Birds of IRRI

 Paul Bourdin   |  

Birds of IRRI


Paul Bourdin is a registered bird ringer in South Africa and the Philippines. He has contributed to ornithological journals and other birding publications around the world. Having lived in Los Baños, Laguna, Philippines, for the last 5 years near IRRI, he has had an opportunity to become quite familiar with the birds that frequent the Institute’s research plots. Below are his descriptions of the birds featured in this issue of Rice Today including their scientific and common names, diet, and habits.



 Barn Swallow

Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica)

Status: Common winter visitor and abundant passage migrant, although birds have been recorded in every month except June.

Food: Flying insects.

Habits: Large flocks pass through the farms on migration during spring and autumn. Many birds stay throughout the winter. Their natural preferred habitat is marshes and reed-beds, but rice fields seem to offer an acceptable alternative. They feed by catching insects in flight, at all altitudes from very low over the fields to several hundred feet in the air. They roost on wires and the stakes alongside the rice fields themselves, where they can sometimes congregate in very large numbers.

 Barred Buttonquail

Barred Buttonquail (Turnix suscitator)

Status: Common resident.

Food: Grass and weed seeds, insects, and snails.

Habits: With the female being more brightly colored than the male, this is one of two species on the farms that are polyandrous, i.e., the female mates with more than one male. Usually the male will build a nest, the female will mate with him and lay eggs in his nest. She will then abandon him to incubate the brood while she moves on to find another male. Usually seen scurrying through the short grass on the edges of the rice fields, if surprised, they will take flight for short distances before disappearing into the grass once again. Most often seen on the upland farms, they do occur throughout the IRRI fields.

 Barred Rail

Barred Rail (Gallirallus torquatus)

Status: Common resident. Food: Not known, but likely to be similar to other species of Rail.

Food: Not known, but likely to be similar to other species of rail.

Habits: This large and striking-looking species is often seen on the edges of the overgrown areas close to the rice fields rather than in the rice itself. While it is shy and will dart into cover at the slightest hint of danger, it is conspicuous and relatively easy to find. This species is the source of the Filipino cultural dance about the Tikling, the bird’s local name.

 Black Winged Stilt

Black-winged Stilt (Himantopus himantopus)

Status: Irregular visitor, early June to early November.

Food: Invertebrates.

Habits: This is a highly distinctive bird, which occurs in small numbers at IRRI in the second half of the year. Its size and plumage make it stand out, and it is often the target of hunters.

 Blue-tailed Bee Eater

Blue-tailed Bee-eater (Merops philippinus)    

Status: Common summer visitor from early March to late September.

Food: Mainly bees, but also other flying insects.

Habits: This species nests in holes burrowed into tall sandbanks where they form very large colonies, often of several hundred nests. Once the breeding season is over and the young birds have left the nests, they disperse and that is when they are seen at IRRI. Small flocks will perch on the wires alongside the roads or sit on the dirt roads themselves. They feed by flying low over the rice catching insects in flight.

 Brown Shrike

Brown Shrike (Lanius cristatus)                

Status: Common winter visitor early September to early May.

Food: Frogs, insects, small birds, and lizards.

Habits: This is an extremely common and well known bird that spends the winter months hunting in every corner of the IRRI fields. They find the low stakes alongside the rice an ideal perch from which to hunt.  The race that migrates to the Philippines is called lucionensis, and it breeds in eastern China. Other races may occur, but none have been positively identified to date.

 Buff Banded Rail

Buff-banded Rail (Gallirallus philippensis)        

Status: Common resident.

Food: Worms, mollusks, crustaceans, insects, fish, amphibians, reptiles, and birds eggs.

Habits: Mainly crepuscular (twilight), it can be active at any time of day. Quite often, it can be seen in the early morning on bunds between rice fields. It tends to use the mature rice as cover, but is often less shy than other rallids and will remain in the open for considerable periods. After rains, it often comes into the open to dry its waterlogged feathers.

 Cattle Egret

Cattle Egret (Bubulcus ibis)

Status: Common resident.

Food: Insects, amphibians, mollusks, crustaceans, and small mammals.

Habits: Common in all areas of the IRRI fields. The smallest of the white egrets, they traditionally follow large mammals in order to feed on insects and other small creatures disturbed by the actions of the feeding animals. They are well adapted to human behaviors and are a common sight in the developing world wherever there is livestock. At IRRI, they often frequent areas where carabaos (water buffalos) and other large animals are tethered, but they will also follow the modern analogues of feeding herds, namely mechanical plows and tractors. Communal and gregarious, flocks can be seen throughout the farms during the day, and commuting to and from roost sites on Mount Makiling in the mornings and evenings.

