The Search for Lost Birds

It feels like finding a unicorn or a Bigfoot.

— John C. Mittermeier

Auwo was once a woman. She worked hard all day in her family’s garden, but when she returned home, her family offered her only plain food while they ate dishes made with coconut cream. This went on until, hurt by her mistreatment, she ran away. From her coastal home, she fled into the mountains, where she transformed into a bird. Now, when people hear the pheasant pigeon’s call, they say, that’s Auwo, crying because she misses her home.

The leader of the Manawana clan on Fergusson Island, a small spit off the eastern coast of Papua New Guinea, related this legend of Auwo to an ornithologist named Jason Gregg. Auwo is the native name for a bird scientists call the Black-naped pheasant pigeon. In 1882, Scottish naturalist Andrew Goldie collected the first specimen of Otidiphaps nobilis insularis that anyone not indigenous to Fergusson had ever encountered.

Fergusson is a remote place, largely untouched by modern civilization. Goldie was the first scientist to document Auwo and also the last. For 140 years, no photos, videos, or specimens of the Black-naped pheasant pigeon materialized. Was the bird extinct? That possibility was distinctly real. According to Gregg, more than 90% of avian extirpations transpired on islands just like Fergusson, where species evolve into endemicity and become highly vulnerable to alien predators, such as cats, or deforestation.

Auwo could easily have flittered off the planet and we would never know it.

Black-naped pheasant pigeon drawing by John Gerrard Keulemans in the British Museum's Catalogue of Birds

Yet Gregg and others, especially an ornithologist named John Mittermeir, wondered if Auwo still wandered the mountainous climes of Fergusson. In many circumstances, a bird going nearly a century and a half without scientific study might point to doom. However, the New Guinean tropics presented one possible exception. Since Goldie, nearly no one had even stepped foot on Fergusson to probe the island’s wildlife. Based on reports from Goldie and native people, the pigeon was notoriously aloof. As humans crept farther from the coast of Fergusson, perhaps this standoffish bird ambled around the thick forests unseen.

Mittermeir helped found the Search of Lost Birds project specifically to search for species such as Auwo. A collaboration between the American Bird Conservancy, Re:wild, and BirdLife International, the undertaking aimed to search for birds considered “lost,” defined by the group as lacking photographic evidence, sound recordings, or physical documentation for at least 10 years. The project identified 140 species that fit the parameters, 20 of which had not been recorded for more than 100 years. Mittermeir believes that just a fraction of those 20 even had a shot to still be extant.

One of those that just might still be out there was Auwo.

The rugged terrain of Fergusson Island

Hope alone does not, of course, ensure the survival of a species.

Gregg had been to Fergusson in 2019 looking for the pigeon, only to leave with no evidence it survived. That expedition led the IUCN to label it as critically endangered, though it might just as easily have been extinct.

Still, the Search for Lost Birds funded a journey to Fergusson in 2022, desiring to achieve a different outcome. They tailored the excursion to be a mishmash of outside scientific experts and locals who could navigate the wilds of Fergusson and translate conversations with Indigenous people. The group hoped those familiar with the landscape might have insight into Auwo or even have encountered it.

Gregg, Mittermeir, and their team arrived in Fergusson and began to interview locals. They showed drawings of a variety of birds to people, asking them to identify any they had personally seen. The exercise was a bit of a trick test. They sprinkled in common birds on Fergusson, but also included some that did not live on the island, hoping to ascertain the people who really knew their local birds. Sprinkled in was a drawing of Auwo.

The first several people they interviewed had no experience with the pigeon.

The team presents info on the bird to locals, hoping to conjure personal tales - photo by John C. Mittermeir

As they moved inland, however, Auwo started to appear in the memories of locals. A hunter allegedly trapped one in 1997; one person claimed to have seen the pigeon earlier in the year. The group met an elderly woman whose grandmother met Goldie during the original expedition. These tidbits gave them hope that Auwo was out there and they were in the right area.

The party set into the deep mountainsides, deploying trail cameras they hoped might document a living individual. They camped in the rainforest for days, discovering nothing. Their time on the island drew closer and closer to the end; they had not found Auwo.

recently mused on my infant daughter’s ability to marvel at technologies we view as mundane. Where she sees a miracle in a ceiling fan or a light bulb, we regard a commonplace staple. The problem is not in her lack of worldliness but in our imaginations allowing the fires of wonder to extinguish. Every once in a while, an adult experiences the unfettered delight of the child staring at a ceiling fan. These moments fill me with hope. They are so rare that watching a video of another person undergoing this phenomenon is enough to move me. Viewing the following footage was, perhaps, one of my favorite moments of any bit of research done for The Mountains Are Calling

Auwo appeared and delivered an instant of body-crippling awe in the team on Fergusson.

On the last day of the journey, one of the trail cameras had snagged a fleeting image of Auwo, alive and well.

The trail camera captures the elusive Auwo - photo by Doka Nason/American Bird Conservancy

Even better, another camera, a good distance away, captured video of what is likely a second bird!

After 140 years, the Black-naped pheasant pigeon was once again a documented avian.

For the team, the Search for Lost Birds project, and the birding world at large, this evidence was transcendent news. The project’s money and time paid off in something far better than proof-of-concept. Lost birds really could still be out there.

The elation for the team was tempered, however. Just because they had demonstrated the bird still lives does not guarantee anything about the future. The number of pigeons is likely minuscule; the IUCN estimates the population of mature individuals to be between 50 and 250. If that guess is correct, Auwo faces a tough road, even in ideal conditions. To make things worse, logging rights for the land on which the footage was captured had already been leased to a company by the local Indigenous clan. Lacking financial options, those who live in the forests feel they cannot rescind these plans, Auwo or no Auwo.

Still, Gregg views the rediscovery to be a potential lifeline for the bird. He opines that if conservation efforts can somehow weave economic aid for impoverished natives into the overall scheme to save a species, they might be successful. Saving a forest without helping to save those who live there can be a roadblock to triumph. To be honest, his assessment, the number of birds estimated to be alive, and the future logging of the region do not fill me with much optimism.

However, a year ago, we didn’t know Auwo still existed. The Search for Lost Birds project displays humanity’s ability to help other organisms. Maybe we can find a way to keep this legendary avian from extinction.

I can’t sum up the situation any better than Gregg did in his article on the search for Auwo, so we’ll go out quoting him:

“As birds on this planet disappear, Auwo will forever guide my compass toward hope and the beauty we still walk with in our teetering, complicated world. What began with some dusty specimens and a 19th-century research paper led to a mystery, a name, and a breathing creature, a bird of chants and legends that stalks the forest floor. Though Auwo is no longer human, her song assures us that she’s still there.”

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