- Killing of the first male moustached kingfisher ever seen by scientists has upset many readers and scientists.
- But Chris Filardis, lead biologist, writes that kingfisher numbers in the region are high, and collection of one male individual will not affect its population.
- The moustached kingfisher habitat may get national recognition for protection in the near future, according to Filardis.
Last month, when biologist Chris Filardi from the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), and his team, were traipsing across Guadalcanal Island in the Solomon Archipelago surveying its biodiversity, they heard a call — “ko-ko-ko-kokokokokokokoko-kiew.”
They paused, and waited, Filardi writes in his blog. Then, soon enough, they spotted the source of the call: a blue-and-gold beautiful Guadalcanal moustached kingfisher (Actenoides bougainvillei excelsus), the “ghost bird” that had eluded him, and other western scientists, for several decades. The rarely-seen kingfisher quickly flew away.
Very few scientists have spotted the moustached kingfisher so far, and a male had never been seen previously. According to Audubon.org, “the only real sources of information on the species were three female specimens spotted in the 1920s and 1950s.”
But a few days later, Filardi’s team hit the jackpot. They caught a male moustached kingfisher in a mist net — fine nets used by scientists to capture birds for research — that they had set up in the forest.
Filardi, who has worked in the Solomon Islands for 20 years, was ecstatic. “One of the most poorly known birds in the world was there, in front of me, like a creature of myth come to life,” he writes.
The team photographed the bird, for the first time ever. Then they euthanized it and prepared the bird as a scientific specimen, Filardi writes.
Filardi’s decision to kill, and preserve, the male moustached kingfisher, the only one photographed so far, sparked outrage among readers and other scientists.
Animal behavior expert Marc Bekoff, for example, wrote in an op-ed in 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.”
However, Filardi laid forth his reasons for collecting the male bird in an op-ed for Audubon. He writes that “the decision to collect an individual specimen of the Moustached Kingfisher as part of our survey work reflects standard practice for field biologists.”
“With this first modern voucher of the kingfisher, the only adult male, we now have a comprehensive set of material for molecular, morphological, toxicological, and plumage studies that are unavailable from blood samples, individual feathers, or photographs,” he adds. “There is also a deeper reasoning here — the value of good biodiversity collections lies partly in the unforeseeable benefits of those collections to future generations.”
How rare is the rarely-spotted moustached kingfisher?
The practice of collecting or killing animals for scientific studies has its share of critics. Some experts have suggested that such collections can even lead to the extinction of species.
Others have challenged this view. While indiscriminate collections may have posed a threat in the past, some scientists advocate that modern collecting that adheres to “strict permitting regulations and ethics guidelines, including the general practice of collecting a number of specimens substantially below levels that would affect population demography,” is sometimes necessary.
Filardi uses the latter argument to support his collection of the male bird.
Based on the number of moustached kingfishers he encountered during his survey and the amount of suitable habitat on Guadalcanal, he estimates that the island most likely has over 4,000 individuals. He calls this “a robust number for a large island bird.”
The bird’s habitat is located in a remote region not easily accessible, and sightings of the bird among western scientists have been rare. But the bird is probably more common, he adds.
“Elders of the local land-owning tribe (now living at lower elevations) relate stories of eating Mbarikuku, the local name for the bird; our local partners knew it as unremarkably common,” he writes.
“As I wrote from the field, this is a bird that is poorly known and elusive to western science — not rare or in imminent danger of extinction,” he adds.
Protecting the bird
The Guadalcanal Island is not only home to the elusive kingfisher, but to many rare, and critically endangered animals, such as the montane monkey-faced bat (Pteralopex pulchra).
While a large portion of the island has intact forest landscapes, which are largely unbroken areas of primary forest, a number of conservation threats exist, according to Filardi. These include threats from mining and logging, invasive species, and changing climate, he writes.
In fact, between 2001 and 2013, the island lost over 20,000 hectares – or nearly four percent — tree cover, according to Global Forest Watch.
Despite the ongoing controversy, the AMNH team’s survey findings may have a fruitful outcome.
“For the first time in my decades of work in the region, all present — including relevant government ministries, the Prime Minister’s Office, local leaders, and the Uluna-Sutahuri tribe — formally agreed that this area should advance toward national recognition under the recently passed Protected Areas Act,” Filardi writes.
“In just over two weeks, I will be returning to meet with the Uluna-Sutahuri Tribe, colleagues, and Solomon Islands government officials to outline next steps. The expedition was part of the beginning of a partnership, not an end.”