 Common Kingfisher

Common Kingfisher (Alcedo atthis)      

Status: Winter visitor, mid-September to late March.

Food: Small fish and tadpoles.

Habits: Seen wherever there is open water at IRRI. They hunt from low perches and the short stakes that line many of the rice fields at IRRI are perfect for them. They also hunt in the drainage ditches and the small streams that pass through the farms. Outside IRRI, they can be seen in such diverse habitats as mangrove swamps, streams, lakes, and on rocky areas of the sea shore.


 Common Moorhen

Common Moorhen (Gallinula chloropus)      

Status: Resident.

Food: Omnivorous. Feeds on many types of plant, as well as worms, mollusks, crustaceans, insects, fish, and tadpoles.

Habits: This species, which is a highly visible and confiding resident of city parks and other public spaces throughout its range, is a skulking under-recorded bird in the rice fields of IRRI. At times, it is quite difficult to find, but it seems to be present year-round, and may have increased its population in recent years.


 Common Sandpiper

Common Sandpiper (Actitis hypoleucos)

Status: Common passage migrant and winter visitor. Observed from early August to early May.

Food: Mainly insects.

Habits: These birds occur in small numbers throughout the farms. Easily identified by their distinctive bobbing walk and droop-winged flight profile, they are a familiar sight as they patrol the edges of the plowed fields in pairs.

 Crested Myna

Crested Myna (Acridotheres cristatellus)               

Status: Resident in small numbers.Food: Insects and sometimes fruits.

Habits: Often seen in the company of carabaos (water buffalos) and other livestock from the backs of which it gleans insects. It also feeds in short grass, and is sometimes seen perched on fruiting bushes near the fields, usually in pairs or small groups.


 Eurasian Tree Sparrow

Eurasian Tree Sparrow (Passer montanus)      

Status: Abundant resident.

Food: Seeds and insects, proportions depending on season.

Habits: At particular times of year, this species forms enormous flocks, which seem to swarm all over the IRRI fields. They tend to feed on the ground, searching for fallen seeds and insects in the stubble. They will on occasion take seeds directly from the plant, but this is less common behavior. Considered by many to be a pest species. This bird is known to eat rice.


 Gray Wagtail

Grey Wagtail (Motacilla cinerea)  

Status: Common passage migrant and occasional winter visitor. Observed from late September to early April.

Food: Insects.

Habits: Migrates singly and in small groups, although on occasion very large congregations of 100+ have been seen in the upland fields. They tend to feed in the IRRI fields for a short time before moving on to their preferred winter habitat, which seems to be roads and streams in the forest. While in the rice fields, they are often found in recently flooded areas, presumably catching insects attracted to the water.

 Greater painted Snipe

Greater Painted Snipe (Rostratula benghalensis)  

Status: Common resident.

Food: Seeds, plant stems, and invertebrates.

Habits: Another polyandrous species, the female is more highly decorated than the male and will mate with several males. It is quite shy and will freeze when approached. If it believes it has not been seen, it will then slink away through the grass, and sometimes even partially submerge itself if it is caught in open water.

 Intermediate Egret

Intermediate Egret (Egretta intermedia)

Status: Common migrant, present August to April.

Food: Fish, amphibians, and insects.

Habits: Common in recently plowed areas and on the bunds between the rice fields. While they are usually solitary during the day, at night they roost communally in trees, particularly on the forested slopes of Mount Makiling. In the morning and evening, they can be seen flying between the forest and the fields. The term egret comes from the French word aigrette, meaning plume. The display plumes of various species of Egret were highly prized in 19th century Europe where they were used as accessories on hats. The species most affected by this were Little Egret and Great Egret, however, many species of egret display this feature.

 Large-billed Crow

Large-billed Crow (Corvus macrorhynchos)

Status: Common resident.

Food: Opportunistic feeders, eating both carrion and live prey.

Habits: Mainly seen on the upland farms. They roost in the forest, visiting the fields in small groups to forage, often in recently plowed areas. They are quite aggressive and will harass raptors and other large birds until they leave the area.

 Lesser Coucal

Lesser Coucal (Centropus bengalensis)   

Status: Common resident.

Food: Almost entirely grasshoppers.

