You’d think that dressing in green to hide from predators inside a dense rainforest is as a strategy as plain as day, yet only a surprisingly limited number of bird species on Borneo have ventured down that evolutionary road. In fact, flipping through your field guide of choice will reveal a dominance of browns and an abundance of blues, but a bright green is hard to come by. There are a few groups that have their fair share of green species, like the broadbills and the barbets, and of course you have the usual female dull stuff, e.g. amongst the sunbirds, spiderhunters and flowerpeckers. But there really is only one bird family (in a taxonomic sense) that continuously sets the benchmark for how green a green bird should really be: the Chloropseidae, the Leafbirds. Leafbirds are a group of currently eleven species inhabiting the Indian subcontinent and most of SE Asia – “currently” since some splits might be headed our way. As their bright green plumage suggests, they are predominantly arboreal and search the canopy for invertebrates and – on occasion – fruit and nectar. The males of most species are very similar, with a green plumage and a black face and throat, a fact that renders them a veritable identification challenge. Interestingly, the females are more varied between the species and are far more readily identified. Fun fact: Their camouflage strategy and dependence on deciduous tree species has kept them from expanding into more temperate zones since the constant moult to adapt to the changing autumn colours would overstrain their metabolism. Which may or may not be true.
Borneo is a very suitable place for anyone seeking to sort the leafbirds from the leaves since no less than four species (a good third of the world’s total) call this island their cozy home. But you see, not only has Borneo a lot of leafbirds – it has a heck of a lot of leaves, too.

borneo forest with hornbills

A typical view into the canopy of a Bornean forest in S Kalimantan. I know this picture has leaves. I am equally certain this picture contains birds. It probably shows a leafbird, too if you just look hard enough. But to be honest, I may be crazy – but not to that extend.

leafbird tiny

This picture does indeed contain a leafbird and some leaves. But which is which?

greater leafbird

Okay, here it is, cropped and facing our way. I am fairly certain it is a male Greater Leafbird. Well, I was certain when I saw it in the field.

tiny leafbird 2

Next try: tree, leaves, leafbird. Which is which?

greater leafbird 2

Again, it was right in the centre of the picture.

leafbird concealed

This is an easy one. Again, my guess is Greater Leafbird. However, I may know this bird from the leaves – but I am not so certain about the species identification. As if the spotting of the bird itself wasn’t hard already.

You know, I sometimes think European birders whinge and whine too much about having to tell their reed warblers from their reeds. It really ain’t that much of a unique selling point of the West Palaearctic region.

[This is a bit of a quick post, but there is a very good reason for this: it was written back in October and then pre-scheduled since I’ll be in Indonesia again from the end of October until the day before this post goes up. I fully expect to see plenty of leaves, some birds, and if I am really lucky and catch a movement amongst the leaves that differs from the movement of the wind, I might even see a leafbird. Or two.]


Written by Jochen
Jochen Roeder was born in Germany and raised to be a birder. He also spent a number of years abroad, just so he could see more birds. One of his most astounding achievements is the comprehension that Yellow-crowned Night-herons do not exist, as he failed to see any despite birding in North America for more than two years. He currently lives near Heidelberg, one of the most boring places for a birder to live, a fact about which he likes to whinge a lot. When he is not birding or trying to convince his teenage son that patiently scanning some fields for migrants is more fun than staring at a smartphone, he enjoys contemplating the reasoning behind the common names of birds. He first became famous in the bird blog world on Bell Tower Birding.