In the small seaside village of Basima, a hunter leans forward and taps a card showing an illustration of a bird. He’s seen that species, the Metallic Starling, known locally as Bune wiwi, here on Fergusson Island in eastern Papua New Guinea. Carefully he taps another card, the Goldie’s Bird-of-Paradise, or Siai, which is found only on this archipelago. And another, and another. Children peek at our group of strangers, who’d arrived yesterday and set up a makeshift camp.
There are 25 cards, each showing a different bird. Some obviously don’t live here, like the Northern Cassowary, a flightless, five-foot-tall avian giant. Others are common residents that inhabit the village’s periphery or the forests where Fergusson Islanders hunt for food and harvest housing material. There are also more challenging cards—look-alikes of local species and small birds only an experienced observer could identify.
Finally, there’s an ace card mixed in: the Black-naped Pheasant Pigeon, with its wide eyes the color of blood, stilted yellow legs, cadmium-orange wings, and a long, tent-like tail. When the hunter pauses over this card, time slows down. Now and then, I exchange glances with our guide and translator, Elimo Malesa, and one of my expedition co-leaders, Jordan Boersma. Will the hunter choose it?
The Black-naped Pheasant Pigeon is the strange bird that has drawn us to this small tropical island. A large, poor-flying pigeon with a pheasant-like tail, it’s the rarest of four sister species of pheasant pigeon scattered across New Guinea. But even calling it rare may be generous: Scientists haven’t laid eyes on it, or heard its far-carrying song, in more than 100 years. Our eight-person team has come to Fergusson Island, the only place it’s thought to live, to seek it out.
I knew we could easily fail. Islands like Fergusson are sites of more than 90 percent of bird extinctions, where naturally small avian populations succumb to introduced predators, disease, and habitat loss. And studies show morphologically distinct species, like the pheasant pigeon, are at highest risk of blinking out. But there were reasons for hope. Fergusson Island is mostly roadless and covered in excruciatingly steep mountains, which is likely why few scientists have come here since Scottish naturalist Andrew Goldie first collected the species in 1882. A handful of specimens and a 140-year-old paper describing the bird are the source of all we know about it. There’s also its behavior: Pheasant pigeons are highly secretive. Perhaps it’s been here all along.
John C. Mittermeier is optimistic. He’s the director of the Search for Lost Birds at American Bird Conservancy (ABC) and another expedition co-leader. The Search for Lost Birds, a collaboration among conservation nonprofits ABC, Re:wild, and BirdLife International, has cataloged around 140 “lost” birds globally, defined as species undocumented with visual or audio recordings for at least 10 years. John says that about 20 species have been missing in the scientific record at least a century. Of these, he believes just a handful have dodged extinction and have a shot at being found—including our target.
Foreigners don’t regularly come to Fergusson, and it’s crucial we gain the trust of residents, who are cautious of our arrival. Throughout Papua New Guinea, Indigenous people own and manage almost all land, and without their buy-in, we won’t be allowed to step foot into the bird’s forest habitat. To introduce our project—and hopefully start a flurry of conversations that may help our search—our plan is to give presentations in communities, beginning at Basima’s primary school. Uniformed students sitting in neat rows in the shade of a mango tree listen as we describe the pheasant pigeon’s appearance and call. “Your homework is to look for the bird,” announces principal Eric Nungu, with a glimmer of a smile. A shy fourth-grader who lives on a ridge above Basima comes to tell us he may have heard it. He’ll go speak with his parents.
Our best leads, however, are likely to come from the island’s hunters, who are most familiar with its wildlife. Interviews with them form the backbone of our month-long search. We hope they’ll recognize our ace card and guide us to spots to deploy motion-activated cameras and automated sound recorders, gadgets we’ve brought to capture evidence of the bird and invasive mammals that may live here. The cameras are our sentinels: They eat batteries, stay up all night, and document everything in their path. The recorders listen for the pheasant pigeon’s distinctive song, described in writing “as a sort of ké-o, the ‘o’ being prolonged.”
