Large pigeon lost to science for 140 years rediscovered in Papua New Guinea
A team of scientists and conservationists has rediscovered the elusive Black-naped Pheasant-Pigeon, a large, ground-dwelling pigeon that only lives on Fergusson Island, a rugged island in the D'Entrecasteaux Archipelago off of eastern Papua New Guinea. Like other pheasant-pigeons, the Black-naped Pheasant-Pigeon has a broad and laterally compressed tail, which, along with its size, makes it closely resemble a pheasant. The bird has been observed several times over the years by local hunters, but the newly taken photographs and video are the first time the bird has been documented by scientists since 1882, when it was first described. Ornithologists know very little about the species, but believe that the population on Fergusson is very small and decreasing.
The research team photographed the pheasant-pigeon with a remote camera trap at the end of a month-long search of Fergusson.
“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-Pigeon,” said Jordan Boersma, postdoctoral researcher at Cornell University and co-leader of the expedition team. “Then as I was scrolling through the photos, I was stunned by this photo of this bird walking right past our camera.”
“After a month of searching, seeing those first photos of the pheasant-pigeon felt like finding a unicorn,” added John C. Mittermeier, Director of the Lost Birds program at ABC and co-leader of the expedition. “It is the kind of moment you dream about your entire life as a conservationist and birdwatcher.”
The expedition team — which included local Papua New Guineans working with Papua New Guinea National Museum, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and American Bird Conservancy — arrived on Fergusson in early September 2022. They spent a month traveling around the island, interviewing local communities to identify locations to set up camera traps in hopes of finding the pheasant-pigeon. The steep, mountainous terrain on Fergusson Island made searching for the bird extremely challenging.
“It wasn't until we reached villages on the western slope of Mt. Kilkerran that we started meeting hunters who had seen and heard the pheasant-pigeon,” said Jason Gregg, conservation biologist and a co-leader of the expedition team. “We became more confident about the local name of the bird, which is ‘Auwo,' and felt like we were getting closer to the core habitat of where the Black-naped Pheasant-Pigeon lives.”
The expedition was the first-ever camera trapping study conducted on Fergusson Island. The team placed 12 camera traps on the slopes of Mt. Kilkerran, Fergusson's highest mountain, and deployed an additional eight cameras in locations where local hunters had reported seeing the pheasant-pigeon in the past.
“When we finally found the Black-naped Pheasant-Pigeon, it was during the final hours of the expedition,” said Doka Nason, the member of the team who set up the camera trap that eventually photographed the lost bird. “When I saw the photos, I was incredibly excited.”
A local hunter named Augustin Gregory in the village of Duda Ununa west of Mt. Kilkerran provided a breakthrough lead on where to find the bird. Gregory reported seeing the pheasant-pigeon on multiple occasions in an area with steep ridges and valleys and described hearing the bird's distinctive calls.
Following Gregory's advice, the team set up cameras in an area of dense forest. A camera placed on a ridge at 3,200 feet (1,000 meters) near the Kwama River above Duda Ununa eventually captured the Black-naped Pheasant-Pigeon walking on the forest floor two days before the team was scheduled to leave the island.
Several members of the team have attempted to find the Black-naped Pheasant-Pigeon before. A two-week survey in 2019 by Boermsa, Gregg, and Nason didn't find any traces of the bird, though it did gather reports from local hunters of a bird that could have been the pheasant-pigeon. The results from that survey helped to determine locations for the team to search in 2022.
“The communities were very excited when they saw the survey results, because many people hadn't seen or heard of the bird until we began our project and got the camera trap photos,” said Serena Ketaloya, a conservationist from Milne Bay, Papua New Guinea. “They are now looking forward to working with us to try to protect the pheasant-pigeon.”
The team's findings suggest that the pheasant-pigeon is likely to be extremely rare. The rugged and inaccessible forest where they rediscovered the species could be the last stronghold for the species on the island.
“The fact that many of the people we interviewed had never seen or heard of the pheasant-pigeon really highlights how elusive this bird is and suggests that it could be extremely sensitive to human disturbance,” said Cosmo Le Breton, who supported the team in the field as a research assistant from Oxford University.
“This rediscovery is an incredible beacon of hope for other birds that have been lost for a half century or more,” said Christina Biggs, Manager for the Search for Lost Species at Re:wild. “The terrain the team searched was incredibly difficult, but their determination never wavered, even though so few people could remember seeing the pheasant-pigeon in recent decades.”
“As well as giving hope for searches for other lost species, the detailed information collected by the team has provided a basis for conservation of this extremely rare bird, which must indeed be highly threatened, together with the other unique species of Fergusson Island,” said Roger Safford, Senior Program Manager for Preventing Extinctions at BirdLife International.
The expedition was supported by American Bird Conservancy (ABC) and The Search for Lost Birds, a collaboration between BirdLife International, ABC, and Re:wild. The Search for Lost Birds identified the pheasant-pigeon for an expedition after a global review revealed it was one of a few bird species that have been lost to science for more than a century.
The full expedition team consisted of Jordan Boermsa, Jason Gregg, Doka Nason, Serena Ketaloya, Elimo Malesa, Bulisa Iova, Cosmo Le Breton, and John C. Mittermeier. The expedition was funded by a grant from Cosmo Le Breton to ABC and The Search for Lost Birds.
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