Rare dove rediscovered in Brazil after 75-year disappearance

Just 12 individuals of Blue-eyed Ground-dove are reported to have been seen. Photo: Rafael Bessa.
Just 12 individuals of Blue-eyed Ground-dove are reported to have been seen. Photo: Rafael Bessa.
In one of the most extraordinary stories in Brazilian conservation, a group of researchers have announced that Blue-eyed Ground-dove, last seen in 1941, has been refound.

Since it was last documented, it has been believed to be extinct but now the species has been relocated in the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais at sites which are currently being kept secret. Researchers have confirmed sightings of just 12 individuals, and securing its remaining habitat will be the key to conserving the elusive bird.

There was a buzz in the crowd at the Brazilian Birdwatching Festival last weekend when ornithologist Rafael Bessa unveiled the rediscovery. His highly-anticipated talk was entitled 'Species X’, and for the first time in history, the species’ song was played to the public. Blue-eyed Ground-dove was previously only known from a handful of stuffed and ageing museum specimens, and a few more recent unsubstantiated reports. Mr Bessa has effectively now brought Blue-eyed Ground Dove back to life.

“When he played the video there was a commotion in the crowd and non-stop applause,” said Pedro Develey of SAVE Brasil (BirdLife in Brazil). “It was pure emotion.”

For the last few months the group of researchers – supported by SAVE Brasil, Rainforest Trust and Butantan Bird Observatory – have been working in secret to correctly and scientifically record the rediscovery, as well as simultaneously developing a conservation plan to secures the Critically Endangered bird’s long-term survival.

The Brazilian cerrado habitat in which Blue-eyed Ground-dove makes its home is almost as endangered as the bird itself. Photo: Rafael Bessa.

Describing the rediscovery, Bessa said: “I returned to the place and I could recreate this vocalisation with my microphone. I reproduced the sound and the bird landed on a flowering bush, coming towards me. I photographed the animal, and when I looked at the picture carefully, I saw that I had recorded something unusual. My legs started shaking.”

Blue-eyed Ground-Dove occurs exclusively in Brazil and is threatened by the destruction of the Brazilian cerrado, a savannah-like habitat. The jubilation of the rediscovery quickly turned to sobering thoughts of acting fast to save the small population which may not even number many more than the 12 birds seen.

“We are now worried about the conservation of the species,” explained Rafael Bessa. “We are working on several fronts to build this plan. The main action is to ensure that the area where it was found becomes a protected area, which would benefit not only the Blue-eyed Ground-Dove but many other threatened species occurring there.”

With cobalt-blue eyes and dark blue spots on its wings which stand out against its overall reddish-chestnut plumage, it’s hard to believe such an eye-catching bird went unnoticed for so long. But rapid rates of habitat loss in the region mean that many more species could be heading to extinction unseen.

“Increasing the knowledge on Brazilian biodiversity is the first step to ensure its conservation,“ said Luciano Lima of Instituto Butantan. “By doing so, we contribute to a better quality of life and health for all species, including our own.”

The exact location where the species was found and the bird’s song will not be released by the researchers until the conservation plan is officially put in place. Within the plan, the researchers studying the biology of the species, especially its behaviour, breeding biology and feeding. They are also exploring habitats similar to the known site, aiming to find more of the species. The search areas are identified through satellite imagery, as well as a mathematical technique called Ecological Niche Modelling.

“So far we have visited many areas in three states, but the species was located only in two sites close together, both in the state of Minas Gerais. [This] reinforces the need for urgent action to guarantee its survival,” warned ornithologist Wagner Nogueira.

Blue-eyed Ground-dove seems to have a specific habitat which could be as Critically Endangered as the bird itself. Conservationists are worried that potential new infrastructure projects in the region, no matter how small, could wipe out the entire species.

Members of the public have a chance to become a BirdLife Species Champion for Blue-eyed Ground-Dove by writing to species.champions@birdlife.org.
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