- After 140 years, a pigeon subspecies that has been lost to science has been sighted on the island of Fergusson off East Papua New Guinea.
- After following the advice of a local hunter, the researchers photographed the black-necked pheasant pigeon, a large, ground-dwelling bird, for the first time using a remote-controlled camera trap.
- Ornithologists believe the pheasant dove is extremely rare and these forests on Fergusson Island in the D’Entrecasteaux archipelago may well be the only place where they exist.
- The expedition was part of the Search for Lost Birds program, a collaboration between BirdLife International, the American Bird Conservancy and Re:wild.
After 140 years, a pigeon subspecies lost to science has been rediscovered on Fergusson Island off East Papua New Guinea. Using a remote-controlled camera trap, the researchers photographed the black-naped pheasant pigeon (Otidiphaps nobilis insularis)a large, ground-dwelling bird, for the first time since its description in 1883.
“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. “It’s the kind of moment you dream about your whole life as a conservationist and bird watcher.”
Black-naped Pheasant Pigeon caught on camera. Photo: Doka Nason/American Bird Conservancy
In September 2022, the expedition team, which included native Papua New Guineans working with the Papua New Guinea National Museum, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the American Bird Conservancy, spent a month interviewing local people and promising locations for installing their hides find camera traps. The steep, mountainous terrain and dense forests of Fergusson Island added to the challenge.
“It wasn’t until we reached the villages on the western slope of Mt Kilkerran that we began to encounter hunters who had seen and heard of the pheasant dove,” Jason Gregg, conservation biologist and co-lead of the expedition team, said in a statement. “We became more certain of the bird’s local name, which is ‘Auwo,’ and felt we were getting closer to the core habitat where the black-necked pheasant dove lives.”
A local hunter, Augustin Gregory, told the team he saw and heard the birds. His tip led them to a 1,000-meter ridge near the Kwama River above Duda Ununa. Here, cameras snapped a photo of the black-naped pheasant dove walking across the forest floor just two days before the end of the expedition.
“When we collected the camera traps, I figured there was less than a one percent chance of getting a photo of the black-naped pheasant dove,” said Jordan Boersma, a postdoctoral fellow at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and co-lead of the expedition team in a statement. “Then, as I scrolled through the photos, I was stunned by this photo of this bird that went right past our camera.”
The expedition was part of the search for lost birds, a collaboration between BirdLife International, the American Bird Conservancy and Re:wild. Last year, the Search for Lost Birds found a Santa Marta’s saber-thrower hummingbird in the Santa Marta Mountains of Colombia. Prior to the expedition, the critically endangered hummingbird was thought to be extinct and had not been sighted since 2010.
Ornithologists believe the pheasant dove is extremely rare and these forests on Fergusson Island in the D’Entrecasteaux archipelago may well be the only place where they exist. The birds are threatened by habitat loss, mainly from deforestation by international companies and predation by feral cats. Scientists hope this finding will inspire conservation efforts for the black-necked pheasant dove, which will also benefit other animals and plants on the island.
“The detailed information gathered by the team has not only provided hope in the search for other lost species,” said Roger Safford, Senior Program Manager for Extinction Prevention at BirdLife International, but also a foundation for the conservation of this extremely rare bird.”
Banner image: Black-naped Pheasant Pigeon. Photo: Doka Nason/American Bird Conservancy
Liz Kimbrough is a permanent writer for Mongabay. Find her on Twitter @lizkimbrough
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