Science / Ornithology

Lost and Found: Searching for the World’s Lost Birds

For twelve days this October, a team of Brazilian birders and ornithologists performed an exhaustive search of Rio de Janeiro’s Atlantic Forest. Their target was the tiny Kinglet Calyptura, a bird so sought after it is often called the “Holy Grail” of South American birding. For over one hundred years, the bird was as lost as the Grail itself. Habitat loss devastated the already small population and, as the twentieth century came to a close, most scientists agreed that the Calyptura was extinct. Stunningly, a pair of the birds was discovered in 1996. They were observed for three days before disappearing once again into the dense rainforest, tantalizing ornithologists across the globe.

This year’s expedition sought to pinpoint the Calyptura population, if it still exists. Sponsored by the Instituto Butantan, a nonprofit based in Sao Paulo, and led by Brazilian ornithologist Luciano Lima, the team had over thirty members members. They scoured the Amazon, finding over two hundred species, but the Calyptura eluded them. On October 25, The mission returned home in disappointment. But this expedition did not occur in a vacuum; it is just one piece of a larger puzzle. For decades, scientists have been searching for lost birds across the world. To understand the motivations behind these efforts, it is necessary to think about them within a larger context of conservation, activism and hope.

Indeed, the Kinglet Calyptura is not the only lost bird subject to pursuit. The International Union for Conservation of Nature has listed two dozen bird species without a known living example as “threatened” rather than “extinct,” implying the possibility of rediscovery. The American Birding Conservancy (ABC) has highlighted three of these species, including the Calyptura, for expeditionary efforts. A search for one of the three, Venezuela’s Tachira Antpitta, was launched this past June. The search was unsuccessful, but scientists still view the bird as the most likely South American species to be rediscovered. The Turquoise-throated Puffleg, native to Ecuador, rounds out the list, and will be subject to three expeditions over the next two years.

These searches are well-funded and impressively supported. Sponsors of the ABC expeditions include The Smithsonian; the University of California, Santa Cruz; Tulane University; and numerous South American NGOs and non-profits. Furthermore, rediscovery efforts extend far beyond the Americas. In 2009, Birdlife International, a coalition of birdwatching groups with over ten million members and supporters, launched a global attempt to locate forty-seven lost birds. The undertaking was unprecedented in scale, targeting birds everywhere from the Himalayas to the Somali desert. But the effort was to no avail, and not a single bird on the list was successfully observed.

Closer to home, the United States’s Ivory-Billed Woodpecker, by far the country’s most famous lost bird, has been subject to dozens of expeditions. Much like the Calyptura, for over a century the Ivory-Billed was believed to be extinct. In 2005, following a report matching the bird’s description, ornithologists seemingly caught the bird on film in the Arkansas swampland. An ocean of birders descended on the region; a $10,000 reward was even offered for definitive proof of the bird’s existence. Despite the exhaustive search, all further attempts have been fruitless, and the bird remains lost to this day. The hunger for rediscovery has not abated, however, despite the disappointments. Just this past year, an unsuccessful expedition was launched into Cuba, the Woodpecker’s other historical habitat. The team’s lead ornithologist was undeterred by the failure, writing in his final journal entry that he “will continue to scour the Southern United States,” citing the extensive, unexplored mangrove swamps in Florida as a prime location for rediscovery.

Simply speaking, an enormous amount of time and resources have been funneled into rediscovery efforts, almost all of which have been fruitless. Yet, each successive failure has not deterred further efforts in the least. Why are people putting so much effort into finding lost birds? And even if a tiny population is rediscovered, how can finding one individual make a difference?

To answer this question, one first must consider the stakes: Earth’s bird species face an enormous threat that cannot be taken lightly. Indeed, Birdlife International classifies over one thousand species, one eighth of the world’s total, as “threatened” with extinction. Of this group, over two hundred are listed as “critically endangered,” the highest category of risk. More than one hundred species have gone extinct since 1600, including three added to the list in just 2014. Humanity, of course, is the primary offender. Agriculture, logging, and the introduction of invasive species are the overwhelming causes of this devastation. Although it is mankind that so threatens bird populations, human efforts are absolutely critical for their survival.

