The kinkimavo (top) and bristle-head (bottom)
Just because a species has been formally named and described doesn't mean to say that it is no longer mysterious. Both of the birds documented in this present ShukerNature blog post were scientifically recognised during the 1800s, yet remain as ornithologically controversial and generally obscure today as they were back then – but they have fascinated and tantalised me ever since childhood.
I owe my abiding love and knowledge of birdlife to two truly wonderful books that were bought for me by my family when I was a child, and which I still own today. Both were very big and both were exquisitely illustrated throughout in full colour. The first of these life-changing volumes, which I received when I was around 5 years old, was The Colourful World of Birds, written by Jean Dorst, filled with lavish paintings by Pierre Probst, and published in 1963 by Paul Hamlyn of London. Its many chapters were themed around habitat, behaviour, nesting and breeding, migration, and interactions with humans. Although aimed primarily at older children, its contents were detailed and highly informative, and introduced me to such avian marvels as the quetzal, dodo, megapodes, birds of paradise, hummingbirds, and which kinds of birds were to be found in which types of habitat.
My much-treasured copy of The Colourful World of Birds (Dr Karl Shuker)
When I was about 8 years old, I received the second epochal bird book, which was a truly magnificent, sumptuously-illustrated tome entitled Birds of the World. First published in 1961 and once again by Paul Hamlyn of London, it was written by Oliver L. Austin Jr, and was packed with countless spectacular paintings by Arthur Singer. Even today, it remains one of the most beautiful bird books ever published, as well as a classic, milestone work within the ornithological literature – and for me, this enormous book (which seemed almost as big as I was on that fateful day when I first laid eyes upon it in Beatties department store in Wolverhampton, West Midlands) was love at first sight! When my mother took pity on my forlorn face after we discovered that this wondrous publication was priced at what was in those days a veritable king's ransom for a book – 5 guineas!! (£5.25 in decimal currency) – and bought it for me anyway, I was rendered speechless with delight, and hugged it closely to me throughout our journey back home on the bus.
Birds of the World, the magnificent book that opened my eyes to the equally sumptuous diversity of bird life sharing our planet (Dr Karl Shuker)
It is no exaggeration to say that Birds of the World transformed and expanded my knowledge concerning the taxonomy and diversity of birds to a degree not even remotely approached by any other publication that I have ever read since. For whereas the contents of The Colourful World of Birds were divided into the various thematic categories noted above, Birds of the World was a comprehensive taxonomic survey of our world's avifauna, presenting each taxonomic order in turn and within it each family, accompanied by gorgeous illustrations of representative species from every one, with over 700 species illustrated in total. Moreover, whereas The Colourful World of Birds only included common names, Birds of the World also presented the scientific binomial name for every species illustrated (as well as for many that were only referred to in the text).
Suddenly, my young brain was ablaze with images and facts concerning previously unfamiliar, highly exotic, and frequently multicoloured birds from every corner of the globe, often with strange names and even stranger life histories. Over countless re-readings of this magical book, I familiarised myself with the likes of peppershrikes and bellmagpies, tyrant flycatchers and false sunbirds, currawongs and curassows, todies and tropic-birds, ioras and o-os, tinamous and tapaculos, jacamars, frogmouths, puffbirds, vangas, spiderhunters, umbrellabirds, kagus, greenlets, drongos, phainopeplas, hemipodes, mesites, and much much more – including the kinkimavo and the bristle-head.
Their odd-sounding names alone would have been enough to incite my curiosity, but this curiosity was heightened by the facts that little seemed to be known about either of them, that both of them had long perplexed ornithologists concerning their taxonomic affinities, and that neither of them was illustrated nor even described morphologically in what had become my veritable bible of ornithology, Birds of the World.
Today, I could have readily sought information and illustrations concerning these birds online. Back in the 1960s and right up to the late 1990s, conversely, the pre-Internet world in which I lived presented much greater difficulties in obtaining data concerning two such obscure species, especially during my childhood and teenage pre-university years. And so, for a long time I remained tantalised and tormented in equal measures by the sparse details provided by Birds of the World in relation to the kinkimavo and the bristle-head.
Arthur Singer's glorious painting of three Old World oriole species, from Birds of the World (Arthur Singer)
Indeed, its account of the kinkimavo was no more than a single line at the bottom of p. 222, ending the section devoted to Oriolidae, the passerine family housing the Old World orioles and figbirds. It read as follows:
"Also classified tentatively with the orioles is the little-known Kinkimavo (Tylas) of the Madagascan forests."
