alluding to the sharp talons.
Elanus Small kites
Members of this genus, comprising 4 quite similar species of small white, grey, and black raptors, are distributed throughout the globe, except in Antarctica. The generic name is a Latinized form of the Ancient Greek elanos (‘kite’).
Elanus caeruleus Black-winged kite
This bird has a very wide distribution, found in all of sub-Saharan Africa, in north-western Africa, the Iberian Peninsula, France, the Nile Valley of Egypt, at several locations throughout the Middle East, from the entire Indian Subcontinent eastwards to southern China and Taiwan, and thence southwards through Southeast Asia to Indonesia and New Guinea.
Black-winged kites, scanning the surroundings from pagoda spires. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
A genus of about 28 species, distributed on all continents, except Australia and Antarctica. In the Old World, these birds are known as buzzards, whereas the word hawk is often used in North America. The generic name is the classical Latin name of the common buzzard (below).
Buteo buteo Common buzzard
This species, in its broadest sense, is distributed from western Europe eastwards to Kamchatka and Japan. However, some authorities regard eastern populations as two separate species, the eastern buzzard (B. japonicus) and the Himalayan buzzard (B. refectus).
Common buzzard, subspecies japonicus or refectus, soaring over Bagan. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Strigidae Typical owls
A large family with 25 genera and nearly 220 species. They are found on all continents, except Antarctica.
This genus, containing 9 species, is found on all continents, with the exception of Australia and Antarctica. In Greek mythology, the little owl (A. noctua) represented or accompanied Athene, the virgin goddess of wisdom. Because of this association, owls were often regarded as a symbol of knowledge and wisdom in the West.
Athene brama Spotted owlet
This small owl breeds in Asia, distributed from south-eastern Iran across the Indian Subcontinent to Southeast Asia. It is quite common in open habitats, including farmland, and has also adapted to living in cities.
Judging from the smudges of dung, this spotted owlet often uses this ruined wall as a perch. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Spotted owlet, resting in an acacia. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
This is a small family, containing 3 genera and 27 species of medium-sized, insect-eating birds, most of which are found in Africa and Asia, with a few in southern Europe, Australia, and New Guinea. They are characterised by having a curved bill, a slender body, and usually a long tail, and many are gorgeously coloured.
The vast majority of bee-eaters, about 24 species, are placed in this genus.
The generic name is the Classical Greek name of the European bee-eater (M. apiaster). Originally it meant ‘endowed with speech’, used in poetry to describe articulated people who ‘divided voices’, from meros (‘portion’) and ops (‘voice’). (Source: en.wiktionary.org)
Merops orientalis Green bee-eater
This species, sometimes called little green bee-eater, is widely distributed across sub-Saharan Africa and in the Nile Valley, in western Arabia, and from southern Iran across the Indian Subcontinent to Vietnam. It lives in grassland, shrubland, and open forest.
About 9 subspecies have been named. Some authorities regard the African birds as a separate species, M. viridissimus.
Green bee-eater. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Green bee-eaters, gathered on their night roost in an acacia. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Falconidae Falcons and caracaras
This family, counting about 60 species, is divided into 3 subfamilies, Herpetotherinae (laughing falcon and forest falcons), Polyborinae (caracaras and Spiziapteryx), and Falconinae (typical falcons and falconets).
Falco Typical falcons
The largest genus of the family, comprising about 40 species. It is widely distributed on all continents, except Antarctica. The generic name is derived from the Latin falx, or falcis (‘sickle’), referring to the claws.
Falco jugger Laggar falcon
This large falcon occurs from south-eastern Iran and south-eastern Afghanistan across the Indian Subcontinent to north-western Myanmar. It used to be fairly common, but numbers have declined drastically in recent times.
Adult laggar falcon, scanning the surroundings from a spiny spurge, Euphorbia antiquorum. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Artamidae Woodswallows and allies
Formerly, woodswallows proper constituted a separate family. However, following genetic studies, the Australian magpie, butcherbirds, and currawongs have been included in the family, which today contains 6 genera with about 24 species.
