Bird Missing For 140 Years In Papua New Guinea Appears On Film

A month-long expedition in Papua New Guinea last September produced what may have seemed impossible for some visiting scientists.

When a camera trap turned up the first-ever videos and images of a rare bird the local cultures revere, the team and its islander contingent rejoiced.

After 140 years, the larger scientific world finally knew the Black-naped Pheasant Pigeon was still alive.

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


Locals crucial to finding bird

Boersma’s group captured the footage in the deep rainforest of Fergusson Island, the biggest of the Papua New Guinea group. According to AllAboutBirds, the expedition team included members from ABC, the Cornell Lab, and the Papua New Guinea National Museum, plus local Papua New Guineans.

The world knows precious little about the Black-naped Pheasant Pigeon apart from two specimens collected in 1882. However, local hunters have spotted the bird a handful of times over the years. According to AllAboutBirds, the ground-dwelling bird has become a keystone in Fergusson Island’s local lore. And people on the island proved pivotal to finding it.

Augustin Gregory, a hunter from the village of Duda Ununa, advised the team on areas where it might find a pheasant pigeon. And “local bird expert” Doka Nason placed the camera that eventually recorded the bird.

“When I saw the photos, I was incredibly excited,” Nason said. “I was jumping around yelling ‘We did it!’”

Others in the expedition framed the sought-after discovery as an instance of ecological inspiration.

“This is just a story of excitement and hope,” co-expedition leader John Mittermeier told CBC Radio host Nil Koksal. “I mean, how incredible is it that this species was missing to scientists for 140 years and we were able to find it?”

An uncertain future

The bird in the video looks vigorously healthy, bobbing its tail and patrolling the forest floor. But the Black-naped Pheasant Pigeon’s well-being appears far from certain in the long-term.

According to AllAboutBirds, the landowner of the tract where the specimen appeared told the team he’d recently signed a contract with a logging company. That discovery triggered a funding round from Boersma and Mittermeier’s group, which now hopes to return to Fergusson Island on a mission to count the birds’ population.

The species is native only to Fergusson Island, and holds critically endangered status, according to BirdLife International.

Sam Anderson

Sam Anderson spent his 20s as an adventure rock climber, scampering throughout the western U.S., Mexico, and Thailand to scope out prime stone and great stories. Life on the road gradually transformed into a seat behind the keyboard, where he acted as a founding writer of the AllGear Digital Newsroom and earned 1,500+ bylines in four years on topics from pro rock climbing to slingshots and scientific breakthroughs.