In an amazingly bizarre and fascinating story, scientists have finally confirmed that the New Zealand Storm Petrel is officially off the extinct species list and now on the critically endangered list, according to a really great article in the Sunday Star Times.
This miracle began in January 2003 when a group of birders, including Ian Saville and Brent Stephenson, took pictures of strange birds they could not identify. They were really curious about what species the birds were so they sent the images to bird experts. The experts could tell them what the birds weren’t, but not what they were.
The image finally made it to museum curators and seabird taxonomists who took a chance and said it was the New Zealand Storm Petrel. When the birders published what they saw in a bird magazine, people were very skeptical.
Before they were rediscovered, there were only three specimens in museums and the last one was received way back in 1895. In the 1930s, scientists figured these weren’t really individual species, that they were simply aberrations of other species, so they were put aside.
Experts were finally made believers in late 2003 when two British birders named Robert Flood and Bryan Thomas spotted flocks of about 20 New Zealand Storm Petrels. They thoroughly documented their experiences in pictures and videos. Since then these birds have been spotted in flocks of up to 40 individuals.
Just recently, a scientist compared the DNA of the living birds with those from museum specimens and they matched, which is a remarkable find.
So, how could these birds stay unseen for more than 150 years? It’s hard to say for sure right now.
The birds themselves are pretty enigmatic. They are the smallest shorebirds around, about the size of a sparrow, and they spend all day at sea, only landing at to breed or rest at night. Their nickname “Jesus bird” in fact comes its tendency to patter its feet on the surface of the ocean.
It’s possible these birds have always been among us, but have simply gone unnoticed because they were confused with regular storm petrels. Another possibility is that they’ve clung to tiny islands in the area with small populations until they eventually moved to a bigger island in the wake of rodent eradication programs.
Either way, the story of the New Zealand Storm Petrel is inspiring and hopeful. It still remains to be seen whether scientists will get enough funding to find out more about the birds.
Let this be an encouragement to go birding and watch your feeder because it just might be possible to see a once-thought extinct bird in your backyard.