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Scientists ‘re-discover’ lost pigeon species in Papua New Guinea

The odds were stacked against getting a photo of a black-naped pheasant pigeon, said Jordan Boersma, a postdoctoral researcher. (Abcbirds.org)

It has been 140 years since scientists identified the black-naped pheasant pigeon in the mountainous tropical forests of Papua New Guinea’s Fergusson Island. Since then, the chicken-sized bird has been so elusive that ornithologists began comparing it to Bigfoot.

Now, they’ve finally re-sighted it — and captured it on camera for the first time ever — with just hours to spare on a scientific expedition aimed at finding the long-lost bird.

Researchers are hailing the sighting as a “re-discovery” of a bird that is likely New Guinea’s most endangered, and they say they never could have accomplished it without the help of Indigenous communities.

The bird was caught on camera in late September. Scientists identified it on an expedition funded by the Search for Lost Birds, a quest to identify lost bird species worldwide sponsored by the American Bird Conservancy, BirdLife International, eBird and Re:wild. The organizations want to help science rediscover 150 bird species that have not yet been marked extinct, but that have not been observed in the past decade.

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The black-naped pheasant pigeon may have been lost to science, but its continued existence on Fergusson Island was confirmed by local hunters and Indigenous people, who helped researchers identify potential locations. The scientists placed 20 camera traps around the 555-square-mile island at spots where locals said they’d seen and heard the bird. The camera that finally captured an image and video of the pheasant pigeon was on a steep, heavily jungled slope of Mt. Kilkerran.

“I figured there was less than a one-percent chance of getting a photo of the Black-naped Pheasant-Pigeon,” Jordan Boersma, postdoctoral researcher at Cornell University and co-leader of the expedition team, said in a release. “Then as I was scrolling through the photos, I was stunned by this photo of this bird walking right past our camera.”

Despite the sighting, the scientists believe the birds are few in number and critically endangered. They say they’ll cooperate with local communities on Fergusson Island to use the first-ever photo and video sightings of the ground-dwelling bird to help conserve the species.

The bird was previously known to science from just two specimens first collected by naturalist Andrew Goldie and named and described by British ornithologists Frederick DuCane Godman and Osbert Salvin in 1883.

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