‘Like Finding a Unicorn’: Researchers Rediscover Black-Naped Pheasant-Pigeon, a Bird Lost to Science for 140 Years

‘Like Finding a Unicorn’: Researchers Rediscover Black-Naped Pheasant-Pigeon, a Bird Lost to Science for 140 Years

In the final hours of a month long search through rugged jungles swarming with mosquitos, scientists confirmed the sighting of a bird that hasn’t been seen in 140 years.

A picture of the ground-dwelling black-naped pheasant-pigeon was captured via camera trap, and felt to the team “like finding a unicorn.”

Documented to science in 1882 and not seen since, the black-naped pheasant pigeon is now almost certainly the most endangered bird in New Guinea, and reinforces the need to conserve as much of its home of Fergusson Island off the east coast of the mainland.

With just hours remaining before their search was called off, expedition co-leader Jordan Boersma was catching his breath on a hillside while looking through camera trap photos.

“Suddenly I was confronted with this image of what at that time felt like a mythical creature,” Boersma, a postdoctoral researcher at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, told the Audubon Society. “It was, without exaggeration, the most surreal moment of my life.”

Funding the expedition is The Search for Lost Birds, an initiative to locate 150 avian species lost to science but not declared extinct, organized by BirdLife International, Re:wild, and American Bird Conservancy.

This is normally when a reporter explains a little about the “mythical creature” but so little is known about it beyond its chicken size, and that it carries a plethora of rust-colored back and shoulder feathers which sharply contrast its black nape and tail.

Chief among the expedition’s assets were the indigenous people of Fergusson Island, whose knowledge of the land was key to making the discovery. In fact, it was in the village of Duda Ununa that a hunter named Augustin Gregory told the researchers of a 3,200 foot high ridge he had seen the bird on.

It was on that ridge that their camera traps caught not one, but two separate black-naped pheasant-pigeons passing by. When Jordan Boersma showed his local colleague Doka Nason the images, his reaction, caught on video and viewable here, was priceless.

“This is a huge discovery,” Bulisa Iova, an expedition member and acting chief curator of the National Museum and Art Gallery in Papua New Guinea, told Audubon. “I have studied birds for many years, and to be part of this team to discover this lost species is a highlight for me.”

Now that the species is confirmed to exist, it means not only is there 1 less bird on the Search for Lost Birds‘ 150 bird roster, but 1 less of 20 that haven’t been seen in over 100 years.

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