Habits: Inhabits areas with long grass and tangled vegetation. Can often be seen in the early morning perched at the top of clumps of grass, apparently catching the morning sun. Its deep booming call is familiar to all who spend their time in this habitat. It is closely related to cuckoos, however, it is not a brood parasite, building nests in the long grass.

 Little Egret

Little Egret (Egretta garzetta)    

Status: Common resident.

Food: Fish, amphibians, insects, crustaceans, reptiles, and small mammals.

Habits:Common in flooded areas of the farms. Generally solitary, though large concentrations can occur where food is plentiful. Easily separated from other white egrets by the black legs and strongly contrasting bright yellow feet. Like other heron species at IRRI they roost in trees, usually in the forest.  Little Egrets sometimes hunt by standing on one leg and agitating the mud beneath the water with a foot. This presumably causes small animals to show themselves whereupon they are caught.

 Little Ringed Plover

Little Ringed Plover (Charadrius dubius)

Status: Common resident.

Food: Chiefly insects, also spiders and other invertebrates.

Habits: One of the most widely distributed species in the world, this species is found throughout the northern hemisphere. It is one of the commonest waders at IRRI and inhabits fallow fields particularly where the water has dried up.

 Long-toed Stint

Long-toed Stint (Calidris subminuta) 

Status: Common passage migrant in autumn, from early August to early November.  Occasional small flocks are seen throughout the winter, with the last birds usually leaving by late February. Spring migration is much less regular with no birds at all being seen some years.

Food: Principally invertebrates.

Habits: Like the Wood Sandpipers with which they often associate, this species prefers patches of open in which to feed and roost. They occur in smaller numbers, but have a similar pattern of occurrence and are the commonest small wader occurring at IRRI.

 Oriental Pratincole

Oriental Pratincole (Glareola maldivarum)

Status: Common visitor from mid-February to mid-December.

Food: Flying insects.

Habits: Large flocks can often be seen hawking insects overhead, or roosting on the plowed fields, particularly on the upland farm. They are often seen in association with Pacific Golden Plovers due to a shared preference for this kind of habitat.

 Oriental Skylark

Oriental Skylark (Alauda gulgula)

Status: Common resident.

Food: Insects and seeds.

Habits: This species is well camouflaged and spends most of its time on the ground in short grass, making it quite difficult to see. When displaying however, it will fly vertically to a height of many meters where it will sing for many minutes while hovering in the air before parachuting back to the ground, still singing. At times, when many birds are displaying, the fields can be alive with beautiful lark song.


 Peregrine falcon

Peregrine (Falco peregrinus)   

Status: Winter visitor, recorded mid-October to late April.

Food: Almost entirely birds, usually caught in flight. Commonest prey probably includes waders, swallows, and doves.

Habits: A single bird has spent most of the winter for at least the last 5 years, using the pylons passing through the experimental farm as a roost and a perch from which it launches its attacks. There are two races present in the Philippines, the race that occurs at IRRI is Falco peregrinus calidus, a common migrant.

 Pied Bushchat-male

Pied Bushchat (Saxicola caprata)

Status: Common resident.

Food: Insects.

Habits: Strictly confined to the drier areas of IRRI, particularly the upland farms. They tend to sit on low perches in open fields, often only a few inches above the ground, from where they hawk for food. There is a marked difference between the sexes, with the drab brown female being much duller than the strongly marked black and white male.

 Red Turtle Dove

Red Turtle Dove (Streptopelia tranquebarica)   

Status: Resident.

Food: Fruits and seeds of weeds and grasses.

Habits: Less associated with people than other species of dove. This handsome bird is seen most often in winter when small flocks visit the farms, though they do occur at other times of the year.

 Slaty-breasted Rail

Slaty-breasted Rail (Galirallus striatus)

Status: Likely to be a resident, with some post-breeding dispersal. Most sightings at IRRI are from mid-August to late December, with occasional ones at other times of year.

Food: Worms, mollusks, insects, grain, seeds, and shoots of marsh plants.

Habits: A very shy species, which is easily overlooked, its slightly mysterious status could be due to its habits. At certain times of year when the rice fields are fallow, there is almost no suitable cover for this species, and it must move somewhere. It is most often seen on bunds between rice fields, and uses the rice for cover like other rallids.


Watercock (Gallicrex cinerea)   

Status: Rare resident.

Food: Seeds and shoots of wild and cultivated rice, worms, mollusks, crustaceans insects, and tadpoles.