A genus with 11 species, distributed in southern Asia, New Guinea, and Australia. The generic name is derived from Ancient Greek artamos (‘butcher’ or ‘murderer’), applied due to the alleged similarity of these birds to shrikes (see Laniidae below). The name swallow-shrike is still occasionally used.
Artamus fuscus Ashy woodswallow
This bird has a spotty distribution in the Indian Subcontinent and Southeast Asia. It is often perched in groups in bare trees or on powerlines. It is quite common in the Bagan area.
Ashy woodswallows, gathered on their night roost on the spire of a pagoda. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
A small family with only a single genus, Aegithina, comprising 4 species, found in the Indian Subcontinent and Southeast Asia. Formerly, they were placed with leafbirds and fairy-bluebirds in the family Irenidae.
Aegithina tiphia Common iora
This small bird is distributed in warmer areas of the Indian Subcontinent and Southeast Asia. I noticed only a few in Bagan.
Common iora, feeding in a spurge, Euphorbia antiquorum. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Campephagidae Cuckooshrikes and allies
Members of this family are small to medium-sized passerines, found in subtropical and tropical regions of Africa, Asia, and New Guinea. The family has about 93 species, divided into 11 genera.
These birds are not closely related to cuckoos or shrikes. The name may refer to the grey colour of many cuckooshrikes, which makes them superficially resemble cuckoos.
A genus with about 15 species, found in forests from eastern Iran and Afghanistan eastwards across the Indian Subcontinent to China and Ussuriland in south-eastern Siberia, and thence southwards through Japan, Taiwan, Southeast Asia, and the Philippines to Indonesia.
Several of the species are very colourful, the males being predominantly red and black, the females yellow and black. Other members of the genus are presented on the pages In praise of the colour orange, and Animals – Birds: Birds in Taiwan.
Pericrocotus albifrons Jerdon’s minivet
This bird is restricted to Myanmar, where it lives in dry deciduous forests. The male can be told from the female by its orange-red chest spot. Many authorities regard this species as a subspecies of the white-bellied minivet (P. erythropygius), which has a patchy distribution in India.
The popular name commemorates British physician and naturalist Thomas Caverhill Jerdon (1811-1872) who described many birds species in India, several of which are named after him.
Male Jerdon’s minivet. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Shrikes are a group of striking passerines, which perch on trees, bushes, poles, or wires, scanning the surroundings for small prey, such as beetles, dragonflies, bees, lizards, and mice. They constitute a small family with 33 species in 4 genera, mainly distributed in Eurasia and Africa, with one species reaching New Guinea, and 2 in North America.
Previously, the family was much larger, encompassing bushshrikes, puffbacks, tchagras, boubous, and helmetshrikes. However, genetic research has shown that these groups are not closely related to shrikes. As a consequence, bushshrikes, puffbacks, tchagras, and boubous have been moved to the family Malaconotidae, helmetshrikes to the family Vangidae.
Lanius Typical shrikes
The major part of the 29 species of this genus occur in Eurasia and Africa. The great grey shrike (L. excubitor) has a circumpolar distribution, and the loggerhead shrike (L. ludovicianus) is confined to North America.
The generic name is derived from the Latin lanio (‘butcher’), referring to the habit of some species of impaling their prey on thorns to be consumed later. The English name stems from Old English scric, alluding to their call. African species are known as fiscals, derived from Afrikaans fiskaal (a public official, especially a hangman), likewise alluding to the food-storing habit.
Lanius collurioides Burmese shrike
This bird is distributed from Bangladesh and eastern India eastwards across Indochina to southern China, living in forests and shrubland. It is quite common in the Bagan area.
Male Burmese shrike in morning sun. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Male Burmese shrike, perched in an acacia with withered leaves. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Corvidae Crows and allies
This almost cosmopolitan family, which constitute the largest passerines, contains 24 genera with more than 120 species of ravens, crows, rooks, jackdaws, jays, magpies, treepies, choughs, nutcrackers, and others.
Corvus Ravens, crows, rooks
A genus with about 45 members, found in virtually all temperate areas of the globe, with the exception of South America. The name raven applies to the largest species, crow and rook to slightly smaller species. The generic name is the classical Latin word for raven. Members of this genus are among the most intelligent birds.
