With black and orange feathers and red eyes, the critically endangered black-naped pheasant-pigeon remained a mystery for over a century, as it was first – and last – observed by researchers in 1882.
But 140 years later, the bird has been spotted for the second time ever.
The bird only exists in the rugged, just over 500 square mile Fergusson Island, just off the coast of southeast Papua New Guinea.
There, a team of researchers with the Papua New Guinea National Museum, Cornell Lab of Ornithology and American Bird Conservancy arrived in September, hoping to spot the black-naped pheasant-pigeon.
The team spoke with locals to help them set up camera traps to capture the bird, noting some areas where they thought they had seen it, according to re:Wild, which helped fund the effort.
For nearly a month, the team went without evidence of the bird. But just two days before researchers were scheduled to leave the island, Jordan Boersma, postdoctoral researcher at Cornell Lab of Ornithology and co-leader of the expedition team, was going through camera footage when he was “stunned” to see the bird walking right past the camera.
“After a month of searching, seeing those first photos of the pheasant-pigeon felt like finding a unicorn,” John C. Mittermeier, director of the lost birds program at the American Bird Conservancy, said in a statement. “It is the kind of moment you dream about your entire life as a conservationist and birdwatcher.”
The discovery comes after some members of the research team attempted to find the bird in 2019, but could not find any traces of it.
The researchers credited their success to local hunter Augustin Gregory, who had told them he had seen the ground-dwelling bird in an area with steep ridges and valleys and hearing its calls.
The team then went into a dense forest area of the island, where they placed a camera on a 3,200-foot high ridge near a river, where it was later captured.
Serena Ketaloya, a conservationist from Milne Bay, Papua New Guinea, said the local communities were “very excited” about the spotting of the bird because many people hadn’t seen or didn’t know about the bird until the research team arrived on the Iceland.
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Not much is known about the black-naped pheasant-pigeon. The species’ population is undetermined, but it is listed as a critically endangered species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature as of July 2021, listing its estimated population from 50 to 249 birds.
The decline in the species population is suspected to be because of loss of forest habitat due to logging, according to the global conservation program EDGE of Existence.
Conservationists hope confirming the black-naped pheasant-pigeon’s existence will provide hope for other birds that haven’t been seen in decades. The team hopes to go back to Fergusson Island in the future to find out the species’ population, adding the bird’s importance to the region.
“The reason I care, why I think we should all care, is that this bird has meant something and continues to mean something to the local people,” Boersma said. “It’s part of their legends and culture. If we lose this species, then its cultural importance will be lost along with the role it plays in this fantastic ecosystem.”
Follow Jordan Mendoza on Twitter: @jordan_mendoza5.
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