After striking out with the first hunter we meet, Jordan and Elimo talk with another in the shade beneath our raised guesthouse. The man, who has lived on Fergusson his whole life, tells us he’s been hunting since he was a boy. He goes into the forest two or three times a month, staying out overnight if the weather is fine, and he recognizes most local birds we show him. He hasn’t seen the pheasant pigeon, either.
As the week unfolds, more interviews yield similar results. Basima’s hunters are bird experts; they choose the right cards, avoiding species that aren’t here. Still, no one recognizes the missing bird, and doubt ripples through our team. But we’re not giving up yet.
y work on Fergusson Island began in 2019. Electrified by the chance to do research in New Guinea, I followed Jordan and Doka Nason, a skilled Papua New Guinean biologist, to scale a toothy mountain named Oya Nai and survey birds. For 10 days we lived on rice, canned tuna, and local fare like ferns, beetle grubs, and freshwater eels, and our surveys documented range expansions of five birds not formerly known to live there. Our results were a strong indication that the island’s avian communities were understudied by scientists. As we surveyed the mountain’s primary forests, I expected we would eventually come across the elusive Black-naped Pheasant Pigeon, and hunters seemed to recognize the species in our field guides. But by that trip’s end, we never saw or heard the bird.
New Guinea is the largest tropical island on Earth, and Papua New Guinea is the country that occupies its eastern half. Its western half is part of Indonesia, a division that is a legacy of the island’s colonization. After the Amazon and the Congo Basin, New Guinea hosts the most extensive unbroken tract of tropical forests in the world. Because it has been separated from the Eurasian continent for tens of millions of years, no hoofed mammals, felines, or nonhuman primates are native to the island. But an extraordinary cast of marsupials and singular birds abound. Nearly 800 avian species are native here, such as pitohuis and Blue-capped Ifrita, which wear an invisible shield of poison on their feathers and skin, and birds-of-paradise, whose breeding displays tranform them into color-dripping hallucinations.
Even among this biodiversity, birds like the Black-naped Pheasant Pigeon stand out—both for how little scientists know about them and because they exist nowhere else on Earth. New Guinea’s main island is adorned with dozens of smaller fringe islands such as Fergusson, biodiversity hotspots influenced by the larger mothership. “They’re mini New Guineas,” says ornithologist Bruce Beehler, “the seeding grounds for insular speciation.” Birds show up from the main island, establish isolated populations, and evolve into distinct species over time. The Black-naped Pheasant Pigeon is a prime example.
When I descended from Oya Nai’s rain-drenched slopes, I returned to tragedy. While I was out of phone service, my little sister had died, cutting off our laughter and initiating a dimmer, second life. I left Papua New Guinea in catatonic grief, relocated to a new job, and attempted to hold a steady bearing. Conservation was my beacon. On a Hawaiian island nearly the size of Fergusson, I joined the ranks of determined biologists fighting for ecosystems pushed to the brink. Working to help endangered species, I listened to the eerie silence of a forest devoid of native songbirds for which help was too late. Loss was a warning, and the pheasant pigeon’s absence lingered on my mind.
What does it mean for a species to be lost? Unlike rare birds of Hawaiʻi, which have been a focus of long uphill conservation battles, the Black-naped Pheasant Pigeon’s status was a big question mark. At the time of our first trip to Fergusson, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) classified it as endangered, but this was a rough sketch based on little ground-truthing. Our own failure to spot it further suggested that any population, if one survived, was likely very small. Doka, Jordan, and I sounded the alarm in a peer-reviewed paper, recommending an island-wide search. In response, the IUCN elevated the bird’s extinction risk level to critically endangered. When John at ABC contacted me, it was a catalyst. His program had a funding opportunity: Would we like to plan an expedition?
We assembled a first-rate team: half international, half Papua New Guinean. Jordan, now a postdoctoral researcher at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and Doka were both on board. We’d be joined by John, who has been obsessed by lost birds since age 12, and Cosmo Le Breton, a young Oxford University biology student who funded the trip. Bulisa Iova, principal curator at Papua New Guinea’s National Museum and Art Gallery, and Serena Ketaloya, who has worked on conservation and gender equality projects across the region, rounded out our group. And after a few Whatsapp messages, Elimo, whom we’d first met in 2019, signed on to be our guide and translator.
