‘Lost’ pigeon found after more than a century

A September expedition to Papua New Guinea confirmed via video the existence of the black-naped pheasant pigeon, a critically endangered species that has not been reported for 140 years.

“For much of the journey, it seemed like we couldn’t find this bird,” said Jordan Boersma, co-leader of the expedition and a postdoctoral researcher at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. “We were only two days away from the end of our time on Fergusson Island in Papua New Guinea when one of our remote cameras captured the bird walking around and flapping its tail.”

The group captured the first-ever video and photos of the bird, a large ground-dwelling species with a rust-colored back, black head and body, and bobbing pheasant-like tail. It may only exist far inland on Fergusson Island in hot, extremely rugged geothermal terrain laced with winding rivers and close to biting insects and leeches.

“After a month of searching, seeing those first photos of the pheasant dove felt like finding a unicorn,” said John C. Mittermeier, director of the Search for Lost Birds project at American Bird Conservancy and a core member of the expedition team. “It’s the kind of moment you dream about all your life as a conservationist and birdwatcher.”

Almost nothing is known about the black-necked pheasant pigeon, apart from two specimens collected in 1882. There are no recordings of his sounds. The researchers think it probably sounds like another pheasant pigeon species in mainland Papua New Guinea — a sound locals liken to the desperate cry of a woman being ostracized by her community.

Tapping into indigenous knowledge was key to the expedition’s success. Doka Nason, a local bird expert joined the search and advised the team where to look. Nason set up the camera that ended up recording the bird. “When I saw the photos, I was incredibly excited,” he said. “I jumped around screaming, ‘We did it!'”

“Working with Fergusson Islanders to find the pheasant pigeon has been an experience of a lifetime and lecturing schools and villages about our search has been a highlight,” said Jason Gregg, a co-leader of the expedition. “Children whispered the local name of the bird – Auwo – and everyone was talking about it. I’m so glad we know this species is surviving, and it opens up opportunities to learn even more about the bird and its incredible home.”

But conservationists are concerned. The main owner of the site where the bird was found told the search team that he had just struck a deal with a logging company – a move that could threaten the black-naped pheasant pigeon and its habitat. The team is seeking funding so they can go back to Fergusson and try to find out how many of the species are left.

“The reason I care, why I think we should all care, is that this bird has meant and still means something to the local people,” Boersma said. “It’s part of their legends and culture. If we lose this species, its cultural importance will be lost along with the role it plays in this amazing ecosystem.”

The expedition was funded by American Bird Conservancy and the Search for Lost Birds, a collaboration between Re:wild, BirdLife International and American Bird Conservancy, with a grant from Cosmo Le Breton.

Pat Leonard is a writer for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

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