Doka Nason/American Bird Conservancy

A sighting of the Black-naped Pheasant Pigeon in the Fergusson Island of Papua New Guinea.

November 1, 2023

Cornell Researchers Speak on Finding “Lost” Bird Species, Subsequent Media Coverage

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Since 1896, ornithologists had labeled the Black-naped Pheasant Pigeon as a missing species until a recent 2022 study reported its survival. Cornell researchers are now learning more about this once “lost” bird species to better understand its biogeography.

The Black-naped Pheasant Pigeon is a large pheasant-like ground pigeon, endemic to the rainforests of Fergusson Island in Papua New Guinea. However, it was feared to be extinct because no official records of the species existed since the American Museum of Natural History obtained a preserved specimen from Fergusson Island dated to 1896.

Jordan Boersma, postdoctoral researcher at the Lab of Ornithology, and his team of American and Papua New Guinea-based researchers set out on an expedition — co-led by Boersma  — to Fergusson Island, where they had previously worked with hunters that knew of the ground pigeon species. 

During their expedition, the researchers tested residents’ knowledge of local bird species using graphics and audio recordings to help guide their next steps and determine what places to visit next. They discovered that elders in villages close to the center of the island reported seeing the Black-naped Pheasant Pigeon in the 1980s and 1990s but had not been to those regions since that time. 

Upon contacting villagers still living in those areas, researchers found hunters that could both accurately recognize different species and had recently seen the bird. By taking their advice on where to set up trail cameras and recording equipment, the team succeeded in capturing a video of the elusive bird walking around and fanning its tail.

This finding circulated quickly among Western news outlets — such as the BBC, USA TODAY, and CBS News — as well as social media. The newfound attention highlighted the significance of this discovery and the threat of environmental degradation in the indigenous lands of Fergusson Island, but John C. Mittermeier — co-leader of the expedition —  and other researchers voiced their concerns over the coverage. 

“Me, Jason [Gregg] and John [Mittermeier] — the three Americans on this expedition — have been really centered in the narrative,” Boersma said. 

Although Boersma expressed gratitude for the recognition of their hard work, he emphasized that the expedition was only made possible by local partners like Eli Malesa, a trader and village leader who translated for them, managed logistics and conducted many of the interviews. 

The researchers also expressed reservations over the media portrayal of these findings as a re-discovery of a “lost” bird species, even though the bird had never been considered missing by the indigenous New Guinean communities. 

“This was not a question of discovering something nobody knew about but joining knowledge networks,” Mittermeier said. 

Boersma and Mittermeier both said that although finding concrete proof of the bird’s survival was scientifically important, framing their team as the first to see the pigeon since 1896 delegitimizes local ecological knowledge. 

“The embedded cultural narrative around conservation, discovery and exploration is often about Westerners ‘discovering’ things’,” Mittermeier said. “Some of the media coverage has a tendency to fall into that.” 

Boersma also noted that many of their local partners regularly went off the grid, making them difficult to contact. Doka Nason, a local partner made famous by a viral video of his reaction to the discovery, could not be reached for an interview. The expedition’s Institutional Review Board also mandated that the identity of their interviewees be kept anonymous.

Mittermeier explained how places like Papua New Guinea are seen as “untouched” or “undiscovered” by Western audiences because of headlines like those following the Black-naped Pheasant Pigeon. Boersma added that these portrayals often lead to outsiders opposing local residents’ development towards improving their living conditions, which reinforces the island’s “untouched” image.

“Historically we’ve done a bad job, in science, of acknowledging indigenous or local knowledge,” Boersma said. “Local people should be controlling the narrative of the places they are native to.”

Yoon Lee can be reached at [email protected]