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Finding a Ghost Bird
A team of scientists has confirmed the existence of a cuckoo long thought to be extinct, and captured its call for the first time.

The Sumatran ground cuckoo

An Indonesian hunter seeking to snare wild chicken last January came up instead with a bird that had been feared extinct—the Sumatran ground cuckoo. Now, as a result of the hunter’s accidental capture, a team of scientists with the New York–based Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) has confirmed that at least several of the cuckoos persist in the wild.

The last time scientists had any indication that the Sumatran ground cuckoo, known locally as tokhtor, might still exist was in 1997, when a photograph of the cuckoo was snapped by a remote camera trap set in the Indonesian rainforest to track tigers.

Because the recently snared bird’s foot was injured, it was placed in an enclosure at Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park, where scientists finally had a chance to observe it closely, noting its resemblance to a big, green forest roadrunner with striking red and blue around the eye. They also made the first-ever recording of its call, which sounds “like a cat being run over,” says WCS biologist Nick Brickle, and nothing like the Bornean ground cuckoo, a close relative.

Once the bird recovers fully, it will be released back into the wild, but its brief stay in captivity has already helped the researchers confirm that it won’t be going back to the forest alone. In March the scientists played their recording of the cuckoo’s piercing cry in the highland rainforest where the bird was snagged and attracted another pair of Sumatran ground cuckoos. “The big question now is whether it really is as rare as the lack of records suggest, or is it just very hard to detect,” says Brickle. He plans to investigate.

Meanwhile, agricultural expansion and illegal logging are putting pressure on the ground cuckoo’s habitat. “This discovery shows that there is still lots to be found and learned about these forests,” says Brickle. “Unless we can work with the Indonesian government to protect these sites, and to highlight both their wildlife and their plight, birds like the Sumatran ground cuckoo would otherwise just quietly go extinct.”

In an effort to determine the bird’s distribution, the WCS is providing audiofiles of their calls to groups working in Sumatra and to visiting birdwatchers. The society is also working with the national park to reduce illegal hunting and involve locals in conservation efforts.

“Many of these guys love the forest and really love birds; they are, however, very poor and have to make ends meet,” Brickle explains. “Most hunters are very willing to stop if they can get work conserving the birds.” One desirable option is to provide hunters with jobs as guides for birders on rainforest tours. Since there isn’t yet a significant tourism infrastructure, the WCS is searching for financial support to implement a sustainable conservation plan.

Click here to hear the call of the rediscovered Sumatran ground cuckoo.

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