A bird thought to have been extinct for 140 years has been rediscovered in the forests of Papua New Guinea.
Scientists have documented the black-naped pheasant pigeon For the first and last time, in 1882, the nonprofit Re:wild funded search efforts, according to a press release from the nonprofit organization Re:wild.
Rediscovering the bird required an expedition that spent a grueling month on Ferguson Island, a rugged island in the D’Entrecasteaux Archipelago in eastern Papua New Guinea where the bird was first recorded. The team consisted of local staff from the National Museum of Papua New Guinea, as well as international scientists from the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology and the American Bird Conservancy.
Ferguson Island is covered in rugged mountainous terrain — making the expedition especially challenging for the scientists. Many members of the community told the team they hadn’t seen the black-naped pheasant in decades, the release said.
But just two days before the researchers planned to leave the island, a camera trap captured footage of the extremely rare bird.
“After a month of searching, seeing the first photos of feral pigeons felt like finding a unicorn,” said John C. Mittermeier, director of the Missing Birds Program at the American Bird Conservancy and co-leader of the expedition. “This is the kind of moment that you dream of your whole life as a conservationist and birder.”
According to the release, the black-naped pheasant pigeon is a large ground-dwelling pigeon with a broad tail. Scientists still know very little about this species and believe the population is small and declining.
Insights from local residents are crucial to scientists tracking this elusive bird.
“It wasn’t until we reached the village of Kilkerran on the west slope of Everest that we started encountering hunters who saw and heard feral pigeons,” Jason Gregg, conservation biologist and co-leader of the expedition, said in a release. “We’re more confident in the bird’s local name, ‘Auwo,’ and feel like we’re getting closer to the core habitat of the black-naped pheasant.”
They placed a total of 12 camera traps on the slopes of the mountain. Kilkerran, which is the highest mountain on the island. They placed eight more cameras where local hunters reported seeing the bird in the past.
A hunter named Augustin Gregory, who lived in the mountain village of Dudaununa, provided the final breakthrough that helped scientists find the feral pigeon.
Gregory told the team he saw the pheasant in an area with “steep ridges and valleys,” the release said. He heard the unique call of the bird.
So, according to the release, the expedition placed a camera on a ridge 3,200 feet above Duda Ununa near the Kwaama River. Finally, towards the end of their trip, they captured footage of the bird walking across the forest floor.
The discovery shocked both scientists and the local community.
“When the community saw the findings, they were very excited because many had not seen or heard of this bird until we started our project and got camera trap photos,” said Dr. Environmentalist Serena Ketaloya said Guinea, in a press release. “They now look forward to working with us in our efforts to protect pheasant pigeons.”
It’s unclear exactly how many pheasants are left, and the rough terrain can make determining population numbers difficult. A two-week survey in 2019 failed to find any evidence of the bird, though it did uncover some reports from hunters that helped pinpoint the location of the 2022 expedition.
The discovery may offer hope that other birds thought to be extinct still exist somewhere.
“For other birds that have been lost for half a century or more, this rediscovery is incredible,” Christina Biggs, Re:wild Lost Species Search Manager, said in a news release. Beacon of Hope.” “The terrain the team searched was difficult, but their resolve never faltered, although few in recent decades remember seeing feral pigeons.”