A bird considered extinct for 140 years has been rediscovered in the forests of Papua New Guinea.
The black-necked pheasant pigeon was documented by scientists for the first and last time in 1882, according to a press release from the non-profit organization Re:wild, which helped fund the search.
To rediscover the bird, an expedition team had to spend a grueling month on Fergusson, a rugged island in the D’Entrecasteaux archipelago off the coast of eastern Papua New Guinea where the bird was originally documented. The team included local staff from the National Museum of Papua New Guinea and international scientists from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the American Bird Conservancy.
Fergusson Island is covered in rugged, mountainous terrain, making the expedition especially challenging for the scientists. Many members of the community told the team that they had not seen the black-necked pheasant pigeon in decades, the press release said.
But just two days before the researchers were due to leave the island, a camera trap captured images of the exceptionally rare bird.
“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 Lost Birds Program at American Bird Conservancy and co-leader of the expedition. . “It’s the kind of moment where you dream about your whole life as a conservationist and birdwatcher.”
According to the release, the black-necked pheasant pigeon is a large, ground-dwelling pigeon with a broad tail. Scientists still know little about the species and believe the population is small and declining.
Insight from local residents was crucial for the scientists to track down the elusive bird.
“It wasn’t until we reached villages on the western slope of Mt. Kilkerran that we began to encounter hunters who had seen and heard the pheasant pigeon,” Jason Gregg, a conservation biologist and co-leader of the expedition team, said in the release. “We gained more confidence in the local name of the bird, which is ‘Auwo’, and felt we were getting closer to the core habitat of where the black-necked pheasant pigeon lives.”
They placed a total of 12 camera traps on the slopes of Mt. Kilkerran, the highest mountain on the island. And they placed another eight cameras in locations where local hunters reported seeing the bird in the past.
A hunter named Augustin Gregory, based in the mountain village of Duda Ununa, made the final breakthrough that helped scientists locate the pheasant pigeon.
Gregory told the team he had seen the black-necked pheasant pigeon in an area with “steep ridges and valleys,” the press release said. And he had heard the bird’s distinctive call.
So the expedition team placed a camera on a 3,200-foot ridge near the Kwama River above Duda Ununa, according to the release. And finally, just as their journey was coming to an end, they captured footage of the bird walking across the forest floor.
The discovery came as a shock to both scientists and the local community.
“The communities were very excited when they saw the survey results because many people had not seen or heard of the bird until we started our project and got the camera trap photos,” says Serena Ketaloya, a conservationist from Milne Bay, Papua New Guinea . Guinea, in the press release. “They now look forward to working with us to try and protect the pheasant pigeon.”
It’s still not clear how many of the black-naped pheasant dove are left, and the rugged terrain will make identifying the population difficult. A two-week survey in 2019 turned up no evidence of the bird, though it did uncover some reports from hunters that helped determine the locations for the 2022 expedition.
And the discovery could give hope that other extinct bird species still roam somewhere.
“This rediscovery is an incredible beacon of hope for other birds that have been lost for half a century or more,” Christina Biggs, the Search for Lost Species manager at Re:wild, said in the release. “The terrain the team traversed was incredibly difficult, but their resolve never wavered, even though so few people could remember seeing the pheasant pigeon over the decades.”