Previously, jackdaws were also placed in this genus, but following genetic research, they have been moved to a separate genus, Coloeus.
Corvus splendens House crow
This bird is native from southern Iran eastwards across the entire Indian Subcontinent to the western parts of Indochina. However, it has been spread to several coastal areas around the world, arriving as ‘blind’ passengers on board ships. It is regarded as an invasive species in eastern Africa, and measures are taken to eradicate it. In Australia, an eradication program has until now been successful.
House crows, resting on the rail around the Lawkananda Pagoda. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
This family contains 21 genera with about 100 species, distributed in Africa and Eurasia, with a single species reaching the Americas, and Australia, respectively.
As of today, this genus contains about 24 species, distributed in sub-Saharan Africa, southern parts of Asia, and Australia. Following genetic studies, many other former members of the genus have been moved to other genera.
Mirafra microptera Burmese bushlark
This bird is endemic to central Myanmar, where it is locally common, including in the Bagan area. Formerly, it was regarded as a subspecies of the widespread Bengal bushlark (M. assamica).
Burmese bushlarks, perched on a fence. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
This Burmese bushlark is feeding on the ground. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Pycnonotidae Bulbuls and allies
This is a family of medium-sized passerines, encompassing 27 genera with c. 150 species. They are distributed in much of Africa, and across the Middle East to Tropical Asia and Indonesia, and thence northwards to Japan.
Sub-Saharan members of the family, called greenbuls, brownbuls, leafloves, and bristlebills, are mainly forest birds, whereas the majority of Asian species, and some African species, live in open areas.
Several species are described on the page Animals – Birds: Birds in Taiwan.
Pycnonotus Typical bulbuls
Members of this genus, comprising about 32 species, are widely distributed in Africa, and from the Middle East across the Indian Subcontinent to southern China and Taiwan, and thence southwards to Indonesia.
The generic name is derived from Ancient Greek pyknos (‘thick’ or ‘compact’) and notos (‘-backed’), applied in 1826 by German zoologist and lawyer Friedrich Boie (1789-1870), who described many new species and several new genera of birds. He and his brother Heinrich also described about 50 new species of reptiles. Presumably, Boie found that these birds were quite compact.
Pycnonotus blanfordi Ayeyarwady bulbul
Previously, this bulbul was known as streak-eared bulbul. However, in 2016, birds of central Myanmar were split to form a separate species, the Ayeyarwady bulbul, named for the Ayeyarwady River. It lives in forest and shrubland.
The name streak-eared bulbul is now used for birds with the Latin name P. conradi, which has a wider distribution in Indochina.
Ayeyarwady bulbuls. The bird in the centre picture is feeding on drying fruits of Indian jujube (Ziziphus mauritiana), the one in the lower picture on boiled rice. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Pycnonotus cafer Red-vented bulbul
A very common breeding bird in Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Myanmar. It has been introduced to many other parts of the world and has become invasive in several Pacific countries, including Fiji, Samoa, Tonga, and Hawaii. It has also established itself in parts of southern Arabia, New Zealand, the United States, and Argentina. It is considered to be among the world’s one hundred worst invasive species. (Source: Lowe et al. 2000. 100 of the World’s Worst Invasive Species: A Selection from the Global Invasive Species Database. The Invasive Species Specialist Group, IUCN)
This red-vented bulbul is sitting in a spurge, Euphorbia antiquorum, in front of a pagoda. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Paradoxornithidae Parrotbills and allies
Parrotbills proper are a group of peculiar passerines with thick bills, an adaptation to feeding on hard-shelled seeds. At an early stage, mainly due to their acrobatic habits and their superficial likeness to long-tailed tits (Aegithalos), these birds were placed in the tit family (Paridae), to which the long-tailed tits then belonged. Later studies found that parrotbills were not at all related to tits, and, together with the bearded reedling (Panurus biarmicus), they were moved to a separate family, Paradoxornithidae (‘paradoxical birds’), which was placed near the timalids (Timaliidae). The bearded reedling has since been moved to a family of its own, Panuridae.