And this is what it stated on p. 275 concerning the bristle-head, constituting the final paragraph in the section on Sturnidae, the starling family:
"Placed tentatively with the starlings as a third subfamily, the Pityriasinae, is the rare and little-studied Bristle-head of Southern Borneo forests. Although it had long been classified with the helmet shrikes (p. 270) because of its peculiar head feathering, and sometimes placed in a family by itself, what little is known of the Bristle-head's behaviour and habits has led most students today to regard it as a highly aberrant starling."
During the decades that have passed since the publication of Birds of the World, avian taxonomy has experienced many revolutions, not least the dramatic changes postulated by genetic studies. These have, for instance, revealed hitherto-concealed affinities between such externally-dissimilar taxa as the New World birds of prey or cathartids and the storks, and led to the reclassification as flycatchers of a number of familiar species traditionally deemed to be thrushes (such as the European robin, nightingale, redstarts, and chats). Inevitably, such studies have also continued to engender speculation and dissension concerning the true taxonomic affinities of the kinkimavo and the bristle-head.
Thanks to the internet and access to all manner of specialist works during and since my university days, I was eventually able to flesh out the bare bones of information provided by Birds of the World for these twin birds of mystery, as well as to track down images of them. At last, the kinkimavo and bristle-head have emerged from the shadows of ornithological obscurity, unveiled for me in all their quirky but no less compelling glory. So here is what they look like, and what I have learnt about them.
1880s chromolithograph of the kinkimavo by celebrated Dutch bird artist John G. Keulemans, appearing in Histoire Physique, Naturelle et Politique de Madagascar, written by Alfred Grandidier and Alphonse Milne-Edwards (John G. Keulemans)
Let's begin with the kinkimavo, which was scientifically described on 13 May 1862 by German ornithologist Dr Gustav Hartlaub within the Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London (pp. 152-153). He formally dubbed it Tylas eduardi, in honour of its discoverer, Sir Edward Newton, who was, in Hartlaub's own words: "...a gentleman who has recently visited Madagascar, and whose zealous efforts have very materially forwarded our knowledge of the ornithology of the East-African archipelago". (For trivia fans: during his time as a colonial administrator in Mauritius from 1859 to 1877, Sir Edward was also the person who sent to England what became the type specimen of the dodo!) Its generic name, Tylas, was derived, somewhat oddly, from the Greek word 'Tulas', referring to a kind of thrush mentioned by ancient scholar Alexander Myndios, even though the kinkimavo bears scant (if any) resemblance to one. As for its unusual common name, this is one of several local names given to it by tribes sharing its Madagascan homeland.
Roughly 8 inches long, and the only member of its genus, the kinkimavo is a sedentary, insectivorous species that exists as two readily-distinguished subspecies. The nominative T. e. eduardi is the much more common form, and occurs in primary rainforest and sometimes adjacent second growth too in eastern Madagascar. However, T. e. albogularis, named after its characteristic white throat (and deemed by some researchers to warrant reclassification as a separate species in its own right), is much rarer, found only in certain local areas of dry forest and mangroves in western Madagascar.
The kinkimavo (Joseph Wolf, PZSL 1862)
As can be see from the above painting by acclaimed bird artist Joseph Wolf, which accompanied Hartlaub's original scientific description of its species in 1862, the kinkimavo is primarily very dark brown/black and white in colour, but with an orange tinge to its underparts and a grey-green tinge to its upperparts, upper wings, and tail. There is no notable sexual dimorphism, the breeding season extends through autumn, and into as far as January in the nominative subspecies, after which a small cup-shaped nest of leaves and moss is constructed high in a tree, and two eggs are laid in it.
As for the kinkimavo's taxonomic position: originally, it had been placed by Hartlaub within the bulbul family, Pycnogonidae, but it was subsequently reassigned to the orioles, as noted in Birds of the World. However, the current consensus is that like a number of other mystifying passerine species endemic to Madagascar, the kinkimavo is actually a vanga. Apart from one species that has extended its range into the nearby Comoro Islands, the vangas are found only in Madagascar, and constitute a little-known taxonomic family, Vangidae, that contains an extremely diverse assortment of species (which number twenty-two or thereabouts in total, depending upon which researcher is consulted!). The more conservative members are outwardly shrike-like, and in earlier days the vangas were deemed to be shrikes and thus were referred to as vanga-shrikes (as in Birds of the World). Certain others resemble and behave like warblers or babblers. However, they also include some much more extreme species.
