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Large pigeon lost to science for 140 years rediscovered in Papua New Guinea

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The expedition team – which included local Papua New Guineans working with Papua New Guinea National Museum, Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the American Bird Conservancy (BirdLife USA) – arrived on Fergusson in early September 2022. They spent a month traveling around the island, interviewing local community members 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, which are similar to other species of pheasant-pigeons.

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 (1000 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.

Camera trap footage of the Black-naped pheasant-pigeon © Doka Nason/American Bird Conservancy

“This rediscovery is an incredible beacon of hope for other birds that have been lost for half a century or more. 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.”

Christina Biggs, manager for the Search for Lost Species at Re:wild

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