The controversy over a kingfisher

Over at Huffington Post, Marc Bekoff, recently wrote an article lambasting Christopher Filardi for collecting a Moustached Kingfisher, a rare bird endemic in the Solomon Islands.

Now, there are two sides to this particular controversy, and I am going to do my darnest NOT to pick one.

Side one: How dare you kill that kingfisher!

The HP article criticized killing a rare bird for collection as the opposite of a conservation effort. It is likened to hunting endangered species, and  compassionate conservation. (RadioLab anyone? Don’t mind if I do…)

Side two: You need these kinds of specimen for conservation. And biology. 

An excellent public post was written by my friend Josef Uyeda here.

Additionally, Dr. Filardi himself responded justifying his decision, and why specimens are important over at the Audobon society.

Was it right or was it wrong? You decide.

Holding kingfisher II.jpg.CROP.promovar-mediumlarge



4 comments on “The controversy over a kingfisher

  1. Sarah Hird says:

    CJ does a great job presenting both sides here but I’m putting myself firmly in the camp of MUSEUM COLLECTIONS ARE INCREDIBLY VALUABLE. Necessary, even. They’re NOT trophy hunting (i.e., this is not Cecil part deux) and what we have learned and will continue learn from this single specimen greatly outweighs the damage done to the natural population through its collection. If you’re better versed on this topic than I am – please feel free to post all the other reasons museum collections (and this one in particular) are a good thing!

  2. This discussion is why more money should be put in taxonomy. It is not even a discussion really. Just lack of information of why museum collections are important. What is close to be ridiculous, since the majority of all we know in biology started from a museum somewhere.

  3. Uam Birds says:

    Sarah Hird is right — science supports one side quite easily, and it is incorrect to conflate trophy hunting with scientific collecting of specimens. More here:

    and here:

  4. Daniel Lane says:

    I agree with Sarah, this is not “trophy hunting,” and the collection of a single individual is not going to hurt the population, but what knowledge will be gained from the specimen will be huge. Admittedly, the original blog post reporting the finding could have made the case for specimen collection, perhaps heading the PR nightmare off at the pass (or perhaps not), and could also have mentioned that the bird has, in fact, been seen in the past 20 years by other birders, and that one of the original three specimens was later found to be a juvenile male (by none other than John DuPont, of “Foxcatcher” fame)… but the importance of documenting the adult male plumage is important in judging the taxon’s status with respect to related species, and the only modern specimen will also offer other data that wasn’t already available from existing specimens.

    A trophy animal is something kept out of the public’s reach by the hunter, like a bear rug, or a rhino head mounted on the wall, with little, if any, information about the animal. Its value is basically restricted to that percived by the hunter alone. By contrast, a museum specimen of a bird is deposited in a museum where any researcher can view it (as can the public, with permission), and a modern (more recent than, say, 1970 or 1980) specimen has information attached to it that give it great value to science: species name, locality, and date (of course), sex (determined by viewing gonads, the measurements of which are usually noted), age (based on presence of a bursa of Fabricius, skull ossification, and condition of the gonads), fat, weight, molt (both of body and remiges and rectrices, usually only the remix molt is noted by banders), stomach contents (often saved for further identification of items), soft part colors (which may fade or not be present on the skin), tissue sample (neither blood nor feathers are as useful to sample as muscle or liver tissue), circumstances of the collection (habitat, height off ground), associated information such as sound recordings, etc. These data make even a single specimen more valuable than any catch and release procedure could be; much of this data would simply not be detectable if the bird were released again.

    Measurements taken on vertebrates are highly variable depending on who is taking them and their technique. For birds, bill length can be taken from bill tip to base of skull, or from bill tip to nares (the nasal hole). Wing length is measured by some researchers as “wing chord” and by others as “flat wing” (the first where the natural bend of the feathers is measured as is, the latter where the wings are flattened against the ruler, causing a slightly longer measurement to be taken). These kinds of small differences will result in significant differences in the measurement number, so that the measurements will not be comparable between styles. Some questions may require additional measurements that may not have been done in the field, for example, was the 9th primary the same length or longer than the 4th? If the researcher in the field didn’t measure or note such things, the information was lost at the release of the bird! Many questions may only arise well after the first field encounter with a bird; things that perhaps never even occurred to the person who first handled it. For example: was there a modified rachis (feather shaft) on the 10th secondary that may explain mechanical sound production that we now know (20 years later) is important to distinguishing two populations of bird? Remember, those who handle and release birds, such as bird banders, are always working against time to avoid over-stressing the bird by handling or lack of food or water. As a result, the number of measurements and other notes they can take are limited. A museum specimen does not require any time limit of this nature. It can be viewed and reviewed, by multiple researchers, over the course of years… centuries even! Then there are skeletal or muscular characters that cannot be assessed from living birds at all. These, particularly skeletons, are regularly taken when museum expeditions are collecting specimens, and skull, wing, and leg bones remain in a “round skin” even when the main skeleton is removed in the preparation, and can be viewed using X-rays should the need arise. Such equipment simply is unfeasible to carry into the field!

    It is often argued that photographs should now release us from having to make specimens from organisms. However, photographs, even in (or perhaps, especially in?) the age of digital photography, are no match for the physical specimen in usefulness of comparison. Lighting, exposure, and camera type all affect the color hue, saturation, brightness, and contrast when a photo is taken (as anyone who as bracketed exposure can tell you), and every computer screen, except those that are carefully calibrated (which is not inexpensive!), shows images slightly differently. Having physical specimens side by side removes any such minor variation issues entirely, and allows us to see that specimen 1 and specimen 2 really do differ in the hue of brown on their backs, or the ten specimens from population 1 and the ten from population 2 show slight differences in the saturation of orange on the ear covert, and that no, it was not simple individual variation. These might be comparisons of specimens within a population, but among sexes, ages, times of year, or simple individual variation (which would be difficult at best to do in the field), or they could be comparisons between populations that are on different islands or continents, where it would be completely unfeasible to compare live birds later to be released. In addition, with museum specimens, one can use a specrophotometer to measure color very precisely (again, this equipment is generally unfeasible to take into the field), and even to view ultraviolet reflectance!

    In summary, although it seems counter-intuitive, scientific specimen collection is a powerful conservation tool. Museum specimens provides a wealth of information simply not available through a capture and release effort. Scientific collecting is strictly controlled by permitting agencies (both in the host country, as well as by the museum’s home country), and collectors are mindful not to incur mortality levels higher than what would be considered “natural” to populations of organisms (remember, birds breed, most do so annually, so their offspring fill vacancies left by the deaths of adults in the landscape), so there isn’t a permanent loss to the population. The information gained from the specimens often can lend to the understanding of the species’ natural history so that conservation efforts for that species and its ecosystem can be better-informed and more effective. As such, the small cost of the sacrificing of one or a few birds can result in better conservation planning that may preserve more of the parent population in the long term.

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