1880s chromolithograph depicting a pair of sickle-billed vangas (John G. Keulemans)
Most notable among these are the sickle-billed vanga Falculea palliata, whose long curved beak is reminiscent of a wood-hoopoe's; and the extraordinary helmet vanga Euryceros prevostii, which sports a huge casque-bearing arched beak.
Helmet vanga portrayed on a Malagasy Republic postage stamp
Much less distinctive externally but extremely deceptive is what was once known as the coral-billed nuthatch but is now called the nuthatch vanga Hypositta corallirostris. On account of its great outward similarity to the nuthatches, this small grey bird with the bright red beak was long deemed to be one itself, but later studies exposed it as a vanga in disguise. And now the kinkimavo appears to be yet another member of this surprising bird family, and is thus frequently referred to lately as the tylas vanga (although to my mind this is a much clumsier, less memorable name than the infinitely more euphonious kinkimavo).
The vanga family's members, revealing their extreme morphological diversity (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences)
The vangas constitute an excellent example of adaptive radiation. They appear to have evolved from a single ancestral form that, after reaching Madagascar several million years ago, rapidly diversified in form to occupy via segregated speciation a number of vacant ecological niches present there. So dramatic is the degree of morphological radiation exhibited by the vangas (and especially by their range of beak shapes, mirroring their wide range of feeding preferences), in fact, that if Charles Darwin had chosen to visit Madagascar rather than the Galapagos islands, he would have encountered a far more elaborate example of evolutionary diversity with the vangas than the version exhibited by the Galapagos finches that inspired and shaped his Theory of Evolution.
And now to the second member of this ShukerNature post's pair of mainstream mystery birds: the Bornean bristle-head. This distinctive species was formally described even earlier than the kinkimavo, in 1835 by eminent Dutch zoologist Coenraad Jacob Temminck, who named it Barita gymnocephala. Four years later, it was assigned its own genus by French ornithologist René Primevère Lesson, and is now known formally as Pityriasis gymnocephala. Its generic name is actually a skin disease of the scalp, characterised by warts upon a bald head, and its specific name translates as 'bald-headed'; both names refer to this bird's partly-naked, warty-skinned head and the unusual but characteristic bristles borne upon it (see below).
Whereas the kinkimavo is demurely monochrome, the bristle-head is unabashedly gaudy. Roughly 10 inches long and sporting a massive hooked black beak, its sombre black/dark grey wings and body plumage contrasts markedly with the bright red hue of its head, neck, throat, and thighs, and its white wing patches, plus the very odd-looking skin projections or bristles, pale yellow in colour, that are present upon its naked, warty crown. These earn this species its common name, and resemble bare feather shafts.
A painting of the Bornean bristle-head from 1838
Endemic to the island of Borneo, the bristle-head is an uncommon species, categorised as Near Threatened by the IUCN, and is sparsely distributed throughout its lowland forests (primary and secondary) and mangrove swamps. It feeds upon large invertebrates, small vertebrates, and fruit, and often associates within the forest canopy in mixed flocks with a range of other bird species (as does the kinkimavo). Breeding behaviour is largely unknown, and only a single oviduct egg has ever been recorded with certainty from this mysterious bird.
As with the kinkimavo, the bristle-head's taxonomic status has generated much contention ever since its scientific description, but unlike the former bird's it still does so today. Over the years, it has been variously assigned to the helmet shrike family (Prionopidae), the woodswallow family (Artamidae), the crow family (Corvidae), the starling family (Sturnidae), and the Australian butcherbird and currawong family (Cracticidae). In 1951, Drs Ernst Mayr and Dean A. Amadon created a brand-new family especially for it, Pityriaseidae, in which most researchers still house it, albeit as much a placing of convenience than one of certainty. Most recently, however, there have been suggestions that this baffling bird should be rehoused in a new family, Tephrodornithidae, which contains the equally perplexing flycatcher-shrikes (genus Hemipus) and the woodshrikes (genus Tephrodornis).
Bearing in mind that the woodshrikes are also deemed to be closely allied to the vangas, this could actually mean that the bristle-head and the kinkimavo are themselves related – one final unexpected twist to the much-tangled taxonomy of these two little-known yet abidingly-fascinating avian enigmas.
Incidentally: as a teenager fired with enthusiasm for investigating all manner of cryptozoological and neo-cryptozoological subjects, I was rash enough one day to mention the kinkimavo to a group of friends. Its name caused much merriment and no shortage of ribald comments, not least of which was the enquiry from one friend as to who this kinky Mavo was, and where could he meet up with her? In view of this, I was thankful that I'd had the good sense not to mention the bristle-head!!
A slightly faded taxiderm specimen of the Bornean bristle-head (public domain)