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06-18-2024

More than 100 bird species have been lost for over a decade

The world of birdsong may be shrinking, and not just because our forests are dwindling. A remarkable study has unveiled a list of 126 bird species that have effectively vanished from scientific records. These “lost birds” haven’t been seen or heard in over a decade, and many are teetering on the brink of extinction.

Digital archives of lost birds

The creation of this unprecedented list was a collaborative effort, led by the Search for Lost Birds project and relying heavily on the vast digital archives of the Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

“We started with the Macaulay Library because it is the richest depository of bird media, and we quickly found documentation for the vast majority of the world’s birds,” said lead author Cameron Rutt, a bird biologist with the American Bird Conservancy.

Rutt and his team combed through an astounding 42 million photos, videos, and audio recordings, hunting for species that lacked any recent documentation. This involved not just identifying the absence of evidence but also the evidence of absence – a meticulous process of elimination that required both scientific rigor and a touch of digital sleuthing.

The unseen and the unsung

The resulting list is a sobering reminder of the biodiversity crisis we face. While 126 species may seem like a small fraction of the roughly 11,000 known bird species, it represents a significant chunk of avian diversity that has slipped through the cracks of scientific observation.

These lost birds hail from all corners of the globe, with concentrations in Asia, Africa, and the remote islands of Oceania. Some have been lost due to habitat destruction, while others may simply inhabit areas so remote that no one has ventured there in recent years.

Conservation of lost birds

The publication of this list isn’t just an academic exercise; it’s a call to action. By identifying these lost birds, scientists and conservationists can prioritize their efforts to rediscover them and assess their conservation needs.

“Once absent species are identified, we can look for them and see if they need some kind of protection – this method helps identify research priorities for possible conservation action,” explained study co-author Eliot Miller, a former postdoctoral researcher at the Cornell Lab.

The search is already underway. Since the study’s initiation, several lost birds have been rediscovered, including the black-naped pheasant-pigeon, which hadn’t been documented on a remote island of Papua New Guinea in over a century.

Whimbrels and curlews: A family in peril

The study’s findings highlight a concerning trend: a disproportionate number of whimbrels and curlews are among the lost bird species.

This suggests that these shorebirds, known for their long, curved bills and migratory habits, are facing significant threats which are likely linked to human activities such as habitat destruction, pollution, and climate change.

The decline of these birds underscores the need for targeted conservation efforts to protect their vulnerable populations and the coastal ecosystems they inhabit.

“One of the things I learned from doing this is how many whimbrel and curlew relatives have likely gone extinct or seem to be heading in that direction,” said Miller. “It seems to be a group of birds that does not do well with people.”

Importance of local knowledge

Rediscovering these lost birds won’t be easy. It will require a combination of scientific expertise, local knowledge, and a bit of luck.

The Search for Lost Birds project is already working with on-site partners to tap into local knowledge and fund expeditions to find these elusive species.

“A narrow slice of the world’s birds has fallen through the cracks,” said Rutt. “The coming years and decades will be critical if these birds are going to persist.”

A glimmer of hope

The rediscovery of these lost bird species is a critical undertaking with the potential to prevent extinctions. By identifying and locating these birds, scientists can initiate targeted conservation efforts, protecting their habitats and addressing the factors that led to their disappearance.

Though the task is challenging, the successful rediscovery of several species since the study’s inception provides hope that with dedicated research and collaboration, we can safeguard these avian populations and ensure their continued presence in the natural world.

The study is published in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment.

Image Credit: Photo by Wang Bin | Cornell Lab of Ornithology | Macaulay Library.

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