Our guide has two names—Elimo, his Christian name, and Weluwa, the name given by his clan—and his life bridges two places, separated by 50 miles of reefs, mangroves, and open water. In Alotau, a bustling capital city in eastern Papua New Guinea, he’s starting a renovation business. But he still considers Fergusson home. He has recently become leader of the Mwadiawa, or White Cockatoo, clan. He’s a natural orator who speaks six of the more than dozen local languages on Fergusson and knows the island like the back of his hand, including where to find a touch of cell phone signal and fuel for our boat, as well as where it’s safe and what villages are best avoided.
From afar, Fergusson looks like a mountain fortress, but I learn that the rural island where Elimo grew up isn’t isolated. Local elections feature ranked-choice voting, and though electricity is scarce, music traded on SD cards and flash drives tinkles through villages. People are always on the move, traveling to other islands—and as Elimo and his father, Fred, explain, this region hosts a traditional trading system of shell necklaces and armbands called the Kula Ring that has connected these communities for centuries. However, Basima is on the coast facing away from the rest of Papua New Guinea,which is why locals call the area the Back Page. People here, I learn, crave better access to markets, information, and goods. A recent political campaign featured a T-shirt that read, “Make Esa’ala District Front Page Again.”
I’d come to think that if hunters here knew the Black-naped Pheasant Pigeon, it wasn’t lost in a real sense. Colonial narratives of discovery still saturate Western representations of Papua New Guinea, explains Paige West, a Barnard College and Columbia University anthropologist who has worked in the country over many years. Away from academic journals, reliable and affordable internet, and tools like binoculars and cameras, lostness was a misnomer, I realized, a result of a continued centering of natural history and ecology in the West.
In searching for the pheasant pigeon, then, our task was to link expertise on Fergusson with our own, testing opportunities for collaboration, an approach John tells me is key to the Search for Lost Birds strategy. Our team member Serena adds: “Local knowledge is very important because people in the communities live with nature. They live with what is around them, they live off the forest, they live off the sea.” Their survival, she says, relies on this knowledge.
On Fergusson, Indigenous landowners coordinate and watch over our search, and hunters know their forests best. Yet with no leads, we form a plan: travel by boat to the other side of the island’s main mountain range and try our luck there.
he mountains transform kaleidoscopically with the shifting angles of our boat as it hugs south Fergusson’s palm-lined coast. After long days on foot, passing miles over water is like magic, and once we relocate, our interviews gain traction. A local name for the pheasant pigeon, mentioned in passing already, crystallizes: Auwo. Then a hunter tells us he caught one in a leghold trap in 1997, before loggers pushed the bird deeper into the forest. An older woman, Soama Lambert, even recounts her grandmother meeting Goldie in the 19th century—assurance we’re in the right area.
We meet a hunter in the Buidoa clan, Paul, who says he saw a pheasant pigeon earlier that year. His father had described the species to him—how it flew, its shape, its colors. “My father told me, ‘When I die, you cannot leave this mountain. There are some good things here,’ ” he says. So when Paul saw the bird, he knew: Auwo.
Jordan and Elimo split off to interview others, while Paul guides the rest of us up the mountain. He wears a baseball cap and carries a double-edged pig spear, its shaft crafted from black palm. We make camp in his recently cleared garden, where he will soon plant yams, pineapple, and other crops, and Paul says he’ll take us to where he encountered the bird. “We might have good luck because this morning I dreamt very good dreams,” he says. On the narrow trail, one of his several hunting dogs brushes against my calf. The dogs make me nervous: Losing a rare pheasant pigeon to an eager pup would be a disaster. Trailing him, Paul’s young son carries a six-foot-long rubber gun—a kind of slingshot on steroids—that he weaves deftly through the understory. Doka, John, and I, hunters from a parallel universe, wield binoculars, smartphones, and a pack filled with camera traps.
