Lost Birds

New analysis reveals 126 birds are lost to science and haven't had a confirmed sighting in at least a decade

Search for Lost Birds / 17 Jun 2024

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.” These birds have not had a documented sighting in at least 10 years (meaning there are no photos, videos or audio recordings of them), and they are not assessed as extinct or extinct in the wild by the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species. Citizen scientists and birders’ enthusiasm for documenting birds provided important data that helped create the list of lost birds. 

“Birds are the most well-documented group of animals on Earth, and it’s a testament to just how much people love them that only about one percent of the world’s birds have evaded documentation during the last decade,” said Cameron Rutt, lead author of the paper and former lost birds science coordinator with American Bird Conservancy. “Within that one percent, however, there are many highly threatened species that haven’t been recorded in decades. Finding these birds is essential to prevent them from slipping into extinction.”

Ornithologists with the Search for Lost Birds analyzed more than 42 million photos, videos and audio recordings of birds collected by three citizen science platforms (The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Macaulay Library, iNaturalist and xeno-canto), as well as museum collections and media from search engines and scientific research papers. They also conferred with local experts to identify birds that have not had a documented sighting between 2012 and the end of 2021. 

That analysis, titled “Global gaps in citizen science data reveal the world’s ‘lost’ birds,” was published in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment today, June 17, and totaled 144 birds. In the two years since that initial analysis was completed, the Search for Lost Birds has continued to track birds that have been rediscovered and taxonomic clarifications that no longer treat certain birds as separate species. 

Fourteen of the original 144 species were recorded on citizen science platforms or documented by conservationists between 2022 and 2023. Two species were subject to taxonomic clarification. And two species from the original list have populations in human care, so even though they have no recent documentation in the wild, they do not qualify as “lost.” These findings bring the current total of lost birds to 126. 

The list includes species that have been lost for just over the 10-year threshold and others that have been lost for more than 150 years, such as the Jamaican pauraque, coppery thorntail, and New Caledonian lorikeet. The most recently lost species, the Papuan whipbird, hasn’t been documented by scientists or registered on citizen science platforms in 13 years. The white-tailed tityra is the longest-lost bird and hasn’t had a confirmed sighting in 195 years. The Search for Lost Birds has made the list of all lost bird species accessible on the Search for Lost Birds website. Bird scientists and enthusiasts can see the complete list and illustrations of every lost bird, as well as search for birds by species, location or taxonomy. 

“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, who has participated in several lost bird searches in different parts of the world. “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. Regardless of the situation, working closely with local people and citizen scientists is the best way to find lost birds and begin conservation efforts to ensure that these species don't become lost again.” 

Several of the lost species, including Itombwe nightjar, Jerdon’s courser, Himalayan quail, South Island Kōkako, Vilcabamba brushfinch, Negros fruit-dove, Siau scops-owl and Cuban kite are among the most wanted species that the Search for Lost Birds is hoping to rediscover with local partners. However, the Search for Lost Birds invites sharp-eyed birders around the world to help find other species. If birders see one of the lost species and capture photos, video or a sound recording of the bird, they can contact the Search for Lost Birds to help share their discovery and update the list. 

Many of the lost bird species identified by the Search for Lost Birds live in the tropics, particularly on small islands or in mountainous areas. Oceania has 56 lost bird species, the most of any geographic area in the world, followed by Africa with 31, Asia with 27, South America with 19, North America with 13 and Europe with only one (note: some birds range across multiple regions). 

The reasons why 126 species of birds are lost to science vary. Some of these birds are in areas that are difficult to reach, which has prevented conservationists from mounting searches to find them. It is possible that although scientists have not seen those species, they are not lost to local and Indigenous communities, as was the case with the black-naped pheasant-pigeon in Papua New Guinea (its local name is Auwo).  

Sixty-two percent of lost birds are threatened with extinction. Birds that are lost and inhabit areas where local communities, birders, conservationists and ornithologists often visit are more likely to be endangered or critically endangered. 

“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.”

As climate change and biodiversity loss continue to impact the planet, ornithologists worry that it’s possible that some species may be at a higher risk of extinction than conservationists realize, even if they live in remote areas with enough habitat. Expeditions to find species could help mitigate threats to those species before they become worse. 

“While birds are the most well-documented group, every additional data point helps focus the direction of the program,” says Christina Biggs, leader of the Search for Lost Species at Re:wild and one of the co-authors of the paper. “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, every possible bit of information directed at halting biodiversity loss.” 

Since it was launched in 2021, the Search for Lost Birds and its partners have supported projects on lost bird species around the world including the Santa Marta sabrewing in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta in Colombia, the Sinú parakeet in the Alto Sinú in Colombia, the black-naped pheasant-pigeon in Papua New Guinea, the Siau scops-owl and black-browed babbler in Indonesia, Urich’s tyrannulet in Venezuela, pink-headed duck in Myanmar, South Island kōkako in New Zealand, and the dusky tetraka in Madagascar. 

The Search for Lost Birds is supported in part by Allbirds.