Recent genetic research has had the effect that a number of birds, which were previously placed in Timaliidae, have been moved to Paradoxornithidae, including Chrysomma (below). Today, the family contains about 16 genera with c. 37 species of small to medium-sized birds.
Previously, this genus was placed in the family Timaliidae. Today, it contains only two species, both restricted to warmer areas of Asia. A third species, the rufous-tailed babbler, has been moved to the monotypic genus Moupinia.
Chrysomma sinense Yellow-eyed babbler
This species is distributed from Pakistan through most of India, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh to Southeast Asia and southern China. It lives in grasslands, shrubberies, and cultivated areas, mainly on the plains, but also in lower hills up to an elevation of c. 1,200 m.
Yellow-eyed babbler. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Leiothrichidae Babblers and allies
Most larger babblers are now placed in this family, together with laughing-thrushes of the genera Garrulax, Trochalopteron, Pterorhinus, and Grammatoptila, sibias (Heterophasia), liocichlas (Liocichla), minlas (Minla), barwings (Actinodura), leiothrixes (Leiothrix), and others.
In the past, these genera all belonged to the family Timaliidae, which constituted a true ‘waste-bin of systematics’, in which hundreds of bird species were placed. Today, most of these species have been moved to other families.
A genus of 16 species, distributed across Africa and southern Asia. The majority are medium-sized, long-tailed birds, which forage in noisy groups. They were formerly placed in the genera Turdoides or Garrulax, but following a phylogenetic study in 2018, they were moved to the resurrected genus Argya, which was erected in 1831 by French surgeon and naturalist René Lesson (1794-1849). The generic name is derived from the Latin argutus (‘noisy’).
Argya gularis White-throated babbler
This species, which was formerly placed in the genus Turdoides, is endemic to Myanmar. It is very common in the Bagan area.
White-throated babblers. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Preening white-throated babblers. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Sturnidae Starlings and mynas
Starlings and mynas constitute a family of about 118 species of medium-sized passerines, divided into c. 30 genera. Their natural area of distribution includes Europe, Africa, Asia, northern Australia, and some Pacific islands. Many species have been introduced elsewhere, including North America, Hawaii, and New Zealand. They often compete with native birds, and many are regarded as invasive species, in North America especially the common starling (Sturnus vulgaris), which is dealt with on the page Nature: Invasive species.
A genus with 10 species, found from Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Iran eastwards to China and Taiwan, southwards to Sri Lanka and Indonesia.
The generic name is derived from Ancient Greek akridos (‘locust’) and theras (‘hunter’). When locusts or grasshoppers are abundant, starlings and mynas gorge themselves on these insects. An example is described on the page People: Pehr Forsskål – brilliant Swedish scientist.
Acridotheres burmannicus Vinous-breasted starling
This species is distributed in Indochina and the Yunnan Province of China. It is quite common in the Bagan area.
Previously, it was placed in the genus Sturnus, and some authorities still regard it as belonging to that genus.
Vinous-breasted starlings (and a single common myna), perched in an acacia. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Acridotheres tristis Common myna, Indian myna
This bird is native to Asia, distributed from Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and eastern Iran eastwards across the Indian Subcontinent and Southeast Asia to south-western China, and thence southwards to Singapore. It is common in Myanmar.
The common myna was originally a woodland bird, but has adapted very well to agricultural as well as urban environments. Escaped cage birds have established populations in numerous other countries, including South Africa, Madagascar, several Arabian states, Japan, Taiwan, Indonesia, Australia, and New Zealand.
In many places, it has become a pest, which expels native birds, especially in Australia, where it has been called “a most important problem”. The IUCN Species Survival Commission has declared it one of the world’s most invasive species and a threat to “biodiversity, agriculture, and human interests”.
Common myna, resting atop the spire of a pagoda. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Muscicapidae Old World flycatchers
Genetic research has revealed that many smaller birds, which were formerly regarded as belonging to the thrush family (Turdidae), are in fact flycatchers. Today, the family includes about 51 genera with c. 324 species, widely distributed in Africa and Eurasia. The family name is derived from the Latin musca (‘a fly’) and capere (‘to catch’).