As we gain elevation, the ridge sprouts creeping bamboo and pandanus, a plant with serrated, frondlike leaves. Paul explains that harming the pandanus brings foul weather, folding a leaf carefully back on itself. I do the same. Suddenly, we drop again, fanning out like a search party, hoping to flush a pheasant pigeon up into a low branch.
Paul picks up a shiny red fruit from the forest floor. “Buo’o,” he says—fruit the Auwo eats. Ahead, Serena gathers leaves from a giant stinging nettle, called the itchy plant, that many here use to fight aches and pains. Doka spots an owl. Crows with blue eyes shriek above the canopy. But no one sees or hears a pheasant pigeon. The day is waning, the terrain is painfully steep. We set up our cameras before a prolonged slog home.
Back at camp, Jordan and Elimo return with great news: Two hunters they interviewed reported seeing a pheasant pigeon recently. The next morning we break camp and depart at first light to chase the lead, and Jerome, Paul’s uncle, waves goodbye. He shared with us a chant about the pheasant pigeon and explained how its feathers were once collected and worn. A leaf from the itchy plant rests atop his head like an arrow, seemingly pointing us in the right direction. Our boat is leaving Fergusson in five days. It’s our last chance.
Everyone is excited as we march up the valley, and we unwind on the trail. Trekking also lets us survey for birds while on the move, and we’ve already documented at least seven more species not previously known to occur on Fergusson. After hours of hiking and river crossings, we’re tucked into the back of the valley in a place called Duda Ununa, where we’ll camp. Massive Papuan Hornbills transit the sky in fading light. Jonathan, leader of the Manawana clan, tells us that Auwo is here.
Augustin, his brother, agrees to guide us the next morning. With bushy eyebrows and often sporting a pipe, Augustin is in his late 40s and sprints barefoot through the forest like a phantom. He describes the pheasant pigeon in high resolution: its bill and eye color, where it sleeps and eats, and the way it pumps its tail as it walks.
We move deeper toward the island’s center with Augustin, and the landscape heaves into bunched-up ridges with steep drops on either side, topography that John likens to origami. Klinki pine tower above us, conifers with giant, flaky trunks that balloon into the tallest trees in New Guinea. We make camp along the Kwama River, and on our second fruitless day we get lost—buried in a valley and surrounded by walls of thick, wet forest. When we finally find camp, we’re exhausted, and Augustin decides we’ll head back a day early. Just like that, our field season is over.
here is a particular feeling to looking for something you’re not sure exists—cautious doubt tinged with absurdity and an edge of sensory alertness—that amplified on Augustin’s land. His and others’ knowledge of Auwo is convincing, but we’ve reached this critical juncture too late. Without hard evidence or at least a sighting, it will be impossible to prove to science journals and conservation inventories that the bird survives.
Packing up, Jordan and Doka climb a ridge to retrieve cameras they’d only recently placed with Augustin’s guidance, returning with the same weary disappointment that’s swept over everyone. Handing me a camera, Jordan says I may as well look through it before we descend.
I scroll, and I freeze. The tiny screen suddenly and unmistakably shows me everything I thought was out of reach: Auwo, long-tailed, walking in dappled green light beneath umbrella ferns. Unquestionably, vividly, most certainly alive. “It’s so beautiful,” I say again and again, my hands shaking as I stare in wonder.
Jordan and Doka break into cheers—they’d seen the image earlier, too far off for us to hear their shrieks of surreal joy. Everyone gathers around the camera. Elimo stands slightly aside, quieter than the rest. “Man, it’s like a burden has been lifted from me,” he says, slowly offering a smile. The full weight of the trip reveals itself.
Though we don’t know it yet, another camera has triggered closer to Basima, capturing a second pheasant pigeon—this one on video. No one on our team has set eyes on the elusive bird, but the footage lets us appreciate Auwo in all its glory. The bird in the clip is luminous and quick-footed, its tail pumping vigorously with each step.
