Controversy after scientist finds rare bird -- and kills it

Technically Incorrect: A US scientist finds a male mustached kingfisher in the Solomon Islands. He kills it so that he can study it. Not everyone is impressed.

Chris Matyszczyk
3 min read

Technically Incorrect offers a slightly twisted take on the tech that's taken over our lives.

The triumphant Twitter post of the American Museum of Natural History, before the rare bird was killed. screenshot by Chris Matyszczyk/CNET

When scientists start to fight, I try to take a ringside seat.

I know they won't throw punches. Instead, they will brandish higher-grade weapons such as intellectual and moral superiority.

And so it is in the case of Chris Filardi. He's the director of Pacific Programs at the American Museum of Natural History.

Last month, he was in the Solomon Islands with other researchers. They first heard, then espied the rare male moustached kingfisher.

Then, as the Dodo reports, the beautiful orange and blue bird was "collected as a specimen for additional study." This turns out to have been a slight euphemism for "killed for additional study."

Filardi wasn't universally popular for this decision. He took to Audubon to write: "Why I Killed A Rare Kingfisher So That I Could Study It And Become More Famous." Wait, no. His article was headlined: "Why I Collected a Moustached Kingfisher." (The comments section to this article is well worth a read.)

While you muse on whether art collectors are actually art killers, I'll tell you that Filardi insisted that, "This was not a 'trophy hunt.'"

Filardi perhaps doesn't want to end up like Minnesota dentist Walter Palmer, accused of illegally hunting down Cecil the lion.

He insisted that the moustached kingfisher is not an endangered species.

"Though sightings and information about the bird are rare in the ornithological community, the bird itself is not. 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 wrote.

He concluded that his actions were "standard practice for field biologists."

"Ethical collection of any individual organism is determined by basic criteria including collection below levels that will impact populations, adherence to permitting guidelines, and consideration of the importance of voucher specimens. 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 said.

What it is to end your life as a voucher.

Marc Bekoff, professor emeritus of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado, begs to differ with Filardi's reasoning.

"This is still the name of the game for some researchers: Find a beautiful, unique, or rare animal and then kill it in the name of something or another to justify the unnecessary slaying," he writes in the Huffington Post.

Clearly, those of clean, logical comportment will wonder whether killing the kingfisher or letting it go were truly the only options. Was there really no other way of getting information from it? Or might it now, post-death, become an important, well, exhibit, there to attract attention?

"Killing 'in the name of conservation' or 'in the name of education' or 'in the name of whatever' simply needs to stop," Bekoff said. "It is wrong and sets a horrific precedent for future research and for children."

Bekoff is a proponent of what he calls compassionate conservation. Its first principle, he said, is,"First do no harm and individual lives matter."

I wonder which individual life mattered more in this case. Seeing Filardi pose with the bird before killing it does offer a tinge of conqueror and vanquished.

Some might see a touch of troubling irony, indeed, in the triumphant Twitter post by the American Museum of Natural History when the moustached Kingfisher was found. "These are the 1st-ever photos of a male moustached kingfisher! More on this 'ghost' species," it said.

These were, indeed, the first-ever photos of the male moustached kingfisher alive. It didn't live much longer.