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Biologist Photographs Stunning, Elusive Bird, Then Kills It

Biologist Chris Filardi of the American Museum of Natural History found and photographed a rarely observed male mustached kingfisher, then killed it.
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It is known as a ghost bird. And thanks to a biologist from the American Museum of Natural History, one mustached kingfisher is now in fact an actual ghost.

First he found the rarely observed bird, fluttering and calling among the trees. Then he killed it. That is to say, he “euthanized it” for scientific inquiry. In other words, he killed it so as to study its life.

The horror expressed by people at the so-called collection by American Museum of Natural History biologist Chris Filardi of the bird during an expedition in Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands—purportedly in conjunction with the Pacific Island Uluna-Sutahuri Tribe—blew up the Internet last week.

First the news broke that Filardi and his team had found, almost by accident while surveying biodiversity in general, the bird that is so elusive that it has earned the moniker “ghost bird.” Before this only three specimens had ever been collected, and they were females. The males had never been seen, much less photographed. In fact Filardi had been seeking this bird for 20 years.

"It was like finding a unicorn," he told Slate. "It’s unimaginable. You dream about it. You can almost taste it. And all of a sudden, there it is.”

Then it came out that he had “collected” it for further study—a euphemism for “euthanize,” which is a euphemism for … well you know.

Filardi contended that the bird is rare as in rarely seen, not as in, hardly any of them left, despite the fact that it is on the Red List of endangered species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). In fact, Filardi implied in an op-ed on Audubon magazine’s website, it’s so common that locals have been known to eat it like chicken.

“Though sightings and information about the bird are rare in the ornithological community, the bird itself is not,” Farling wrote in Audubon, justifying his actions. “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 took it as a specimen in order to study the species, pressure on its habitat and other factors influencing its overall survival. In other words, he said, the bird died by human hand to save others like it from dying by human hand, or indirectly by human activity. Further, he said, rarely seen by Western humans does not mean the bird is rare. It just means that sightings are infrequent.

“With a remote range so difficult to access, there has been a perception of rarity because so few outside people or scientists have seen or otherwise recorded the bird,” Filardi wrote. “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.”

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At the very least, the bird was not killed wantonly, Filardi said. The biology team consulted with local tribal members.

Filardi said his decision was based on the fact that the species would still thrive, even if the single bird did not. The underlying assumption being that the surrounding birds would have no consciousness of having lost a companion, because they are, well, animals. 

Indigenous Peoples around the world vary greatly when it comes to cultural practices and beliefs. But they overall have one thing in common: a reverence for Mother Earth and all her creatures. Animals are our sisters and our brothers, most indigenous cultures hold, and the Earth is a precious gift that should not be squandered.

But Filardi and scientists like him bring another perspective.

“Analyses of the specimen in question will clarify evolutionary relationships among mustached kingfishers and help answer important questions about the evolution and biogeography of kingfishers, of high elevation bird communities, and of southwestern Pacific biotas more broadly,” Filardi wrote.

Thus the specimen collection, he said, was done in conjunction with the local Uluna-Sutahuri people. It’s not a trophy hunt, he assured readers. In fact, it was about preserving the sacred.

“I have come to know, through firsthand experience, how specimens and other artifacts in museums can over time become sacred,” Filardi wrote. “Within the collections of the museum, I have drummed ancient songs, cried tears of sorrow and joy with the descendants of long deceased mask-carvers from a world that evaporated with the near genocide caused by European histories in the Americas. I have watched sparks ignite in the eyes of Pacific Islanders holding specimens of extinct species doomed by habitat loss, invasive species or disease. I have watched my friends, my colleagues—those I work both for and with—go home and out into the world and make a difference. These moments drive my work. Through a vision shared with my Solomon Island mentors, and focused keenly on sacred Uluna-Sutahuri lands, the Moustached Kingfisher I collected is a symbol of hope and a purveyor of possibility, not a record of loss.”

But like actual trophy hunting, the killing of animals for scientific research is coming under public scrutiny.

“When will the killing of other animals stop?” wrote University of Colorado Professor emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Marc Bekoff on Huffington Post. “We need to give this question serious consideration because far too much research and conservation biology is far too bloody and does not need to be.”

He went on to call for widespread discussion in scientific circles dealing with human-animal interactions.

“Researchers who are prone to discover and kill would also benefit from thinking about the basic principles of compassionate conservation, namely, First do no harm and individual lives matter,” he wrote. “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.”