Something to crow about: Bird last documented in 1882 caught on camera


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Something to crow about: Bird last documented in 1882 caught on camera

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A rare bird last documented 140 years ago was caught on camera by eagle-eyed observers in Papua New Guinea.

The last time the black-naped pheasant pigeon was documented by scientists, Queen Victoria still had about 20 years left in her rule and the outlaw Jesse James would meet his famous demise the same year. Though rumored sightings swirled among locals, scientists were unable to find one until a September expedition to Fergusson Island. After setting up several different cameras in remote locations, researchers finally caught images of the creature for the first time in 140 years, Cornell University reported.


“After a month of searching, seeing those first photos of the pheasant pigeon felt like finding a unicorn,” said John Mittermeier, director of the Search for Lost Birds project at the American Bird Conservancy and a leading member of the expedition. “It’s the kind of moment you dream about your entire life as a conservationist and birdwatcher.”

“For much of the trip, it seemed like we had no chance of finding this bird,” said Jordan Boersma, expedition co-leader and postdoctoral researcher at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. “We were just two days away from the end of our time on Fergusson Island in Papua New Guinea when one of our remote cameras recorded the bird walking around and fanning its tail.”

The bird is mostly black, with an orange back and beak, red eyes, and a bobbing pheasantlike tail. As seen in the video, it also struts around like a typical pigeon found in the United States. The bird was caught on video and in camera stills, but the sound it makes still eludes scientists. Locals describe its sound as the cry of an “ostracized woman.” The expedition hopes to return soon in an attempt to find more of the species and learn more about it.

The bird is apparently so hard to find because of its remote habitat, with researchers speculating they only live in mountainous, rugged, hot terrain filled with insects, leeches, and winding rivers. A 2020 expedition attempting to find the bird on Fergusson Island emerged from the wilderness unsuccessful.

The researchers expressed their pride in the expedition and hope that their new find is just the beginning.


“It was an experience of a lifetime working with Fergusson Islanders to find the pheasant pigeon and giving talks at schools and villages about our search was a highlight,” expedition co-leader Jason Gregg said. “Kids were whispering the local name of the bird, Auwo, and everyone was talking about it. I’m so happy we know this species survives, and it opens opportunities to learn even more about the bird and its incredible home.”

The expedition was funded by Re:wild, BirdLife International, and the American Bird Conservancy, with a grant from Cosmo Le Breton.

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