'Lone Ranger' Bird Flies Remote Forest

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The animal kingdom has a new member on record, a recently discovered bird that sports a Lone Ranger-type black mask, but with flashy feathers over the rest of its body.

The bird, a kind of barbet that was named Capito fitzpatricki, was discovered in a remote Peruvian Andes cloud forest. It is described in detail in The Auk, the official publication of the American Ornithologists’ Union.

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Also known as Sira Barbet, the colorful bird spends much of its time eating fruit in its high elevation home. Avian fanciers from now on should have no trouble distinguishing it from other birds, due to its vivid scarlet breast band and head stripe. The white contrast and just a hint of yellow are proof of nature's more fashionable side (although form usually follows function where evolution is concerned).

Cornell University graduates, led by Michael G. Harvey, discovered the bird as they were exploring the Peruvian Andes. Jason Weckstein at The Field Museum in Chicago helped the Cornell team to compare mitochondrial DNA sequences of the new barbet to those of its close relatives in the same genus. This confirmed the suspicion that the Sira Barbet is indeed a brand new species, at least from our perspective.

While the black mask may give the bird a sneaky look, it doesn't help to hide the otherwise colorful avian much, which raises the question of why it had gone unnoticed for so long. My guess is that it took forever to find because of its remote location. The researchers, led by local expert guides, had to navigate steep ridges and deep river gorges in the Andes before they spotted the bird. Such areas produce many isolated habitats and microclimates that give rise to unique species.

The bird was named after Cornell Lab of Ornithology executive director John W. Fitzpatrick, who discovered and named seven new bird species in Peru during the 1970s and ’80s.

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“Fitz has inspired generations of young ornithologists in scientific discovery and conservation,” said study co-author Ben Winger, who was quoted in a press release. “He was behind us all the way when we presented our plan for this expedition.”

With a name like Winger, I hope a namesake bird is in Ben's future too.