Scientist Takes First-Ever Photo of Rare Bird, Then Kills It in the Name of Science

Conservationists debate whether the death of a rare moustached kingfisher is worth the knowledge gained from studying its body.

Moustached kingfisher. (Photo: American Museum of Natural History/Twitter)

Oct 9, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Taylor Hill is an associate editor at TakePart covering environment and wildlife.

When Chris Filardi, director of Pacific Programs at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, was finally holding the elusive Guadalcanal moustached kingfisher, he told Slate writer Rachel Gross, it was like finding a unicorn.

Filardi had been searching for the orange, white, and brilliant-blue bird for more than 20 years, when on a field study in the high forests of Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands, he finally heard the “ko-ko-ko-ko-kiew” sound of what he described as the unmistakable call of a large kingfisher.

After days of tracking, he and his colleagues captured a male moustached kingfisher in a mist net.

“When I came upon the netted bird in the cool shadowy light of the forest I gasped aloud, ‘Oh my god, the kingfisher,’ one of the most poorly known birds in the world was there, in front of me, like a creature of myth come to life.” Filardi wrote in a Sept. 23 blog post.

The team snapped the first-ever photos of the remarkably photogenic bird and made the first-ever recordings of a male variety of the species (a female was described back in the 1920s).

Then the team killed it.

In Filardi’s original field-journal post, no indication was made regarding the bird’s demise, but Paul Sweet, collection manager for the department of ornithology at the American Museum of Natural History and one of the researchers on the team, confirmed that the animal was killed.

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The decision to euthanize the bird so it can be studied as a “scientific specimen” has divided both the scientific community and the public on when and if researchers should kill wildlife in the name of conservation.

The incident led University of Colorado ecology professor Marc Bekoff to write in an op-ed for the Huffington Post: “Killing ‘in the name of conservation’ or ‘in the name of education’ or ‘in the name of whatever’ simply needs to stop. It is wrong and sets a horrific precedent for future research and for children.”

Part of the controversy surrounding the bird’s demise is the lack of information on moustached kingfishers in general. Ornithology records only indicate that the bird is “rare,” with anywhere between 250 and 1,000 surviving in the wild. Previous research had lumped the Guadalcanal variety in with the endangered Bougainville moustached kingfisher of Papua New Guinea, but Filardi’s research has him believing they are distinct species. And that’s part of his argument.

In a follow-up post, Filardi said the bird is elusive, poorly researched, and unknown to Western science, though not to the region’s local people. Landowners on the island told the research team the bird, known as Mbarikuku, was unremarkably common and a source of food to some. At the density levels the team observed, and with 15 percent of the island containing suitable habitat, Filardi estimates the moustached kingfisher population at around 4,000 and not in imminent danger of extinction.

With the collected sample, researchers now have a more comprehensive set of molecular, morphological, and toxicological data and plumage data that can’t be garnered from blood samples, individual feathers, or photographs, Filardi said.

“There is also a deeper reasoning here,” he wrote. “The value of good biodiversity collections lies partly in the unforeseeable benefits of those collections to future generations: Detection and understanding of the impacts of marine pollutants, eggshell thinning from DDT, and anthropogenic body size shifts in widespread species are examples of the power of natural history collections.”

Since the birds are isolated to Guadalcanal, they face many of the same challenges of other “single-island endemic” animals, such as invasive species, habitat degradation from logging and mining, and shifting temperatures owing to climate change.

“The specters of extinction for island birds loom in today’s world,” Filardi wrote. “The collection of a single moustached kingfisher is not among them. And, beyond advancing science, I believe this act will positively impact the kingfisher’s world.”