Reed Parrotbill. Far left: Yangkou, Rudong, Jiangsu, May 2010. Upper middle: Yangkou, October 2010. Bottom middle and far right: Nanhui, Shanghai, May 2016.

Reed Parrotbill, Symbol of Shanghai

Did you know that Shanghai is going to have a municipal bird? Guess what the two main candidates are: Light-vented Bulbul and Reed Parrotbill. Although I can understand why Light-vented Bulbul needs to be in the running, Reed Parrotbill is clearly the better choice. Let me tell you why.

Reed Parrotbill, Iron Track, 5 Nov. 2016.
Reed Parrotbill, lively sprite of the Shanghai reed beds. (Craig Brelsford)

The argument for Light-vented Bulbul is that it is a bird of the people. As the versatile little bird lives even in the deepest recesses of the urban jungle, many Shanghai residents are familiar with it. Reed Parrotbill, by contrast, is less well-known.

One reason Reed Parrotbill is less known, of course, is that the reeds that used to cover the coastline and line the banks of the Yangtze River are disappearing. The disappearance of those reeds is perhaps the best reason to make Reed Parrotbill the municipal bird.

Reed Parrotbill, Iron Track, Nanhui, 5 Nov. 2016.
Reed Parrotbill often shimmy up a reed to see what’s going on. (Craig Brelsford)

The choice of Reed Parrotbill would be a bold endorsement of Natural Shanghai, the city at the mouth of Asia’s greatest river and on Earth’s greatest migratory flyway. It would be a way of saying that Earth’s largest city values not only Reed Parrotbill but also the threatened habitat in which Reed Parrotbill lives.

The choice of Light-vented Bulbul, by contrast, would constitute a failure of imagination. It would be not a celebration of Natural Shanghai but a ratification of the environmental degradation afflicting this city. Light-vented Bulbul is a species that thrives in the degraded habitats that are all too common in Shanghai.

Reed Parrotbill, Nanhui, 17 May 2016.
In breeding season Reed Parrotbill is more conspicuous than at other times of the year. (Craig Brelsford)

The choice of Reed Parrotbill for municipal bird is far more than a political statement. The bird is full of personality and is beautiful, with rusty flanks, a grey head with a long black eyebrow, and a big yellow bill. The latter it uses to pry open reeds to get the insect larvae inside.

Reed Parrotbill is not a birder's bird but the people's bird. It is a species totally dependent on reeds, a plant that is part of the very fabric of Shanghai.
Reed Parrotbill is not just a birder’s bird but is the people’s bird. Paradoxornis heudei is a species totally dependent on reeds, a plant that is part of the very fabric of Shanghai. Reed Parrotbill represents well the natural heritage of Earth’s greatest city. (Craig Brelsford)

Reed Parrotbill has a varied repertoire of calls, all lively and colorful. To this day the calls and song of this species are among the most common bird sounds heard at Nanhui and on Hengsha Island and Chongming Island.

The chirr sound is perhaps the best-known. I recorded all the sounds below at Nanhui, with the exception of “siren,” recorded on Chongming. Enjoy them and get to know Shanghai’s best choice for municipal bird, Reed Parrotbill.

chirr (00:03; 930 KB)

insistent (00:05; 1 MB)

plaintive (00:04; 958 KB)

merry (00:20; 1.6 MB)

siren (00:04; 954 KB)


Because of the continued degradation and reclamation of the reed-bed habitat on which it is totally dependent, Reed Parrotbill Paradoxornis heudei is listed by IUCN as Near Threatened. In Chinese it is known as “Chinese Parrotbill” (Zhèndàn Yāquè, 震旦鸦雀). Nearly its entire range is in China, from Heilongjiang south to Zhejiang. Small parts of its distribution spill over into Mongolia and the Russian Far East.


Do you agree that Reed Parrotbill should be the municipal bird of Shanghai? Would you prefer another species? Readers want to know what you think! Leave a comment below.

Featured image: Reed Parrotbill, a Chinese near-endemic, a species under threat, a bird of personality and beauty, and a symbol of Shanghai and the Chinese coast. Far left: Yangkou, Rudong, Jiangsu, May. Middle, top: Yangkou, October. Middle, bottom and far right: Cape Nanhui, May. (Craig Brelsford)

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Craig Brelsford

Craig Brelsford lived in Shanghai from 2007 to 2018. When he departed China, Craig was the top-ranked eBirder in the country, having noted 933 species, as well as the top-ranked eBirder in Shanghai (323 species). A 1993 graduate of the University of Florida, Craig was an award-winning newspaper editor in the United States for 10 years. In 2002, Craig earned a master's in business administration from the University of Liege in Belgium. Craig lives in Debary, Florida with his wife, Elaine, and their son, Tiny.

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