A brief history of ormithological discovery discovery in Vietnam

1875-1919: The pioneers
Perhaps the first serious study of Vietnamese birds was made by Dr. Gilbert Tirant, an amateur ornithologist who between 1875 and 1877 collected over a thousand specimens in southern Vietnam, in those days known as ‘Basse-Cochinchine’. In 1878 Tirant wrote “Les Oiseaux de la Basse-Cochinchine” based on the collection and his observations made in the field. This was published in the “Bulletin de Comite Agricole de la Cochinchine” the following year and is regarded as the best avifaunal record for Indochina published in the 19th century.

Dr J. Vassal& Mrs Vassal
Dr J. Vassal& Mrs Vassal

Following Tirant several collections were made and works published in the final decades of the 19th century and the first two decades of the 20th century by prominent ornithologists of the time including R. Germain, L. Boutan, Dr J. Vassal and Dr N. Kuroda. Between 1899 and 1903 Emile Oustalet of the Paris Museum published “Oiseaux du Cambodge, du Laos, de l’Annam et du Tonkin“ and “Catalogue de les Oiseaux de la Basse-Cochinchine” with R. Germain. Louis Boutan’s two volume work on the birds of Indochina in the “Decades Zoologiques” was published between 1905 and 1907.

Dr. J. Vassal discovered several new species while stationed at Nha Trang on the south central coast between 1907 and 1910 and in 1917 Dr. N. Kuroda, a well-known Japanese ornithologist, made a collection of birds in northern Vietnam, then called Tonkin.

The first well-organised ornithological expedition to Vietnam was mounted by Cecil Boden-Kloss, Curator of the Museum of the Federated States of Malaya, who spent three months collecting in southern Vietnam in 1918. Boden-Kloss and his colleagues were the first to explore the Langbian Plateau (Dalat Plateau) in any detail and close to 40 new bird species were discovered as a result of the expedition.

1920-1939: The golden age
A collection of birds from northern Tonkin was made for the British Museum between 1923 and 1924 by a Mr H. Stevens shortly before the arrival in French Indochina of Jean Delacour, a name that will be forever linked to the history of ornithological discovery in Vietnam. Jean Delacour, a wealthy young aviculturist and ornithologist, funded and led a total of seven expeditions to French Indochina between 1923 and 1939 resulting in the discovery of over 140 new bird species, 230 species new to Indochina and a collection in excess of 30,000 specimens.

Willoughby P. Lowe, Jean Delacour & Pierre Jabouille
Willoughby P. Lowe, Jean  Delacour & Pierre Jabouille

Delacour’s companions on his various Indochinese expeditions were Pierre Jabouille, a French civil service administrator stationed in Hue, Willoughby P. Lowe, an experienced collector for the British Museum, and the American ornithologist James C. Greenway.

During this time Delacour also worked closely with two ornithologists employed by the French Colonial Service in Indochina, Pierre Engelbach and Andre David-Beaulieu. Jean Delacour was a prolific writer on Indochina’s birds and published dozens of articles and reports culminating in 1931 with one of the classic bird books of the 20th century, the beautifully illustrated four volume “Les Oiseaux de l’Indochine Francaise” written in collaboration with Pierre Jabouille.

Kelley-Roosevelts Expedition members 1929
Kelley-Roosevelts Expedition members 1929

Kelley-Roosevelts Expedition members 1929In 1929 the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago funded the Kelley-Roosevelts Expedition to Tonkin and Laos that came back with over 3,000 specimens of 387 species. Another American expedition, the Legendre Indochina Expedition, visited parts of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia between 1931 and March 1932 primarily to collect mammals but a total of 365 bird skins were also collected.

The last ornithological expeditions to be made to Vietnam before the outbreak of the Second World War were made by a young Swedish ornithologist named Bertil Bjorkegren in 1935 and 1938-39. It was during these expeditions that Bjorkegren discovered the Grey-crowned Crocias, an enigmatic shrike-like babbler that would not be seen again until 1994.

1975 – Present: A new age of discovery
Following the end of the Second World War the next thirty years were to be dominated by armed struggle and the fight for independence in Vietnam culminating with the liberation of Saigon in 1975 and the reunification of North and South Vietnam. Very little ornithological study took place during these years although several articles and a field guide were written by expatriate birders living in Vietnam. Frenchman J.Brunel spent three years living in Dalat from 1958 to 1961 and published records of his sightings in 1978 while Philp Wildash wrote “Birds of South Vietnam” which was published in 1968 while he was serving at the British Embassy in Saigon.

During the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s Russian and Vietnamese scientists undertook ornithological research programmes in Vietnam under the leadership of L.S. Stepanyan the results of which appeared in several publications written in Russian and Vietnamese. The first Vietnamese language guide to Vietnam’s birds, the two-volume “Chim Vietnam” (Birds of Vietnam) written by Professor Vo Quy, was also published around this time.

In 1988 the International Council for Bird Preservation (now known as BirdLife International) undertook the first of three ornithological surveys in Vietnam, the first to visit many areas for half a century. These expeditions successfully established the continued survival of several of Vietnam’s endemic bird species, many of which had not been seen since before the Second World War.

Taking part in these expeditions were British and Vietnamese ornithologists with names that would be familiar to anyone with an interest in Vietnamese ornithology – Jonathan Eames, Craig Robson, Nguyen Cu and Le Trong Trai. The latter two were also the authors of the first Vietnamese language guide to be printed in colour, also called “Chim Vietnam”, published by BirdLife International in 2000.

Jonathan Eames & Dr Nguyen Cu at Chu Yang Sin
Jonathan Eames & Dr Nguyen Cu  at Chu Yang Sin

Jonathan Eames and his colleagues made some truly remarkable findings during the 1990s including the discovery of no less than three species completely new to science – Black-crowned Barwing (Actinodura sodangorum), Golden-winged Laughingthrush (Trochalopteron ngoclinhense) and Chestnut-eared Laughingthrush (Ianthocincla konkakinhensis)

In January 1994, Jonathan Eames, Le Trong Trai and Nguyen Cu were responsible for rediscovering the Grey-crowned Crocias (Crocias langbianis), a Dalat Plateau endemic that had not been recorded since its original discovery in 1938. A few months later Eames, Cu and Frank Lambert found another long lost babbler at Phong Nha in northern central Vietnam. The Sooty Babbler (Stachrys herberti) was first collected in Laos in 1920 but there were no subsequent records until its rediscovery in 1994.

Who knows what ornithological discoveries remain to be made in Vietnam’s shrinking forests in the 21st Century…