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‘Extinct’ Birds in Comeback But No Hope for Dodo

August 9, 2005

JOHANNESBURG – Scientists beware: don’t count your extinct bird species because one of them may hatch.

Several supposedly extinct birds have recently been “rediscovered,” raising hopes that others not seen for ages may still be taking to the skies.

“The real message of rediscoveries is that we didn’t look hard enough in the first place,” said Nigel Collar of UK-based conservation group BirdLife International.

“We think we’ve explored the planet when we haven’t. We have this assumption that we know it all but we don’t,” he said.

The most recent reported rediscovery that has ornithologists in a flap was that of the ivory-billed woodpecker, believed extinct for 60 years until sightings in a remote part of the U.S. state of Arkansas last year.

The authenticity of those sightings has already been questioned by some scientists but the evidence presented in other cases has been beyond dispute.

“Rediscoveries” fall into two categories, the first being birds that were written off as extinct but subsequently found.

The second includes birds not seen for decades — often because conflict made their home range inaccessible — but that were not necessarily considered extinct.

LONG LOST PETRELS

One of the most startling avian “resurrections” was the New Zealand storm petrel, which was positively sighted in 2003.

Believed by many to be extinct, it was previously only known from fossil material and three 19th century specimens. A group of bird watchers saw the black-and-white sea birds off New Zealand’s North Island in January 2003.

Also in 2003, the long-legged warbler — not seen by experts since 1894 — was found alive in the mountains of Fiji.

Last year, the rusty-throated wren-babbler — not seen for almost 60 years — was spotted in India’s Himalayan mountains.

For some experts, the “Holy Grail” of lost birds has been hoisted with the rediscovery of the ivory-billed woodpecker, a large bird with striking looks that was believed to have fallen victim to the logging industry.

“The ivory-billed woodpecker was the classic … people really thought it was gone,” said Chris Hails, global program director with conservation group WWF International.

ANGOLA’S LOST BIRDS

Despite the new finds, BirdLife says the overall situation of the world’s birds is worsening.

In a recent report, it said more than a fifth of the planet’s bird species faced extinction as humans ventured further into their habitats and introduced alien predators.

Sometimes, the absence of humans can be a lifesaver.

The southwestern African country of Angola, which is emerging from three decades of civil war and is best known for its oil and diamonds, is proving to be rich in “lost birds.”

South African ornithologist Ian Sinclair has been to Angola four times since war ended in 2002 and has found 18 endemic species not been seen and identified by experts for decades.

“We discovered that civil war, while obviously bad for people, was good for the habitat and the environment,” Sinclair told Reuters. “All of these huge coffee plantations were abandoned … A lot more habitat is available as a result.”

A six-day expedition earlier this year yielded positive sightings of the orange-breasted bush-shrike and the white-headed robin-chat — not seen by scientists since 1957.

The group also spotted a single pair of black-tailed or slender-tailed cisticolas. These are only found in Angola and neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo and had not been seen in the wild since 1972.

Swiestra’s francolin — similar to a grouse or partridge — is the one Angolan endemic that Sinclair has yet to rediscover. But he hopes to see it on a trip in September to the bird’s home range in the mountains of southcentral Angola.

“I’ll find them. There’s nobody up there hunting them and the habitat is intact, so the birds are there,” he said.

AND NEXT?

Scientists say more “extinct” species may also turn up.

Not far from Angola, BirdLife’s Collar thinks a white-chested tinkerbird might be found.

“It’s only know from a single specimen collected in September 1964 in northwestern Zambia. So it’s been off the map for 40 years,” he said.

Also being sought is the pink-headed duck of India and Myanmar. There have been no reliable sightings since the late 1940s but there are reports of rural folk hunting it in Myanmar.

“It shows some things can hang in there and with the right effort you can make the future for some species more secure,” said WWF’s Hails. “This is why conservation agencies work.”

Still, there are clearly some no-hopers, such as the famed dodo of Mauritius, a large flightless bird that died out long ago because of human activities such as overhunting.

“There is no chance of a dodo turning up,” said Collar.




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