Monday, October 19, 2015

Post #41 - The Curious and Controversial case of the Moustached Kingfisher

Moustached Kingfisher is an apparently rare bird that is found on - and only on - the Island of Guadalcanal (of WWII fame) in the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific. I say 'apparently rare' as it has not been the focus of significant study and there seems to be at least some disagreement as to how many of the birds might currently exist. Miraculously, one individual wandered all the way across the Pacific and was sighted in Los Angeles this weekend! Just joking! Seriously though, this species has recently been in the news, and I wanted to take a few minutes to discuss the controversy surrounding it. 

Moustached Kingfisher

Guadalcanal is marked by the red pin

I am sure that many of you have already read at least something about the great Kingfisher Controversy of 2015. The basic idea is that a team of scientists recently caught, in a mist net, a male Moustached Kingfisher while on a research expedition to Guadalcanal. This species is rare enough that no western scientist had ever laid eyes on a male before that individual was captured. What little was known about the species was gleaned from 3 female specimens that dated to the first half of the 20th century. As no formal, systematic study of the species had ever been performed, they decided to sacrifice the captured bird and preserve it as a specimen to be taken back to the Museum of Natural History in New York City. There it would be further studied and archived in the museum's collection. Their decision to do this has sparked at least some amount of outrage, most of which stems from the fact that we do not have a concrete idea what the loss of this individual bird means for the sustainability of the kingfisher's population moving forward.

The truth of the matter is that we know very little about the population of this apparently rare bird. This is why research expeditions are initiated, to fill in the gaps in our current understanding or knowledge. Speaking with locals who know more about the species than they or any westerners did, the scientists decided the population could tolerate the loss of this single individual. The locals apparently concurred as the outrage has come mainly from elsewhere. 

I understand the uproar, but I fully support the decision to collect the bird. It is awful that this one bird had to pay die to further our understanding of the species? Yes, certainly. However, the potential upside for the species in my mind outweighs the cost of that one individual. Given the information they were presented by locals, their decision seems reasonable. While there is debate as to the precise population size and status, the chance that the removal of this exact individual will ultimately lead to extinction is small. However, that we will learn at least something beyond that that was known prior to the collection is difficult to debate. Many might say that DNA analysis, for example, could have been performed from feathers taken from the bird prior to release. This is certainly true, but this would not permit us to have an intact reference specimen, or "type-specimen" against which future comparisons could be made. It is as important that we have a reference specimen for each species as we do for weight and distance measurements, for example. As the definition of a species has become increasingly malleable in recent years, it is important that we have a reference point from which to start any taxonomic classification scheme or discussion. The specimen in question will serve as the reference point for all future discussions and analysis of Moustached Kingfishers. 

I am sure the scientists took no joy in taking the life of the bird, but I think that the cost of their decision to do just that will be paid by the longer term attention that will be focused on the species moving forward. Hopefully what I penned here makes at least some sense to some of you. If none one disagreed, there wouldn't be much point of putting my opinion out there, would there?

Lastly, and considering the subject matter of my last post, I thought this was too funny and appropriate. It's worth watching, I promise!

One more shot I found from Monterey a few weeks back
Pacific Golden-plover
Canon 500mm f/4 IS on EOS 7D2
1/2000 at f/5.6, ISO 800
Manual mode, Handheld (while in knee deep surf).

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