New global search effort targets rediscovery of rarest birds on Earth
A new global search effort is calling on researchers, conservationists and the global birding community to help find 10 rare bird species that have been lost to science.
The Search for Lost Birds is a collaboration of Re:wild, American Bird Conservancy (ABC), and BirdLife International, with data support from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and its eBird platform used by birders around the world.
It's an extension of Re:wild's Search for Lost Species program, which launched in 2017 and has since rediscovered eight of its top 25 most wanted lost plant and animal species. As its name suggests, however, the Search for Lost Birds focuses exclusively on rediscovering enigmas in ornithology.
"During the past five years, since we launched the Search for Lost Species, our list of species that could be considered lost has grown to more than 2,000," said Barney Long, Director for Conservation Strategies for Re:wild. "We never planned to look for all of them alone, but to encourage others to search and develop partnerships to help. Through this new partnership we'll be able to get more targeted expeditions in the field. If we can find these lost birds, conservationists can better protect them from the threats they face."
The top 10 most-wanted lost bird species. Top: Himalayan Quail, Negros Fruit Dove, Prigogine's Nightjar, Santa Marta Sabrewing. Middle: Vilcabamba Brushfinch, Siau Scops Owl, Cuban Kite. Bottom: South Island Kōkako, Dusky Tetraka, Jerdon's Courser (Lynx Edicions).
The Search for Lost Birds is hoping to harness the collective power of the global birding community to help search for species on the top 10 most-wanted lost birds list. Cornell's eBird platform provides an example of what the global birding community can accomplish, but despite 700,000 registered users collectively submitting more than 1 billion records from around the world, none of those observations have included any of the top 10 most-wanted lost birds.
There have been no documented sightings of any of the 'top 10' in the wild in at least a decade, but they are not classified as Extinct on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Reasons for their disappearances range from habitat destruction to invasive species. In a few cases, species may have gone missing simply because scientists don't know where or how to look for them, or don't have access to their habitats, which may be remote or in places that currently have travel restrictions. Many of the lost birds are native to areas that are rich in biodiversity, but also urgently need conservation efforts to protect their biodiversity.
"By working with partners and collaborators from around the world, the Search for Lost Birds hopes to engage the knowledge and expertise of the global birdwatching community to solve these conservation challenges," said John C Mittermeier, Director of Threatened Species Outreach at ABC. "By directly reporting sightings and information through eBird, birdwatchers and citizen scientists from anywhere in the world can help us find and learn more about these lost species."
The 10 species span five continents; some have recently been lost to science, while others have been lost for more than a century. Two species, Siau Scops Owl and Negros Fruit Dove, have only ever been documented once, when they were originally described in the mid-1800s and in 1953 respectively.
The top 10 most-wanted birds are:
- Dusky Tetraka, last documented in 1999 in Madagascar;
- South Island Kōkako, last seen in 2007 in New Zealand;
- Jerdon's Courser, last seen in 2009 in India;
- Prigogine's Nightjar, last seen in 1955 in Democratic Republic of Congo;
- Cuban Kite, last seen in 2010 in Cuba;
- Negros Fruit Dove, last seen in 1953 in the Philippines;
- Santa Marta Sabrewing, last seen in 2010 in Colombia;
- Vilcabamba Brushfinch, last seen in 1968 in Peru;
- Himalayan Quail, last seen in 1877 in India; and
- Siau Scops Owl, last seen in 1866 in Indonesia.
Two expeditions, led by local and national partners and funded under the Search for Lost Birds partnership, are preparing to head into the field during the next year. The expeditions will focus on Siau Scops Owl in Indonesia and Dusky Tetraka in Madagascar. Expeditions for other species are expected to be underway in the coming year as well.
Siau Scops Owl was last seen 155 years ago, when it was first described by science, but there have been unconfirmed reported sightings and calls of a bird that potentially matches the description of the owl during the past 20 years. Much of the forest where it was originally discovered has been destroyed, but given how challenging it can be to detect small forest owls, conservationists believe that there is a chance that a small and as-yet-overlooked population may still survive.
Dusky Tetraka was last definitely seen in Madagascar 22 years ago; before that, there had been very few confirmed sightings of the species in the humid understory of the forests of eastern Madagascar.
One species on the list, South Island Kōkako, has already been the focus of an ongoing search. The South Island Kōkako Charitable Trust has been leading a community-driven search for the bird for the past 11 years, following up on possible sightings and reports of people hearing what sounds like the bird's haunting call. They launched a public search campaign in 2017 that has drawn nearly 300 reports of possible encounters with a South Island Kōkako, which, in addition to historic reports, they have rated and mapped.
"We are optimistic that the Search for Lost Birds will lead to exciting rediscoveries, but ultimately it's about conservation," said Roger Safford, Senior Program Manager for Preventing Extinctions at BirdLife International. "We know that with good conservation efforts, species can be rescued from the brink of extinction, but only if we know where the last populations are. We hope these expeditions will capture people's imaginations and catalyze conservation."
Madagascar Pochard is one example of a species thought lost forever that went on to be rediscovered (David Gibbs).
ABC supports field expeditions to search for these species and works with partners to conserve rediscovered birds. For example, ABC is supporting Brazilian partners' efforts to recover the population of Blue-eyed Ground Dove, rediscovered in Brazil in 2015.
Other recent rediscoveries of bird species have fueled hope that expeditions for the top 10 most wanted lost birds will be successful. An expedition in Colombia in March 2021 seeking Sinú Parakeet, one of Re:wild's top 25 most wanted lost species, didn't find the parakeet, but did document dozens of species that had never before been recorded in Cordóba Department. In Indonesia, Black-browed Babbler, a bird that had only had one documented sighting, was rediscovered after 170 years in February 2021.
The rediscoveries of other lost birds have also led to conservation efforts that helped them recover from threats to their survival. Madagascar Pochard in Madagascar is another example of a 'lost' species that was once feared gone forever, but is now increasing thanks to conservation efforts following its rediscovery.