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Not Quite Extinct Birds: Against All Odds

Meet the birds that were thought to be extinct, but were found again.

By Dick Schroeder
Posted: August 8, 2008, 1:00 p.m. PST

Excerpt from BIRD TALK Magazine, August 2004 issue, with permission from its publisher, BowTie Magazines, a division of BowTie Inc. To purchase digital back issues of BIRD TALK Magazine, click here.

It’s interesting how many species of birds have been declared extinct only to be re-found. One wonders how many others are out there someplace awaiting rediscovery.

Animals and plants are considered to be extinct if they have not been seen or heard from for 50 years. The following species do meet that criterion of having been lost for at least that long. We’ll take a brief look at a few of them.

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The most recent rediscovery doesn’t exactly meet the 50 years of no sightings, but it’s close enough. The beautiful little Brazilian golden-crowned mannikin was originally discovered in 1957 by the German ornithologist Helmut Sick. It was last seen that same year until May of 2002, when an environmental survey crew discovered a single male about 100 miles from Sick’s original discovery of five birds.

Carolina Parakeet
By Thomas Kimball/BowTie Inc.
The extinct Carolina parakeet is one of two parrots that are native to the United States.

While it’s wonderful that the bird has been re-found, one must wonder how long it will be before the Brazilian golden-crowned mannikin is extinct, since the primary industry in the region is logging, then cattle ranching on the cleared forest land.

Another beautiful bird that was thought to be extinct is Gurney’s Pitta. It was first seen in Thailand in 1875 and was quite common. Birds were still collected and observed in the 1910s and 1920s, but as its lowland forest habitat was destroyed, it became rarer, last seen in the wild in 1934 in Thailand and Myanmar (Burma), though a bird would occasionally turn up in the bird trade. The last known Gurney’s Pitta in captivity died in the United Kingdom in 1975.

After not being seen for 89 years, it was re-found by a group of ornithologists in 1986 while they were conducting a month-long search and survey in Myanmar. A western naturalist who spotted a Gurney’s Pitta at a bird market brought about the search. It is thought that 20 to 30 pairs may still survive, but they may be extinct soon, as less than 5 percent of their original forest territory exists today and, as hard as it may be to believe, they are still clearing the forests in that area.

Extinct Birds: More Harm Than Good
For some species, being declared extinct has caused more harm than good. An example would be the Cebu Flowerpecker of the Philippines. The last confirmed sighting was in 1905 on Cebu. By 1959, it was reported that there were no forests left on Cebu, hence the birds must be extinct, having no place to live.

Surprise! A birdwatcher visiting the island of Cebu in 1992 found a small population in one of the tiny remaining bits of forest there. Sadly, had the bird not been declared extinct in 1959, and let some 33 years of habitat destruction continue, there would have been far more forest available for the little Cebu Flowerpecker to call home. As the bird was thought to be gone, no thought was given to preserving any space for it.

There are species thought to be extinct, but since they were re-found within the last 50 years, that designation cannot yet be given. But it’s getting close for some, like the Ivory-billed woodpecker, the largest woodpecker in North America. Ranging throughout the bottomland hardwood forests of the Southeast, it lived primarily on insects recovered after stripping the bark off  trees. It nested in cavities in these same trees. Hardwood loggers sought these trees and brought about the decline of this magnificent woodpecker.

The last confirmed sighting of an Ivory-billed woodpecker was of a female in 1944 in the southeast Louisiana bayous, and prior to that, only six birds could be found in 1939, but there are still unconfirmed reports of bird sightings. Even the Cuban subspecies was last seen in 1987, but rumors persist of the birds still existing there as well. Most of the sightings in Louisiana are thought to be that of another very large woodpecker, the Pileated, which inhabits the same area.

As late as 1999, there are reports of the birds having been seen in the swamps, this time by a graduate student who was turkey hunting. He claims to have watched the pair for many minutes from a close range and is certain they were Ivory bills. A subsequent search party found no evidence in 30 days of hunting; however, they did find several trees with large amounts of bark peeled away in just the manner in which the Ivory-billed woodpecker feeds. One would like to believe that there is a hidden population someplace in the humid swamps among the cypress trees, but who knows?

Extinct Carolina Parakeet
How about a bird that we know is extinct but needn’t be? One of only two parrots native to the United States (the other the thick-billed parrot of southern Arizona), the habitat of the Carolina parakeet covered a huge amount of the Eastern United States. It was found as far north as the Great Lakes and as far west as Nebraska. By the 1860s, the Carolina parakeet was rarely seen outside of Florida, and the last wild birds were sighted there, a flock of 30 in 1920.

Why are they extinct? They found farmers' crops to be pretty good eating, better than the wild seeds and nuts that they were accustomed to. Of course the farmers weren’t about to stand by while their apple orchards were stripped and corn crops decimated, so out came the shotguns, down went the parakeets.

Carolina parakeets were also captured for pets, and I suppose they would be quite similar to keeping a sun conure or jenday. Now the sad part — they were bred in captivity on a number of occasions. Had anyone known or even cared that they were on their way to being extinct, efforts to breed more of them could have ensured their survival, at least in captivity.

We have that chance today with one of the rarest birds in the wild, the beautiful Rothchild’s or Bali mynah. With only about a dozen left in their native habitat on the island of Bali, the several hundred in captivity will soon be all we have. Reintroduction attempts have all failed, as they are captured soon after release, since owning one is a huge status symbol in Indonesia. Even armed guards in the national park haven’t thwarted the thefts. It’s too late for the Carolina parakeet, but let us learn from that. Until we start saving some habitats, many more species will be added to this list, and many may not be as lucky as Gurney’s Pitta or the golden-crowned mannikin.

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Not Quite Extinct Birds: Against All Odds

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Reader Comments
This is a great article, but what about the almost extinct birds like kakapo or spix's macaw?
Qing, Rochester, NY
Posted: 4/7/2011 1:30:55 PM
Excellent article, and it really brings home the point about the dangers of destroying the natural habitats of fragile species.
JoJo, Cedar Falls, IA
Posted: 8/22/2008 8:22:35 PM
Excellent and informative article
joan, franklin square, NY
Posted: 8/22/2008 5:21:18 PM
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