Blue-Eyed Ghost Bird Rises From the Grave

Seventy-five years after the ground-dove was last seen in Brazil, a new discovery has conservationists scrambling to protect it.

When ornithologist Rafael Bessa took the stage at the Brazilian Bird Watching Festival last month, he was ready to let go of a tightly guarded secret—one that he’d been holding onto for nearly a year. His talk, titled “Species X,” had drawn a crowd of more than 100 curious birders and researchers. He started by recounting the history of Brazil’s “ghost birds”—species like the Golden-crowned Manakin and the Cherry-throated Tanager, once thought to be victims of extinction, only to be rediscovered decades later. After building up the suspense, the crowd became the first to hear recordings of Brazil’s newest “ghost bird.”

For years the Blue-eyed Ground-Dove, a species whose range is exclusive to Brazil, was thought to be extinct; the last confirmed sighting dates back to 1941. The chestnut-colored bird, with blue freckles and irises to match, has only been seen a handful of times since it was first discovered in 1823. Photos and recordings of the species were non-existent, causing scientists to debate over whether the bird even had blue eyes.

Given the dove’s extreme elusiveness, its discovery in the Brazilian Cerrado, the tropical savanna that covers 21 percent of Brazil, was pure fate. While conducting an ecological survey in the state of Minas Gerais in 2015, Bessa stumbled across an unfamiliar area of the Cerrado. After some exploration, the veteran birder picked up on a tune he couldn’t immediately identify. The following day, Bessa returned to the same location and recreated the bird call. And just like that, he found himself lens to beak with the blue-eyed ghost dove.

“I photographed the animal, and when I looked at the picture carefully, I saw that I had recorded something unusual. My legs started shaking,” Bessa told the Brazilian newspaper Estadao.

After confirming Bessa’s finding and images, Save Brasil and Observatório de Aves do Instituto Butantan dispatched several secret expeditions to the Cerrado. Since the initial encounter, subsequent trips to the location by the team have resulted in 12 individual bird sightings, according to BirdLife International. Though they’ve made their discovery public, the microhabitat itself has remained a mystery.

Pedro Develey, executive director of Save Brasil, says it’s necessary to keep the location secret to ensure the survival of the estimated 50 to 249 adult ground-doves that are living in the Cerrado. Revealing that information might lead to hundreds of birders crowding the area to catch a glimpse of history. And it’s not just tourists that could disturb the birds’ habitat: Develey is more concerned about a much deadlier threat—poachers. “There are crazy collectors of doves. I’m a little afraid,” he says. “That’s why we have to keep the location a secret. It will not be possible for long but let’s try.”

With these notions in mind, Develey and Save Brasil are rapidly working on conservation plans to protect the doves. One proposal made to the Brazilian government includes incorporating the known habitat into an adjacent state park that’s currently under development in the Cerrado.

The other solution is to purchase the land engulfing the doves’ habitat. As luck would have it, the undisclosed location belongs to a private landowner who is willing to sell to save the birds. If a deal is struck, Develey and Save Brasil could turn the site into a natural heritage reserve. While the land would still be privately owned, it would be open for exploration, scientific research, and ecotourism, they say.

Fundraising for such a project will be an uphill journey. Physical donations are difficult to secure in Brazil due to the economic instability of the country. But this hasn’t deterred the team from continuing their trips out to the Cerrado, recording data on the Blue-eyed Ground-Dove and educating communities living around the habitat. Develey knows that he bears the burden of making sure the bird doesn’t disappear for another 75 years.

“The first thing I thought was, wow, it’s such a beautiful bird,” he says. “The second thing was, wow, it’s such a responsibility! I’m responsible for saving this species.”