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Long-Lost Bird Raises Its Head

14 March 2001 7:00 pm
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In search of. This is the first illustration of Bruijn's Brush-Turkey, by J. Keulemans, from 1881.

The leftovers of a pig hunter's supper have provided some good news for ornithologists: the Bruijn's Brush-Turkey probably still roams an island off New Guinea, even though it has not been seen alive for more than 60 years.

Brush-turkeys are quite a curiosity. Their feet are so large and strong that the family to which they belong has been dubbed the megapodes. They are also famous for their nesting habits. Rather than brooding like a hen, a mother megapode makes use of natural incubators. She buries her eggs sea-turtle-style in either tropical beaches, warm volcanic soils, or large mounds of rotting leaves that are tended by the male.

One of the rarest of the 22 species of megapodes, the Bruijn's Brush-Turkey has never been seen alive by Western scientists. Some two dozen specimens are held in museums. Most were collected by hunters in the 1880s from the only place the species has been found, the island of Waigeu off the west coast of New Guinea. The most recent specimen was collected in 1938, leading scientists to fear the worst.

Not convinced that the species is extinct, ornithologist Kees Heij of the Natural History Museum Rotterdam in the Netherlands directed a series of expeditions to look for signs of this odd bird. On 23 February, the researchers hit gold: A Waigeu hunter brought a head and some bones--the remains of a bush dinner--to Kris Tindige, an Indonesian member of the expedition. Heij promptly jetted in from Rotterdam at the news. Bird in hand, he agreed with Tindige on the identification. The pair will continue scouring the densely forested island for further evidence of the elusive bird, says the museum's Kees Moeliker.

Ornithologists are exhilarated at the find. Megapode specialist Ann Göth, of Griffith University in Brisbane, Australia, says: "This is news that we have hoped to receive for a long time." She adds that the story illustrates the difficulty of conservation in poor areas like Eastern Indonesia: "I am pretty sure the pig hunter knew about the bird's importance, but he nevertheless ate it first."

Related sites
Ann Göth's Web site on breeding behavior of the Australian Brush-Turkey, another megapode
The Indonesian Nature Conservation Database on megapodes

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