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New bird on the block. A mature Pionopsitta aurantiocephala.

Bald Bird Discovery

Earth teems with undescribed beetles and bacteria, but it's rare to discover a new species of bird--much less a bald one. Brazilian researchers, however, say they've identified a new kind of parrot in the nation's Amazonian forests--one with an entirely bare, intensely orange head.

Renato Gaban-Lima and Marcos Raposo, graduate students at the University of São Paulo, Brazil, were collecting specimens in 1999 when they bagged several of the small (23-cm) green parrots. Other ornithologists had long ago judged the birds to be immature vulturine parrots (Pionopsitta vulturina), which have bare black heads as adults. But after a closer look, Gaban-Lima and his colleagues realized that several of their orange-headed specimens were already sexually mature. And they could find no immature vulturine parrots that showed any hint of orange. They also noticed that, in the wild, the orange-headed birds flocked together, rarely mingling with their supposedly black-headed elders.

So in the July issue of the ornithological journal The Auk, the scientists describe their parrot as a new species, named Pionopsitta aurantiocephala. Although they do not speculate about the function of the bare head, other parrot specialists suggest it could be to prevent fruit from sticking to the feathers.

The discovery "highlights that even in groups as well-known as birds we've just scratched the surface of what we really need to know about biodiversity," says avian systematist Shannon Hackett of Chicago's Field Museum, who calls the research "good detective work." Before the case is closed, though, Jamie Gilardi, director of the World Parrot Trust, would like to see genetic data mustered to support the species description.

Meanwhile, parrot expert Michael Parr of the American Bird Conservancy in The Plains, Virginia, worries that environmental threats may close the window on other new finds. For instance, the forests of the middle Tapajós and lower Madeira rivers, where the newly discovered bird lives, are fast falling to loggers and ranchers.

Related sites
Lexicon of Parrots, with information and pictures for most species
Description of the Madeira-Tapajós region, from WWF