Reed Parrotbill, Symbol of Shanghai

by Craig Brelsford

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
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
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
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
Reed Parrotbill is not just a birder’s bird but is the people’s bird. Calamornis 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, Jiangsu, May. Middle, top: Jiangsu, October. Middle, bottom and far right: Cape Nanhui, May. (Craig Brelsford)
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Amid the Din of the Diggers

On Sat. 26 March, Elaine Du and I noted 53 species at Cape Nanhui in southeast Pudong. Despite air pollution that made my nose run, we enjoyed yet another day of Metro + walk-’n’-bird. We covered 15 km (9 mi.) on foot, going camera-less and carrying our Swarovski scope. We took a taxi from the Dishui Lake Metro Line 16 station to Microforest 2 (30.926039, 121.970725). From there we walked back to the station, along the way exploring the reed beds, checking the shore, and scanning Dishui Lake.

Highlights: Falcated Duck 180, Garganey 8, Black-necked Grebe 4 (3 in nearly complete breeding plumage), Eurasian Spoonbill 8, Eurasian Bittern 1, Intermediate Egret 1, Kentish Plover 1, Barn Swallow 4, Reed Parrotbill 27, Naumann’s Thrush 1, Eastern Yellow Wagtail 5 tschutschensis, Richard’s Pipit 8, Buff-bellied Pipit 46, Chestnut-eared Bunting 5, Little Bunting 9 (1 singing), Pallas’s Reed Bunting 70.

In the reeds behind Microforest 2, amid the din of the digging machines that are destroying its home, a Reed Parrotbill was chirring loudly and making sounds reminiscent of babblers. I recorded four types of call:

chirring (00:03; 930 KB)

insistent (00:05; 1 MB)

plaintive (00:04; 958 KB)

joyful (00:20; 1.6 MB)

The transformation of the wetland continues apace. I took a photo showing a former marshy-reedy area, now drained, in which hundreds of a single species of coniferous tree are being planted. In this sector, sightings of Black-faced Spoonbill used to be regular. No more.

sign from transformed wetland
INCONGRUOUS: Sign from transformed wetland still stands, despite drainage and planting of hundreds of trees in area where Black-winged Stilt once foraged. (Craig Brelsford)

We skipped the Magic Parking Lot after a binocular check revealed about 100 cars parked around the lot. More and more locals are using our old birding area, especially on mild spring days such as Saturday.

On Fri. 25 March, Elaine and I viewed the Huangpu River from the Lujiazui side near Oriental Pearl Tower at a place called Binjiang Park (not to be confused with Binjiang Forest Park). Activity was little; we had just a handful of Vega Gull plus Black-crowned Night Heron, Little Egret, and a single Grey Heron as well as singing Chinese Blackbird, resident Light-vented Bulbul, and a leucopsis White Wagtail.

Elaine Du
Elaine Du birding Huangpu River from Lujiazui side, 25 March. (Craig Brelsford)

We met a local bird photographer who said he goes to Lujiazui often. At times, this photographer said, “thousands” of gulls can be seen on the river around Lujiazui-Bund. He said he’d had just such a banner day last week, and he was surprised at the lack of gulls on Friday. This gentleman had photos of Black-tailed Gull as well as many Larus vegae vegae/mongolicus.

birds of the Bund
BIRD LIFE ON THE BUND: Vega Gull (top L, top R) will soon return to the wastes of Siberia, their northern home. Mallard (bottom L) sometimes appear in Huangpu River. At low tide, Little Egret congregate on thin strips of exposed mud. (Craig Brelsford)

I get a romantic feeling birding the Bund and Lujiazui, one of the world’s best-known urban riverscapes. The romance is especially strong on a sunny day with the polluted air acting as a filter, reducing the sun’s rays to a soft, warm glow. Vega Gull appear; the Huangpu River is their stage, the famous skyscrapers their backdrop. The gulls will soon return to the wastes of Siberia, their northern home. Versatile creatures are they, specks of wild Asia in the heart of Shanghai.

List 1 of 1 for Fri. 25 March (7 species). Binjiang Park (Bīnjiāng Gōngyuán [滨江公园]; 31.235662, 121.497396), a small urban park on Huangpu River in Pudong New Area (Pǔdōng Xīn Qū [浦东新区]), Shanghai, China. Sunny; low 4° C, high 13° C. Visibility 10 km. Wind NNW 15 km/h. PM2.5 AQI: 109 (unhealthful). Sunrise 05:50, sunset 18:10. FRI 25 MAR 2016 16:10-17:10. Craig Brelsford & Elaine Du.

Black-crowned Night Heron Nycticorax nycticorax 8
Grey Heron Ardea cinerea 1
Little Egret Egretta garzetta 6
Vega Gull Larus vegae vegae/mongolicus 13
Light-vented Bulbul Pycnonotus sinensis 18
Chinese Blackbird Turdus mandarinus 4
White Wagtail Motacilla alba 1 leucopsis


Black-necked Grebe
Black-necked Grebe through spotting scope, Dishui Lake, 26 March. Elaine and I still have not bought an adapter for taking pictures with my iPhone 6 through our Swarovski ATX-95. By holding my hand steady against the eyepiece, I am able to acquire record shots as good as this. The grebes were at least 100 m away, far beyond the reach of my Nikon 600 mm F/4 lens; in fact, with my camera and lens, I would have been hard-pressed to find the grebes, let alone produce a useful photo. The scope-phone combo, by contrast, allows us to peek into the grebes’ world. In Panel 3 we can clearly see the remaining non-breeding plumage on the lower breast of the grebe. The red eye and yellow ear tufts are obvious. Black-necked Grebe is a scarce winter visitor in the Shanghai region. (Craig Brelsford)
Brelsford at Nanhui
The author in a scrubby strip of land on the edge of a field at Nanhui, 26 March. Little Bunting and Black-faced Bunting were in the scrub, Eurasian Skylark and Common Pheasant in the field. The area is just east of Dishui Lake. (Elaine Du)

Featured image: Where Black-faced Spoonbill once foraged, digging machines now crawl, transforming critical reed-bed and marshland habitat into an artificial forest. Looming in the background is the brand-new satellite city of Lingang. Nanhui, Shanghai, 26 March.
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