Calling all birders! Amateurs asked to help spot 126 ‘lost’ bird species – National

Paging all bird enthusiasts: Researchers need your help solving a long list of mysteries — namely, what has happened to 126 species of birds and, most importantly, if they even exist anymore.

The Search for Lost Birds, a collaboration between Re:wild, the American Bird Conservancy and BirdLife International, is a newly updated dataset of bird species that have been “lost” to science, meaning they have not been accounted for in at least 10 years.

And that’s where citizen scientists come in, acting as ears and eyes to help confirm whether these species are still gracing the land and skies around the world.

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To curate their lost birds list, researchers combed through more than 42 million photos, videos and audio recordings listed on citizen scientist platforms dedicated to wildlife — The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Macaulay Library, iNaturalist and xeno-canto — as well as parsing through museum collections, search engine results and research papers. Local experts were also brought in to help, giving insight into which bird species have not had a documented sighting between 2012 and 2021.

The initial analysis, published in 2021, originally identified 144 lost bird species, but in the years since they have managed to rediscover 14 of the species that were thought to be missing, two species were subject to taxonomic clarification and another two species were found living under the care of humans.

The list highlights birds that have newly disappeared, as well as many who haven’t been seen for more than 150 years. For example, the most recently lost species, the Papuan whipbird, hasn’t been documented by scientists or registered on citizen science platforms in 13 years. South America’s white-tailed tityra, however, is the longest-lost bird and hasn’t had a confirmed sighting in 195 years.

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“Figuring out why these birds have become lost and then trying to find them can feel like a detective story,” John C. Mittermeier, the director of the Search for Lost Birds at American Bird Conservancy, said in a press release for the project.

“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.”

Interestingly, most of the undocumented species are concentrated in a handful of geographic regions, with Asia, Africa and the scattered islands of Oceania missing the most birds. In some cases, the study notes, species may be considered lost only because they were first observed in such far-flung areas of the planet that no one has been back to document more sightings.

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It’s also helpful to note that most of the so-called lost birds hail from warmer regions because countries near the equator quite simply have more bird species than northern areas. These areas, too, have faced severe habitat devastation and loss due to deforestation and development.

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Canadian birds in crisis

In Canada, just one bird, the Eskimo curlew, is considered lost, and the continental U.S. only has two underreported species, the ivory-billed woodpecker and the Bachman’s warbler. An additional six are reported missing in the Hawaiian islands, as well as another handful from Central America and the Caribbean.

An illustration of the Eskimo Curlew, largely thought to be overhunted to the point of extinction.

An illustration of the Eskimo Curlew, largely thought to be overhunted to the point of extinction.

© Birds of the World | Cornell Lab of Ornithology

But that doesn’t mean that Canada’s bird populations are necessarily thriving — in fact, we are just decades away from having more species added to the lost birds list, says Jody Allair, director of community engagement for Birds Canada.

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“We’ve got birds right now that are not lost, but they’re living on the edge,” he tells Global News, stressing the need for both reactive conservation efforts like the Lost Birds project as well as “keeping common birds common” through preventive and direct conservation.

“There are lots of bird species in Canada that are declining — we are in a period of time right now where we’re seeing some of the largest declines in our history,” he continued, explaining that in Canada aerial insectivores are facing a 59 per cent population decline since 1970, shore birds have declined by 40 per cent and grassland birds in Alberta have declined by 57 per cent.

Allair said that while the lost birds contained in the database “all have a different story,” there are common themes behind many of the listed birds.

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“Some have faced severe habitat loss, some were probably very rare on the landscape to begin with, maybe there hasn’t been an effort to go in and figure out where some these birds live and some of them have just evaded science.”

The vital role of the citizen scientist

This is where bird enthusiasts, or “birders,” come in.

At one time, birding evoked images of a retired English professor, clad in khaki and Tilly, roaming the countryside with a pair of binoculars, a notebook and perhaps a high-quality camera.

But now birders cannot be pigeon-holed into any one stereotype.

“Birding is no longer perceived as a retirement activity,” Allair says. “Everyone from every demographic is getting into birding now.”

During the COVID-19 pandemic, as people were cooped up at home or seeking out more time in nature away from others, birding exploded in popularity when people turned their eyes to the skies to stave off boredom and stress.

Click to play video: 'People turning to ‘really therapeutic’ backyard birding during COVID-19 pandemic'

People turning to ‘really therapeutic’ backyard birding during COVID-19 pandemic

But Allair says even as restrictions began to lift, people continued to look up.

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“I think people are starting to recognize the positive mental health benefits, as well as it’s a really interesting hobby that you don’t need much to do and it’s wildly addictive. A snowflake turns to blizzard really fast when you start birding.”

Birds Canada is embracing and encouraging Canadians’ love for birding by helping common folk turn their avian obsession into important research. It offers more than 40 citizen scientist projects throughout the year, where it calls on the public to help keep an eye on bird behaviour and populations and report back with what they’ve seen and heard.

Heartwarming successes

Employing the help of citizen scientists has already led to the successful return of several species to science. In the case of the Lost Birds study, the Bismarck honeyeater, long-billed bush warbler, rusty thicketbird, and Kangean tit-babbler have all been rediscovered. Most recently, the Santa Marta sabrewing was rediscovered in Columbia in 2022 and the dusky tetraka was rediscovered through its unique song in 2023 in Madagascar.

Citizen scientist projects like the Lost Birds project and those done through Birds Canada are “not a vanity project,” Allair says.

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“Losing any kind of bird species looks terrible on us, as humans. If the birds are there, they probably need some incredibly urgent conservation work to bring them back.”

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