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Last updated: 24 February 2021
The Rail-babbler (Eupetes macrocerus), a chocolate-brown rail-like passerine, with a distinctive white head band and patches of red-orange plumage is an unusual bird that seems to have left scientists scratching their heads.
Eupetes macrocerus was first categorized with the Timaliidae (babbler) family, then moved to the Cinclosomatidae family (which includes a variety of mostly Australian birds, e.g., quail thrushes and jewel-babblers), and then eventually to a family of its own, called Eupetidae. It’s since been suggested it should be placed into a largely African group of perching-birds that include the rockjumpers (Chaetops) and rockfowls (Picartharthes) with which the Rail-babbler shares a number of characteristics, including position of their nostrils, shape of their foreheads, and tail.
Although mankind might be confused about where the Rail-babbler belongs, this shy songbird definitely knows where its physical home is, favoring tall lowland broadleaved forests with a dense canopy and well-vegetated floor, and sometimes swamps and moist, tropical forests. Its habitat range is the Malay Peninsula in southern Thailand, Peninsular Malaysia, and the Greater Sundas on Sumatra, Borneo, and the Natuna Islands.
Sadly, many of these once-pristine habitats are being rapidly eroded due to the escalation of illegal logging and land conversion, even within protected areas. Forest fires have also had a damaging effect on reducing the biodiversity of these areas. This is why the Rail-babbler is classified as ‘Near Threatened’ by the ICUN Red List of Threatened Species, and, with its naturally timid, reclusive temperament, is a challenging and highly rewarding twitch. One of our birding guides, Andy Walker, has great memories of days spent crawling along the jungle floor looking for this great bird! According to Andy, the best tactic for finding this species is, “when you hear one (they have a distinctive long, monotonous whistling call and frog-like notes when agitated) find an area with a good view of the forest floor and sit it out and wait for it to walk into view!” The Rail-babbler is an incredible and interesting creature to watch; it bobs its head as it walks (a bit like a chicken) and definitely prefers to run rather than fly when it’s disturbed. It also dashes with great speed to catch its dinner – beetles, spiders, and worms are on the usual menu. Time to update your birding bucket-list?
So, what’s the best birding tour for a chance to see a Rail-babbler?
Currently the best chance to see Rail-babbler is on our specific family listing tour looking for this species in Sarawak, Borneo. The details of that short tour (where we also look for the bizarre Crested Jay) can be found here.
In addition, our Peninsular Malaysia tour, which spends time in the wonderful Taman Negara National Park offers an excellent chance to observe this skulking species. This tour also links up nicely with our usual set departure Borneo tours, affording another opportunity to look for it there.
We also have a chance to see Rail-babbler on our Southern Thailand: Jewels of the South tour, another incredible birding destination of lush and tropical rainforests. This tour could also be combined with our Central Thailand and Northern Thailand tours where we look for Spoon-billed Sandpiper and many other great birds.