In late 2022, a couple of months after our return, Re:wild and ABC announce we found the pheasant pigeon, and the story explodes. Social media and news reports send the camera-trap video of the bird, along with Doka’s ecstatic reaction to seeing it, to millions of viewers. I catch sight of the story in many languages. Suddenly, this obscure bird, Auwo, is known around the world.
efore we left Fergusson, Jonathan had shared a legend about the pheasant pigeon, which Elimo translates. 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.
What does it mean for a species to be found? I believe knowing the pheasant pigeon survives on Fergusson isn’t enough to ensure its future. When Jonathan spoke of Auwo, concern darkened his face. He had already signed over timber rights in the area we visited, Auwo’s home, to a logging company. His clan’s land is rich with Klinki pine, which Augustin associates with Auwo and which Elimo says is in high demand.
Separated from town, Jonathan’s people have almost no access to the cash economy or to necessities like medicine. “What is it you would have me do?” he asked. Serena says population growth is another pressure: “The good gardening areas will be used up; the fallow period will be short. People will travel longer distance for gardening, hunting, and collecting building materials. The habitats of many animals will be lost.” Fergusson’s hunters also confirmed the presence of feral cats, which are unlikely to bring anything but death to the area’s ecosystems.
There’s so much we don’t know about Auwo, including, crucially, whether sightings are rare because of its dwindling numbers or because human activity causes it to retreat to more remote areas. Elimo thinks both are likely. Only a handful of islanders we interviewed recognize it at all: “Only the old men know about Auwo; the young generation, no, they don’t know about it,” a hunter named Gerald tells me on a trail. Elimo’s father, Fred, notes that cultural preservation and conservation are deeply tied on Fergusson; clans have plant and animal totems that guide how they interact with their environment. During our trip, I noticed Elimo writing Jerome’s chant in his notebook. “I felt sad about the legend and the songs,” he says. “The next generation, my generation, will not know about these because of changes to society.”
Launch a boat from Fergusson and other species across the southwest Pacific await documentation. Throughout this region, ever more mining and logging agreements are being signed, providing neglected and hard-to-reach communities with access to needed resources and jobs. If we don’t support the area’s Indigenous people and bring them the vital social and economic inclusion they deserve, the forests and biodiversity they harbor don’t stand a chance, says West, the anthropologist. “There’s no reason that an IUCN listed species can’t drive a radically ethical conservation intervention,” she says, “but it has to engage with what is needed socially.”
In the hubbub of our return from Papua New Guinea, our team pivots to planning another trip. Elimo texts me updates, strategizing how additional interviews could reveal where else Auwo lives on Fergusson and, vitally, how many birds remain. Serena and I discuss how to improve the impact of our next expedition. We had hired more than 150 locals—porters, guides, boat captains, and cooks—during our trip. This time she recommends we also direct funds to communities, where they have a better chance to benefit women, and involve Fergusson’s youth more directly in field work.
Documenting a species is often the first step to protecting it, and in that way, I believe scientific expeditions and initiatives like the Search for Lost Birds can help stave off impending extinctions, especially on islands. Beyond our small project, however, I can’t say what the future holds for the Black-naped Pheasant Pigeon. Western interest in a species can provide opportunity in this region, but it can also bring pitfalls. Paige West has found that international conservation projects have frequently failed in Papua New Guinea, in part because they’ve not properly engaged with the very people who have the biggest stake in, and knowledge of, local ecology. Biodiversity and human systems, she says, are intimately intertwined.
What’s clearer to me than ever is that any future research we do in this country must continue to include locals from the ground up and grow from there. Conservation decisions are already, and must remain, solely in the hands of Fergusson’s communities, without whom we’d never have found Auwo. From listening to hunters, I know we’ve only scratched the surface of learning about the forest and its birds. It’s my hope that this knowledge, stemming from people’s use of their forests, will help keep Auwo—now thought to be New Guinea’s most endangered terrestrial bird species—from going extinct.
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.
This story originally ran as “In Search of Auwo” in the Spring 2023 issue. To receive our print magazine, become a member by making a donation today.