Habits: Despite its large size, this bird is rarely seen due to its secretive nature. Mainly crepuscular (twilight), it is most often seen at dawn and dusk. At IRRI, it seems to disappear when the rice is harvested, presumably moving into areas with more permanent cover.

 Swinhoe's Snipe

Swinhoe’s or Pintail Snipe (Galinago megala/stenura)

Status: Common passage migrant and winter visitor. Observed from mid-August to mid-April.

Food: Invertebrates, mainly insects and their larvae, mollusks, and earthworms.

Habits: Nocturnal, sometimes crepuscular (twilight). The separation of these two species can be quite difficult in the field, and most sightings cannot be ascribed to one species or another. They are extremely well camouflaged, and rely for their defense on standing motionless at the approach of danger. If the threat comes too close, they take off in an explosive manner, flying extremely quickly, low over the rice before dropping back into cover once again.

 Spotted Dove

Spotted Dove (Streptopelia chinensis)

Status: Common resident.

Food:Fruits and seeds of weeds and grasses.

Habits: The largest species of dove occurring at IRRI. It is a favored target for local hunters, including the wintering Peregrine that is often on the pylons on the experimental station.

 Whiskered Tern

Whiskered Tern (Chlidonias hybridus)   

Status: Passage migrant and winter visitor, late September to late April.

Food: Mainly insects plucked from the water’s surface; it will take small fish.

Habits: Extremely large flocks pass through the IRRI fields and nearby areas every year. Many roost and feed on the flooded rice fields, with some birds remaining throughout the winter. In summer, they develop a very attractive breeding plumage and birds in this condition this can sometimes be seen at IRRI.

 White-bellied Munia

White-bellied Munia (Lonchura leucogastra)               

Status: Scarce resident.

Food: Small seeds of grasses, weeds, or rice.

Habits: The least numerous Munia species, they often occur in mixed flocks with the Scaly-breasted Munia. Most regularly seen on the upland farms, they are only rarely seen in the rice fields. This bird is known to eat rice.

 White-browed Crake

White-browed Crake (Porzana cinerea)

Status: Common resident.

Food: Worms, leeches, insects, frog spawn, fish, seeds, and leaves of aquatic plants.

Habits: A very common and visible species of the rice fields. It uses the rice for cover, but it will also feed in open areas when the rice fields are fallow. Less shy than other rails and crakes, this is one of the signature species of the farms at IRRI. Its loud, nasal chattering call is audible at several hundred meters, and is familiar to anyone who has visited the rice fields in the early morning.

 Yellow Wagtail

Yellow Wagtail (Motacilla flava)

Status: Abundant passage migrant and winter visitor. Observed from early September to mid-May.

Food: Insects.

Habits: Very large groups pass through the IRRI fields during both autumn and spring, although usually only a small number stay throughout the winter. Most of the birds at IRRI are of the racetschutschensis, which breeds in Mongolia and eastern Siberia, although birds of the race taivana from the Sakhalin Islands are likely to occur.

 White-collared Kingfisher

White-collared Kingfisher (Todirhamphus chloris)

Status: Common resident.

Food: Fish, insects, worms, crabs, amphibians, and small reptiles.

Habits: The most common kingfisher at IRRI, and a bird that is widespread throughout the Philippines. It occurs in rice fields, along rivers, in mangroves, and on the seashore, wherever there is shallow water with fish.

 White-throated Kingfisher

White-throated Kingfisher (Halcyon smyrnensis)    

Status: Resident.

Food: Insects, small reptiles, nestling birds, and small mammals.

Habits: Despite its name this species does not generally feed on fish, along with approximately half the world’s kingfishers. Quite often seen in forested areas, particularly around the UPLB campus and on Mount Makiling, as well as perched on wires at IRRI. This species has a loud and raucous call. Recent DNA studies have shown this to be a separate species, endemic to the Philippines. The name Brown-breasted Kingfisher (Halcyon gularis) has been proposed.

 White-breasted Waterhen

White-breasted Waterhen (Amaurornis phoenicurus)

Status: Common resident.

Food: Worms, mollusks, crustaceans, insects, and fish.

Habits: Less aquatic than other members of its genus, it is often seen on the edges of the fields, or crossing roads near the rice fields in the early morning. It is very wary of people and will run into cover at first sign of a threat. It probably does not nest in the rice fields themselves, but uses them principally for foraging.

 White-breasted Wood Swallow

White-breasted Wood swallow (Artamus leucorynchus)     

Status: Common resident.

