Black-naped pheasant-pigeon, not seen since 1882, has been spotted – USA TODAY

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With black and orange feathers and red eyes, the critically endangered black-naped pheasant-pigeon remained a mystery for over a century after it was first – and last – observed by researchers in 1882. 

But 140 years later, the bird has been spotted for the second time ever.

The bird exists in the rugged, just over 500-square-mile Fergusson Island, just off the coast of southeast Papua New Guinea. 

There, a team of researchers with the Papua New Guinea National Museum, Cornell Lab of Ornithology and American Bird Conservancy arrived in September, hoping to spot the bird.

The team spoke with locals to help them set up camera traps to capture an image of the bird, according to re:Wild, which help fund the effort. 

For nearly a month, the team went without evidence of the bird. But just two days before researchers were set to leave the island, Jordan Boersma, postdoctoral researcher at Cornell Lab of Ornithology and co-leader of the expedition team, was going through camera footage when he was “stunned” to see the bird walking right past the camera. 

“After a month of searching, seeing those first photos of the pheasant-pigeon felt like finding a unicorn,” John C. Mittermeier, director of the lost-birds program at American Bird Conservancy, said in a statement. “It is the kind of moment you dream about your entire life as a conservationist and birdwatcher.”

The discovery comes after some members of the research team tried to find the bird in 2019 but could not find any traces of it. 

The researchers credited their success to local hunter Augustin Gregory, who had told them he had seen the ground-dwelling bird in an area with steep ridges and valleys and heard its calls.

The team then went into a dense forest area of the island, where they placed a camera on a 3,200-foot- high ridge near a river, where the image was captured. 

Serena Ketaloya, a conservationist from Milne Bay, Papua New Guinea, said local communities were “very excited” at the news because many people hadn’t seen or didn’t know about the bird until the research team arrived on the island. 

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Not much is known about the black-naped pheasant-pigeon. The species’ population is undetermined, but it is listed as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. As of July 2021, its estimated population was 50 to 249 birds.

Researchers suspect the species population has declined because of logging and the loss of forest habitat, according to the global conservation program EDGE of Existence

Conservationists hope confirming the black-naped pheasant-pigeon’s existence will provide hope for other birds that haven’t been seen in decades. The team hopes to return to Fergusson Island to check the species’ population.   

“The reason I care, why I think we should all care, is that this bird has meant something and continues to mean something to the local people,” Boersma said. “It’s part of their legends and culture. If we lose this species, then its cultural importance will be lost along with the role it plays in this fantastic ecosystem.”

Follow Jordan Mendoza on Twitter: @jordan_mendoza5.

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