Saxicola Bushchats, stonechats
A genus of 15 species of insectivorous birds, distributed in the major part of Eurasia, Africa, and Madagascar. They live in open shrubberies and grasslands.
The generic name is derived from the Latin saxum (‘rock’) and incola (‘dwelling among’), alluding to the preferred habitat of the type species, the common stonechat (Saxicola torquatus).
Saxicola caprata Pied bushchat
A very widespread species, found in open areas from Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and eastern Iran eastwards across the Indian Subcontinent to Southeast Asia, and also in the Philippines, the Indonesian Archipelago, and New Guinea. About 16 subspecies are recognized.
It is sexually dimorphic, males being largely black, with white lower belly, rump, and undertail coverts, and a white wingpatch, whereas females are mainly reddish-brown, with white throat and undertail coverts, and a black tail.
Female pied bushchat, perched in an acacia. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Together with spiderhunters (Arachnothera), sunbirds constitute a family with about 145 species. Formerly, most sunbirds were lumped in the genus Nectarinia, which has since been divided into 15 genera.
With their downward-curved bills, these colourful birds are adapted to feed on nectar (hence the name of the family), but they also eat fruit, insects, and spiders. Although they resemble the hummingbirds of the Americas, these two groups are entirely unrelated, the resemblance being an example of convergent evolution.
Africa holds a bewildering array of sunbirds, and a large number of species are also found from the Middle East across the Indian Subcontinent to Southeast Asia, southern China, Indonesia, New Guinea, and northern Australia.
A genus with about 56 species, widely distributed in Africa and Asia.
Cinnyris asiaticus Purple sunbird
This bird is distributed from Oman and southern Iran eastwards across the entire Indian Subcontinent to Southeast Asia. It is very common in the Bagan area.
Male purple sunbird, feeding in flowers of a species of lion’s ear, Leonotis nepetifolia. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Passeridae Old World sparrows, snowfinches
As the family name implies, these birds, comprising about 43 species in 8 genera, are restricted to the Old World. They are not closely related to the New World sparrows, which belong to the family Passerellidae. When the European settlers arrived in America, these birds reminded them of the sparrows back home, so they named them ‘sparrows’.
Despite their name, snowfinches of the genera Montifringilla, Onychostruthus, and Pyrgilauda are not finches, but members of the sparrow family.
Passer Typical sparrows
A genus of about 28 species, widely distributed in Africa and Eurasia. The generic name is the Latin word for sparrows.
Passer flaveolus Pegu sparrow
This bird, also known as plain-backed sparrow, is restricted to Southeast Asia and the Malacca Peninsula. It is very common in the Bagan area.
The specific name is Latin, meaning ‘yellowish’, alluding to the yellowish cheeks and underparts of the male. The name Pegu refers to a city in southern Myanmar, which was the capital of a united Burma in the 16th Century.
Pegu sparrows in a spurge, Euphorbia antiquorum. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Motacillidae Wagtails, pipits, and longclaws
This family contains 6 or 7 genera with altogether c. 65 species. Wagtails and pipits are found in most parts of the planet, whereas the colourful longclaws are restricted to Tropical Africa.
Most pipits have a rather drab plumage, mainly brown with darker streaks, an adaptation to their feeding among grass or on bare soil. They constitute a rather large genus, comprising between 34 and 46 species, distributed in all parts of the globe, except Antarctica.
Anthus rufulus Paddyfield pipit
At 15 cm, the paddyfield pipit, also known as oriental pipit, is among the largest of pipits. It is resident in open grassland, shrubland, and cultivation, from Afghanistan and the Indian Subcontinent eastwards to Southeast Asia, the Philippines, and the major part of Indonesia.
The taxonomy of this species is complex. Some of the presently 6 recognized subspecies were formerly treated as subspecies of the Australasian pipit (A. novaeseelandiae), and some authorities regard it as a subspecies of Richard’s pipit (A. richardi).
Paddyfield pipit. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
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