‘Lost’ pigeon found after more than a century

An expedition to Papua New Guinea in September video-confirmed the existence of the black-naped pheasant dove, an endangered species that has not been reported for 140 years.

“For much of the trip, it seemed like we had no chance of finding this bird,” said Jordan Boersma, co-leader of the expedition and a postdoctoral fellow at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. “We were just two days from the end of our time on Fergusson Island in Papua New Guinea when one of our remote controlled cameras recorded the bird pacing and fanning its tail.”

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

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

Apart from two specimens collected in 1882, almost nothing is known about the black-necked pheasant pigeon. There are no records of their sounds. The researchers believe it would likely sound similar to another species of pheasant pigeon on mainland Papua New Guinea — a sound locals liken to the desperate scream of a woman 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 on where to look. Nason set up the camera, which eventually recorded the bird. “When I saw the photos, I was incredibly excited,” he said. “I jumped around and screamed, ‘We did it!'”

“It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience working with the Fergusson Islanders to find the Pheasant Pigeon, and presenting talks in schools and villages about our search was a highlight,” said Jason Gregg, a co-leader of the expedition. “Children whispered the bird’s local name – Auwo – and everyone talked about it. I’m so glad we know this species survives and it opens up opportunities to learn even more about the bird and its incredible homeland.”

But conservationists are concerned. The main landowner where the bird was found told the search team he had just signed a contract with a logging company – a move that could threaten the black-necked pheasant pigeon and its habitat. The team is seeking funding so they can return to Fergusson and try to work out how many of the species are left.

“The reason I care, why I think we should all care, is because this bird has meant something to the local people and continues to mean something,” Boersma said. β€œIt’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 the American Bird Conservancy and 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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