Lab Updates March 2016


March has been a busy month for all on team MacroBird. Data collection, based at the Natural History Museum’s ornithology research collections in Tring, has continued for both the 3D scanning and photography components of our study.

Data Collection in Tring: 3D Scanning

Overall, we have achieved scanning 60% of all of the world’s bird species – that’s 6000 bills! In addition, we have scanned 74% of species that feature on our island families list, and are currently working our way through the pigeons (Columbidae) and babblers (Timaliidae). With around 500 scannable species left (with suitable specimens available for scanning in the museum’s collection), we hope to have worked our way through the list by the end of May. Our next aim will be to scan 100% of all non-passerine species.

Species scanned plot

The larger of our two scanners, the R3X, has been working brilliantly with its new lenses, allowing us to scan much finer bills and keep our scanning productivity at full speed. Currently preoccupied with the huge number of aforementioned pigeon species, we will be moving on to scanning raptors on this shortly.

Noisy friarbird (Philemon corniculatus)

Noisy friarbird (Philemon corniculatus)

An interesting island family that we have worked through this month are the honeyeaters (Meliphagidae). Honeyeaters are small-medium passerines, largely found in Australia and New Guinea. This group contains the fantastically named ‘Friarbirds‘ that have featherless heads which give them an almost vulture-like appearance. We also worked through the woodpeckers (Picidae) which have one of the easiest bills to scan – the majority are pale and their chisel-like shape means it doesn’t take too many rotations to scan the entire bill. One thing we didn’t realise was quite how variable in size the woodpecker bill is, going from the large 9.5cm bill of the Imperial Woodpecker (Campephilus imperialis) to the tiny 1.5cm bill of the African Piculet (Sasia africanus).

To date we have scanned:

  • 6323 (63.26%) of species
  • 2028 (96.99%) of genera
  • 3006 (74.19%) of species from island families
  • 3332 (55.85%) of passerines
  • 2988 (74.20%) of non-passerines

Data Collection in Tring: UV and Visible Photography

Blue-winged leafbird (Chloropsis cochinchinensis)

Blue-winged leafbird (Chloropsis cochinchinensis)

As mentioned in last month’s updates, the photography component of our project – imaging the plumage of as wide a range of the 10,000 species of birds as possible in both the human visible and ultraviolet spectrum – is now well underway.

This month has seen us continue to target our priority list of species, focussing primarily on passerine families, including the beautiful Australasian robins (Petroicidae) and the fantastically colourful leafbirds (Chloropseidae).

To date we have photographed:

  • 37 (19.07%) of families completed
  • 1808 (18.09%) of species
  • 8102 specimens: we are selecting up to 6 specimens of each species, both male and female
  • 48612 photographs: six photographs- dorsal, ventral and lateral in both UV and human visible spectrums- of every selected specimen

Mark My Bird

Our crowdsourcing site has now exceeded 750 registered landmarkers, with over 100 new participants this month alone! The fantastic efforts of these citizen scientists has seen our overall landmarking progress reach 35%, contributing vital data as we proceed further into the analysis stages of the project.

This doesn’t mean the chance to contribute to the study is over, far from it! There are still thousands of these fantastic 3D models of bills in need of landmarking. With new species being added as each family is scanned from museum specimens, you can learn more about this research or join in and have a go yourself by visiting our website

In May we will be holding a Mark-My-Bird-athon at the University of Sheffield – more news on this to follow..

Markmybird 4


Chris gave a talk at the Yorkshire Naturalists Union annual conference. Chris’s talk, and those of the other speakers, are covered in this vlog by Eco Sapien.


Brulez, K., Mikšík, I., Cooney, C.R., Hauber, M.E., Lovell, P.G., Maurer, G., Portugal, S.J., Russell, D., Silas James, Reynolds, S.J. & Cassey, P. (2016). Eggshell pigment composition covaries with phylogeny but not with life history or with nesting ecology traits of British passerinesEcology and evolution.

Twitter and #BeakoftheWeek

Our twitter competition #BeakoftheWeek has continued every Wednesday, with Tim Blackburn and Paul Sweet remaining at the top of our leaderboard- all are welcome to have a go and perhaps even beat our current contenders to the top slots!

We post regular blogs about some of our favourite species chosen for the weekly challenge over on our website, this month including the fabulous Twelve-Wired Bird of Paradise (Seleucidis melanoleucus) and the striking King Eider (Somateria spectabilis).



Blue-winged leafbird (Chloropsis cochinchinensis) taken by Dr. Vijay Anand Ismavel MS MCh is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 3.0

Noisy friarbird (Philemon corniculatus) taken by Leo is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

MMB banner (c) Jen Bright

The Grey-necked Picathartes (Picathartes oreas)


One of our #BeakoftheWeek nominees was the delightful grey-necked picathartes.

Grey-necked Picathartes (Picathartes oreas)

Grey-necked Picathartes (Picathartes oreas)

This rather bizarre-looking passerine is known by a number of other names: the red-headed picathartes, the grey-necked rockfowl and red-headed rockfowl. It is placed in the family Picathartidae along with the white-necked picathartes (Picathartes gymnocephalus).

The grey-necked picathartes lives in the rainforests of equatorial Africa, and tends to feed on invertebrates. It also sometimes feeds on plant matter, such as fruit and flower buds and vertebrates which it plucks from the forest floor and low lying vegetation. It’s IUCN Red List status is vulnerable as despite having a large range, it’s population is thought to be fragmented and declining.

Sadly there are currently no recordings available on xeno-canto, perhaps partly owing to the mostly silent nature of the grey-necked picathartes. It has been reported to sometimes makes a quiet hissing noise that lasts for a couple of seconds. Additionally, on approaching the nest it makes a single or double ‘peep’ call and then a low, repeated ‘ga-a-a’ sound.

This bird breeds during the wet season and can nest twice annually in areas where rainfall is high at two different times of the year. Both males and females contribute to building a cup-shaped nest made from mud, roots and fibrous vegetation, that is placed on cliffs, rocks and caves.



BirdLife International. 2015.  Picathartes oreas. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2015: e.T22708119A85077576. . Downloaded on 05 April 2016.

BirdLife International (2016) Species factsheet: Picathartes oreas. Downloaded from on 05/04/2016.

Thompson, H. (2007). Grey-necked Picathartes (Picathartes oreas). In: del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A., Sargatal, J., Christie, D.A. & de Juana, E. (eds.) (2014). Handbook of the Birds of the World Alive. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona. (retrieved from on 7 July 2015).


Grey-necked Picathartes (Picathartes oreas) taken by Stijn Cooleman is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 3.0