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New analysis reveals 126 birds are lost to science, without a confirmed sighting in at least a decade. 

The Search for Lost Birds, a collaboration between Re:wild, American Bird Conservancy and BirdLife International, has developed the most complete tally of bird species that are lost to science. Of the approximately 11,849 species of birds, 126 meet the criteria of being “lost.”

Is it possible to ‘lose’ a bird? As described by the papers’ lead author, Cameron Rutt, “Birds are the most well-documented group of animals on Earth’’. Yet there still remains a number of species that have not been documented in at least 10 years. From the Papuan whipbird, an endearing dark green bird that hasn’t been documented in 13 years to the Jamaican Pauraque, a stunning nightjar that was last seen  in 1860, now thought to be Critically Endangered, and may be extinct.

There are many reasons why these 126 species have not been found. Some birds are in areas that are difficult to reach, preventing conservationists from mounting searches to find them. It is also possible that these birds are lost only to scientists, and local and Indigenous communities are still sighting these species, as was the case with the black-naped pheasant-pigeon in Papua New Guinea (its local name is Auwo). 

However, the phrase ‘out of sight, out of mind’ could not be further from the truth.  “Documenting the survival of lost birds is critically important for supporting next-step actions to conserve these species,” said Daniel Lebbin, vice president of threatened species at American Bird Conservancy. “We need to confirm these birds survive and where to conserve their habitat.” A terrifying 62% of lost birds are threatened with extinction.

Header image: Dusky Tetraka was last seen in 1999 before being re-discovered in 2023 © John C Mittermeier

With the longest lost bird a striking black and white bird from South America called the  white-tailed tityra, not being seen in 195 years, is there hope that we can still find them? “Figuring out why these birds have become lost and then trying to find them can feel like a detective story,” says John C. Mittermeier, the director of the Search for Lost Birds at American Bird Conservancy. “While some of the species on the list will be incredibly challenging or maybe even impossible to find, others might reveal themselves relatively quickly if people get to the right places.’’

“Lost species, as well as being important conservation targets in their own right, are also unique representatives of the diversity of life in the place and habitat where they are found. We hope they are not gone forever, and should do all in our power to prove this by finding them again, and use what we learn to conserve them and the many other species sharing the extraordinary places where they live.”

Roger Safford, BirdLife International Preventing Extinctions programme

The Search for Lost Birds project has recorded some heart-warming successes, with the re-discovery of Santa Marta sabrewing in 2022, a joyous, iridescent blue and green hummingbird that made an unexpected appearance to a researcher in Columbia. Similarly, the Dusky Tetraka, whose predilection for rivers meant scientists listening for bird calls were unable to hear their song until an expedition team found the species in Madagascar in 2023.

The urgency of the quest to find these missing species cannot be underestimated, as the climate and nature crisis ravages our planet it will be these remote, critically endangered lost birds that will be the first to fall, unable to benefit from conservation work to protect them.

Christina Biggs, leader of the Search for Lost Species at Re:wild and one of the co-authors of the paper explains, “We want to make sure that our resources go toward preventing extinction of the most threatened species, so this research is extremely valuable for us. As the sixth mass extinction progresses, it’s imperative that we grow our scientific circles to include indigenous, local community, and citizen science knowledge’’.

We know that at least some of these birds must still be out there, the question is whether we can find them before it’s too late.

A male Santa Marta Sabrewing. The species was rediscovered in Colombia’s Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta in July 2022. The hummingbird had not had a documented sighting in 12 years. © Yurgen Vega/SELVA/ProCAT