The White Crested Laughingthrush is a unique, personable bird from south-east Asia that I have encountered on two recent zoo visits. These encounters inspired me to look up these outgoing birds and I discovered some very interesting things about them which I am going to share in this article.
Before going any further, I should point out that I have a slight bias towards these creatures. In a recent zoo visit, in the bitter cold, I was introduced to the white crested laughingthrush. There was no sign identifying them on their cage so I had no idea what they were but what I now know to be the male white crested laughingthrush was very interested in the small party of visitors outside his cage. He put on quite the show, not permitting visitors to wander out of his view without voicing his disapproval in a very obvious manner, and attempting to follow them as far as he could in his cage. He kept this up the entire twenty minutes I was outside his cage and continued to sing after me as I walked away from the cage. He was easily the most entertaining animal in the zoo.
Laughingthrushes come in four separate genera and are most frequently found in southeast Asia. The white crested laughingthrush is known to science as Garrulax leucolophus and has a home range throughout the Himalayan foothills, though it has been introduced into Singapore and Malaysia as a result of release from the pet trade and escapes from owners. They are quite common throughout their range, leading scientists to declare that they are not threatened at all in their home range. There are unconfirmed reports of individuals being sighted wild in both the United Kingdom and the United States.
As one might expect based on the name, the white-crested laughingthrush has a white crest atop its head which is distinctive of the species. Generally, they have dull brown to mustard brown wings and a white chest and head. A small patch of grey marks the transition between the wings and the neck. They have a black band which runs through their eyes, ending at the grey patch on their neck. White-crested laughingthrushes are sexually dimorphic. This means the female and the male can be told apart just by looking at their appearance. The female’s crest is much smaller and less distinct. The male crest is the defining feature of its head. As noted in the above story, white-crested laughingthrushes are very social and more than willing to interact with their human visitors in zoos or the wild. They frequently are found in gangs of eight to ten, but these can be up to forty. They are not strong flyers, generally sitting on jungle branches until disturbed, when they will quickly flit to another nearby tree. The call of a white crested laughingthrush is quite distinctive. I’ve linked to a website with calls on it from this bird below. The laughingthrush name comes from the calls which slightly resemble a child laughing. Their diet is varied, consisting of various insects and, if they get the opportunity, small fish, reptiles, and amphibians. The one I witnessed being fed on a recent zoo visit was making a meal of bait minnows.
White-crested laughing thrushes have a distinctive method of breeding, something not commonly seen in the animal kingdom. Their breeding season ranges from March to August and males and females form very tight-knit bonds during that time. They nest generally in bamboo, at least a few feet from the ground. They will lay eggs multiple times in a breeding season. The parents will incubate the eggs for up to seventeen days before the chicks hatch. Both parents share in this chore, along with the duties of caring for the newly hatched chicks. After about two weeks in the nest, the chicks are capable of feeding themselves and look essentially like smaller adults. However, they do not leave their nesting area. Instead, older hatched chicks stay around the nest as the male and female raise a new brood and help care for them. This will go on until the end of the season, with some chicks weaning in mid-March still helping around the nest at the end of the breeding season. The chicks will be sexually mature in their second year of life and will reach their slightly less than twelve-inch length about the same time.
The white crested laughingthrush is more than just an interesting creature, however. Some of its behaviors provide challenges to evolutionary theory. The social behaviors of the bird are common enough among birds but where did they come from? How does a bird know that one call means danger, another means food, and a third is merely a social inquiry? This comes down to instinct, something built into the bird which is unlearned. However, the origin of instinct must be explained. Evolution has no explanation for it. No random process would create an innate knowledge of anything, everything would have to be learned.
Further, the white crested laughingthrush has unusually close family ties for a bird. Using newly fledged young to care for newly hatched chicks is a novel method of easing chick care burdens on the parents. However, why do the young stay around? There is no evolutionary benefit for the newly fledged chick to help rear its future competitors. Instead, it puts itself at risk for birds that will one day compete with it for food, mates, and shelter. This is the exact opposite of what evolution would predict. The newly hatched chicks do not care about the fledglings genes. Why then, evolutionarily speaking, should the fledglings care about them? No random process would ever devise such a self-sacrificing behavior, and yet it is normal for the white crested laughingthrush. Surely this bird had to have been designed to function this way. No other explanation works and explains its behaviors adequately.