A bird thought to be extinct for 140 years has been rediscovered in the forests of Papua New Guinea.
The black-naped pheasant pigeon has been documented by scientists for the first and last time in 1882, according to a press release from the nonprofit organization Re:wild, which helped fund the search effort.
To rediscover the bird, an expedition team had to spend a grueling month on Fergusson, a rugged island in the D’Entrecasteaux Archipelago off east Papua New Guinea where the bird was originally documented. The team included local staff from the National Museum of Papua New Guinea, as well as international scientists from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the American Bird Conservancy.
Fergusson Island is covered in rugged, mountainous terrain – making the expedition particularly challenging for the scientists. Many members of the community told the team they hadn’t seen the black-naped pheasant dove in decades, the release said.
But just two days before researchers were due to leave the island, a camera trap captured footage of the exceptionally rare bird.
“After a month of searching, looking at these first photos of the pheasant dove felt like finding a unicorn,” said John C. Mittermeier, director of the lost bird program at the American Bird Conservancy and co-leader of the expedition, in the press release . “It’s the kind of moment you dream about your whole life as a conservationist and bird watcher.”
The black-naped pheasant pigeon is a large, broad-tailed, ground-dwelling pigeon, according to the press release. Scientists still know little about the species and believe the population is small and declining.
Findings from local residents were crucial for scientists to track down the elusive bird.
“Not until we reached villages on the western slope of the mountain. Kilkerran that we were beginning to meet hunters who had seen and heard of the pheasant dove,” Jason Gregg, conservation biologist and co-lead of the expedition team, said in the release. “We became more confident about the bird’s local name, which is ‘Auwo,’ and felt that we were approaching the core habitat where the black-naped pheasant dove lives.”
They placed a total of 12 camera traps on the slopes of the mountain. 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 from the mountain village of Duda Ununa provided the final breakthrough that helped scientists locate the pheasant dove.
Gregory told the team he saw the black-necked pheasant dove in an area of ”steep ridges and valleys,” the press release said. And he had heard the unmistakable call of the bird.
So the expedition team placed a camera on a 3,200-foot ridge near the Kwama River above Duda Ununa, according to the press release. And finally, near the end of their journey, they captured footage of the bird walking on the forest floor.
The discovery came as a shock to scientists and the local community alike.
“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 received the camera trap photos,” said Serena Ketaloya, a conservationist from Milne Bay, Papua New Guinea, in the press release. “They now look forward to working with us to try to protect the pheasant pigeon.”
It’s still not clear how many of the black-necked pheasant pigeons remain, and the rough terrain will make population identification difficult. A two-week survey in 2019 could find no evidence of the bird, although some reports were spotted by hunters who helped determine locations for the 2022 expedition.
And the discovery may offer hope that other bird species thought to be extinct are still out there somewhere.
“This rediscovery is an incredible ray of hope for other birds that have been missing for half a century or more,” said Christina Biggs, manager of lost species searches at Re:wild, in the press release. “The terrain the team scoured was incredibly difficult, but their resolve never wavered despite so few people recalling seeing the Pheasant Pigeon in decades.”