Food: Flying insects.

Habits: One of the most noticeable birds in the IRRI fields due to their habits of perching huddled in small groups on the various power lines that cross the area. They hawk insects from these vantage points, and are extremely confiding. They often mob much larger birds and are very aggressive.

 Wood Sandpiper

Wood Sandpiper (Tringa glareola)

Status: Common winter visitor and abundant passage migrant. Recorded late July to mid-May.

Food: Mainly invertebrates, particularly insects.

Habits: These birds pass through IRRI in such numbers that, at times, it seems that they are the only birds in the rice fields. Many stay on throughout the winter, and they are a common sight on any sufficiently large patch of standing water where they both feed and rest.

 Yellow Bittern

Yellow Bittern (Ixobrychus sinensis) 

Status: Common resident.

Food: Insects, fish, amphibians, and mollusks.

Habits: This species uses the rice for concealment on occasion, but probably does not hunt within the rice itself very often. It prefers more tangled vegetation and is most commonly seen on overgrown bunds on the edges of plowed rice fields, or flying low over the rice. When flushed, it often flies to cover in large bushes or trees nearby, and will perch briefly in the open when it lands before disappearing into cover.

 Zebra Dove

Zebra Dove (Geopelia striata)

Status: Common resident.

Food: Fruits and seeds of weeds and grasses.

Habits: An extremely common species throughout the Philippines. It is found wherever there is grass and scrubby vegetation, including in the middle of large cities. Quite habituated to people, this is one of the most familiar species in the country.


 Striated Grassbird

Striated Grassbird (Megalurus palustris)

Status: Common resident.

Food: Insects.

Habits: A large heavy-set warbler that is seen in all areas of the IRRI fields. They will often be found walking on the ground, particularly along the bunds or in tangled vegetation. When displaying, they will seek a perch on a low bush, fence or even a power line, from which they will sing loudly.

 Chestnut Munia

Chestnut Munia (Lonchura malacca)

Status: Common winter visitor and abundant passage migrant, although birds have been recorded in every month except June.

Food: Flying insects.

Habits: Large flocks pass through the farms on migration during spring and autumn. Many birds stay throughout the winter. Their natural preferred habitat is marshes and reed-beds, but rice fields seem to offer an acceptable alternative. They feed by catching insects in flight, at all altitudes from very low over the fields to several hundred feet in the air. They roost on wires and the stakes alongside the rice fields themselves, where they can sometimes congregate in very large numbers.

 Cinnamon Bittern

Cinnamon Bittern (Ixobrychus cinnamomeus)

Status: Common resident.

Food: Insects, mollusks, frogs and fish.

Habits: This handsome bird uses the rice for concealment as it hunts. It is shy and secretive, and prefers not to move far from cover. It is most commonly seen on bunds between fields containing mature rice plants, when disturbed it will quicly disappear back into the rice.

 Long-tailed Shrike

Long-tailed Shrike (Lanius schach)

Status: Common resident.

Food: An opportunistic feeder catching a great variety of large insects, small mammals, reptiles, and small birds.

Habits: Most often seen on the upland farm, or just outside the main gate at IRRI. They prefer exposed perches, often using power lines and large fence posts. They are usually found in pairs and are very territorial and will noisily defend their turf against intruders. The race found in the Philippines is quite different in appearance from other members of the species occurring in the rest of Asia.

 Pacific Swallow

Pacific Swallow (Hirundo tahitica)          

Status: Common resident.

Food: Flying insects.

Habits: Much less common than the Barn Swallows, these birds are present year-round. They are most often seen hawking over water, the streams passing through the farms are a good place to find them. They will roost on wires and stakes.

 Scaly-breasted Munia

Scaly-breasted Munia (Lonchura punctulata)        

Status: Common resident.

Food: A variety of grass seeds and rice.

Habits: The commonest and most numerous Munia, this species forms quite large flocks in the grasslands in the upland fields where they spend most of their time. They do visit the rice fields to feed, particularly when the rice is ripe. This bird is known to eat rice.

 Paddyfield Pipit

Paddyfield Pipit (Anthus rufulus)                

Status: Common resident.

Food: Insects.

Habits: A common but over-looked bird, this species belongs to a group of birds of similar habits and appearance that are distributed throughout Asia, Australasia, and Africa. They are ground feeders and nesters, usually only taking flight when disturbed or in display. They can be seen in all areas of the IRRI fields.

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