Most conservation efforts are fairly straightforward. Scientists determine the causes of depopulation or habitat loss for each species and direct their attention to solving that particular problem. But these lost birds, unobserved for over a century, are completely data deficient. Scientists know next to nothing about their habitats, breeding habits, or primary food sources. This lack of information makes it incredibly difficult to build an effective conservation program. To have any chance of saving the birds, these gaps need to be filled. To do so requires specimen-collection and intensive study, none of which are possible unless the population is located. In other words, even if ornithologists were one hundred percent certain that the Calyptura still lived in the Amazon rainforest, without actually locating the birds, they would be nearly powerless to help.

If a lost population is located, however, there is a real chance for recovery. For instance, in 1977, scientists discovered two hundred Kakapo, a large, flightless parrot endemic to New Zealand. The bird was on the very brink of extinction; no females were even known to exist before the discovery. In 1987, scientists relocated the Kakapo to an offshore sanctuary, to study the birds and protect them from feral cats. The birds dropped to fifty-one individuals in 1995, but as a result of extensive research, scientists began to turn the tide. By providing supplemental food, eliminating invasive predators and focusing on breeding productivity, ornithologists have restored the population to about one hundred fifty and rising.

The Kakapo is one of quite a few success stories. A decade after rediscovery, the Pale-Headed Brush-Finch, once considered extinct, has been downgraded to “endangered” status. An ornithologist stumbled upon the long-lost Moustached Kingfisher last year, and scientists are exceedingly hopeful for its recovery. Unquestionably, finding these birds can be critical conservation tools, catalyzing their survival.

The value of these expeditions goes beyond locating the target species. These missions are also incredible works of activism. Indeed, bird extinctions are almost completely unknown to the wider community, and a crucial goal of any rediscovery effort is to build awareness. Certainly, a successful search can have a truly remarkable effect in this area. For instance, when the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker was sighted back in 2005, the news spread across mass-media. The bird’s plight reached an unprecedented audience: President Bush even pledged millions of dollars for habitat restoration. Similarly, since its resurgence, news of the Kakapo has regularly appeared in New Zealand’s premier newspaper. Moreover, when the birds were rediscovered on mainland Australia this past year, scientists cheered, first and foremost, that they were “back in the spotlight.”

Even a failed expedition can be a source of publicity. The extraordinary, forty-seven-species effort by Birdlife International was coordinated with a British Birdwatching Fair that attracted over twenty thousand people to the cause. The fair raised £263,000, and the British Ministry of Tourism pledged financial support. Indeed, returning to this fall’s Calyptura expedition, team leader Luciano Lima declared that the primary goal of the project was to raise awareness and build support for Amazonian birds. In Lima’s words, the threat to bird species does “not get any attention from the media, the scientific community or the general public. The quest for Kinglet Calyptura [was] a way to call attention to the wave of extinction that is wiping out the Atlantic Rainforest birds.”

These expeditions, then, are exceptionally valuable. They offer real chances at conservation, giving scientists the last, best hope for saving species on the brink. What’s more, they provide unparalleled publicity, serving to build general awareness of these species’ plights. This additional time in the public eye increases both resources and support, which in turn gets funneled back into searches, perpetuating the conservation cycle. Awareness, though, is much more than a vehicle for donations. It creates an incredible attachment to these beautiful animals and a burning desire to keep them in our world. It is hard to understate the connection fostered by a successful expedition; the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker is burned into the consciousness of every American birder. The same is true of the Calyptura in Brazil. People will fight for these birds until they are either rediscovered or declared extinct. As Lima puts it, “forgetting is also a form of extinction.” From this fate, at least, these birds are safe.