Straw-headed bulbul (Pycnonotus zeylanicus)

KingdomAnimalia
PhylumChordata
ClassAves
OrderPasseriformes
FamilyPycnonotidae
GenusPycnonotus (1)
SizeLength: 28 – 29 cm (2)
Weight80 – 93 g (2)

Classified as Vulnerable (VU) on the IUCN Red List (1) and listed on Appendix II of CITES (3).

With a reputation as the most melodious bird in Malaysia (4), the loud, bubbling song is the most noticeable feature of this bird (5), and also the reason behind its threatened status (1). The straw-headed bulbul is named for the golden-yellowish plumage on top of its head, which is made all the more prominent by the contrasting black stripes that run from the nostrils back through the red eye, and from the base of the black bill, backwards and downwards (2). Stiff, brush-like feathers on the forehead are tinged orangey-brown (2), and may be raised in excitement (4). The rest of the plumage is rather more dull, being brownish-grey streaked with ash-grey on the back, turning olive-green towards the tail, and whitish on the underparts, with greyish-brown mottling on the breast (2). Both the rounded tail and the wings are brown (2). Male and female straw-headed bulbuls are similar in appearance, while juveniles are duller with less prominent streaking (2).

The straw-headed bulbul occurs in Southeast Asia, where its range once extended from southern Myanmar and Peninsular Thailand, south through Peninsular Malaysia, Singapore, Sumatra and Java to Borneo (6). However, over the last two decades the range of this once common bird has been greatly reduced. It is now thought to be extinct in Thailand and Java, possibly also in Sumatra, whilst its status in Myanmar is unknown (6). Only in Peninsular Malaysia, Singapore and remote areas of Kalimantan (the Indonesian part of Borneo) are healthy populations thought to exist (6).

This noisy bird is most often found in low trees and shrubs along the banks of rivers and streams (2), within forest, plantations, gardens, scrubs, reedbeds and mangroves (6). The straw-headed bulbul is most common in lowlands, but has been recorded as high as 1,800 metres above sea level (2).

Usually found in small family groups of three to six individuals (2), the straw-headed bulbul feeds primarily on berries and other fruit, including mistletoe berries, figs and wild cherries (2). Bulbuls generally swallow fruits whole, passing out the seeds intact, and are therefore often considered to be important dispersers of seeds in the forests in which they occur (7). In addition to this frugivorous diet, the straw-headed bulbul also feeds on small invertebrates such as small river-dwelling snails, spiders, beetles, bees and cockroaches, and has even been known to prey on flying lizards (Draco species) (2). It often feeds on the ground, uttering low gurgles or harsh chattering as it moves about searching for food (2) (4), although the straw-headed bulbul is also capable of catching some flies and beetles while in flight (2).

The straw-headed bulbul breeds between January and September. It constructs a fairly large, shallow nest from thin twigs, rootlets, grass and plant fibres in the branch of a small tree, a few metres off the ground, and typically lays a clutch of two eggs (2). The eggs and chicks are attended to by both parents, and there is some evidence that other members of the group also assist with the raising of the young (2).

The rich and powerful song of the straw-headed bulbul has made it a very popular cage bird (2), and as a result it is trapped throughout much of its range for domestic and international trade (6). Unfortunately, not only does its loud voice make the straw-headed bulbul easy to locate, but its habit of roosting and nesting in easily accessible locations have made it a relatively easy bird to trap (6). This is the main threat facing this Vulnerable bird (2), and most likely the primary reason for its elimination in many parts of its original range (2). Habitat destruction may also contribute to this bird’s decline, but the straw-headed bulbul is known to be able to tolerate some habitat degradation in areas where it is not subject to intensive exploitation (2).

The straw-headed bulbul is protected in Thailand and was known to occur in at least two protected areas in Sumatra; unfortunately, this has not prevented the suspected extinction of the bulbul in both these areas (6). Protected areas which may continue to bestow some benefit on the straw-headed bulbul exist in Peninsular Malaysia and Kalimantan (6), and remaining populations may also benefit from the species’ listing on Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which means that any international trade in this species should be carefully monitored (3). However, further measures, such as stricter controls on the export and import of live birds and stronger legal protection (6), would help the remaining straw-headed bulbuls continue their beautiful song in the wild.

This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact: arkive@wildscreen.org.uk

  1. IUCN Red List (November, 2008)
    http://www.iucnredlist.org
  2. del Hoyo, J., Eliot, A. and Christie, D. (2005) Handbook of the Birds of the World. Volume 10: Cuckoo-Shrikes to Thrushes. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.
  3. CITES (November, 2008)
    http://www.cites.org
  4. Robinson, H.C. (1927) The Birds of the Malay Peninsula. Volume I: The Commoner Birds. HF&G Witherby, London.
  5. Strange, M. (2000) A Photographic Guide to the Birds of Southeast Asia. Princeton University Press, New Jersey.
  6. BirdLife International (November, 2008)
    http://www.birdlife.org
  7. Levey, D.J., Silva, W.R. and Galetti, M. (2002) Seed Dispersal and Frugivory: Ecology, Evolution and Conservation. CAB International, Wallingford, UK.