Birds in a Changing World

Killing birds: Scientists?
by Scott Winton -- November 11th, 2015

We know human activities lead to a lot of untimely bird deaths and are causing an acceleration in extinction rates. In this series of posts, “Killing Birds,” I examine the mechanics of anthropogenic bird death. How are we killing these feathered creatures that we oh-so-love?

It is commonly believed that scientists hold a special trusted place in society as authorities on issues spanning both technical and moral dimensions. But some recent ill-conceived public relations work by the American Museum of Natural History and National Audubon Society has cast doubt on this assumption, as news about the death of a bird sent shockwaves through internet ornithological and animal advocate communities.

As this Audubon news release explains, a team of field ornithologists, while working in some inaccessible mountaintops in the Solomon Islands of the South Pacific, rediscovered a beautiful and poorly known bird, the Moustached Kingfisher. The scientists obtained the first photos of the species and obtained the first specimen of a male (i.e. they sacrificed one male for the sake of science).

The problem with this article is that it presents an appalling narrative. The protagonist is an adorable living male Moustached Kingfisher, photographed in the hand, alive, vibrant, primal. He is described as rare, almost mythically so, and un-glimpsed by western eyes for decades. He is perhaps the last of his kind, the reader is lead to believe. But instead of going on to discuss the threats to, and prospects for, the conservation of his species, the writer casually mentions that he was ‘euthanized.’ [Killed! A tragedy!] By scientists, [gasp!], the unintended villains of the story.

The reader reaction was equivalent in tone, if not magnitude, to outrage exhibited over the recent Cecil the Lion story. A few well-informed rational biologists attempted to painstakingly quell the readers’ concerns, demands and accusations one by one. But it seems that once a person’s deeply held sense of moral justice has been besmirched, no amount of logical information can change their minds. And once the internet rage machine gets fired up, it becomes a hard train to turn around. Comments sections ballooned to hundreds of posts of heated discussion.

While many people in general, and scientists in particular, find these sorts of trial-by-social-media lynchings to be worrisome, in this case, I find the emotional instincts underlying the source of rage reassuring. A society that has an instinctual disdain for death and cruelty to animals has its values in a good place. Yes, the comments reveal the troubling prevalence of scientific illiteracy, but everybody is ignorant about most things…is it fair to hold ignorance against somebody expressing an intense emotional reaction? If we have learned anything from social media comments, it is to keep expectations for knowledge and civility low. The way I see it, these outraged commenters merely need to be engaged with a talented artist or writer who can illustrate to them in an emotionally poignant way the conditions under which killing of a bird is appropriately justified.

This is where bloggers have an opportunity to come forward as a neutral third party, bridge disparate values and perspectives, and move the conversation forward. The 10000 birds blog, popular with bird lovers spanning the spectrum from scientist and quasi-religious animals rights proponents, seemed like the perfect place for such a conversation to take place (e.g. they’ve provided some thoughtful non-conventional insights about the birds vs. feral cats issue).

But for inexplicable reasons, 10000 birds outsourced this important opportunity to somebody who is willfully ignorant of the scientific arguments behind collecting specimens as well as fundamental details underlying the Kingfisher case. Reading this post is to descend into an absurd, bizarro world twilight zone. Roughly half the text is devoted to explaining how, unlike the responsible oil and gas industry, scientists are greedy, arrogant and recklessly destroying Alaskan ecosystems. She goes on to argue that any researcher who collects a bird for scientific investigation is akin to a trophy hunter.

It’s fine to be outraged over the killing of a bird, but it’s entirely another to go on to write up a narrative for a well-respected blog without even attempting to understand the issues at hand. I’m less frustrated with the author’s backward world view than I am with the 10000 birds editorial staff who green-lighted such a vapid and inflammatory post.

This should have been an opportunity to bridge the divide between our rational quest for increasing knowledge of the natural world and our emotional, visceral connection with the living creatures with which we share the planet. Instead 10000 birds fanned the flames and drove apart two camps that should really be cooperating on the conservation of the world’s imperiled biodiversity.

It leaves me wishing that we could take this rage and channel it, instead, toward something productive… say the protection of sensitive island ecosystems from logging and mining, which will almost certainly drive several bird species to extinction over the coming century.

To Audubon, the scientists‘ and 10000birds‘ credit, each have attempted to make things right by posting followups affirming that, yes, collecting animal specimens is necessary and remains the gold standard for science. For any readers of this blog who may be unsure of how they feel about this issue, I encourage them to read these posts before passing judgment.

But can this damage really be undone? Who wants to fund an ornithological expedition when it might get them shamed all over the internet? The unfortunate and likely end result of this Moustached Kingfisher controversy is that the task of raising funds for bird research, already a major challenge, is only made more difficult. That’s the real tragic outcome as it will only lead to further acceleration in the ongoing losses of bird life.

4 Comments

  1. Mike
    Nov 13, 2015

    Hi Scott, I appreciate your thorough response to this sensitive issue and your acknowledgement of the many controversial conservation issues our writers address. But your fear of the damage done by a dissenting view within our broader birding community is overblown.

    Suzie responded to your comment on the offending post, but I’d like to share a different context. When most people think of birding, they imagine intrepid field ornithologists as well steeped in taxonomy and evolutionary biology as they are in ecology and phenology. Readers of 10,000 Birds know that many of us, including me and Corey, fall into that camp. But birding is enjoyed by a far broader population of feeder watchers, photographers, hunters, hikers, and bird rehabbers. Our goal is to provide a free space for enthusiasts of every stripe to communicate to our international community of bird lovers.

    Where free speech reigns, people are free to argue their points and perhaps change minds. As you can see in the comment thread of that post and Duncan’s subsequent reply post, we encourage our writers and readers alike to speak their minds. It might be argued that Linda’s post triggered a dialogue that helped clarify a lot of questions held by folks unacquainted with the scientific reasoning behind collection. If you imagine that every birder fully supports the practice, you’d be surprised… very surprised.

    Most traditional birding organizations and publications focus on a specific expression of science-driven birding, one that we love and contribute to. But at 10,000 Birds, we are free to also provide a platform for even narrow expressions of avian enthusiasm, a category ornithologists fall into as surely as bird rehabbers. And while the two groups may not always agree, individually or en masse, the sincerity and commitment of either is never in doubt.

    • Scott Winton
      Scott Winton
      Nov 22, 2015

      Hi Mike,
      Thanks for coming over here to comment.
      I appreciate the sentiment of welcoming diverse perspectives and you certainly have nailed where my own personal biases lie.
      My complaint, however, is not about the perspective of the post’s author or even her opinion on the issue. I just feel that it is the duty of the writer to seek first to understand before casting judgement.
      The ensuing dialogue was predictably contentious and centered around disputing the authors accusations against the collector of the kingfisher and scientists in general. When the bar gets set so low it becomes hard to move a discussion forward.
      The free speech argument can be used to justify just about anything. It’s telling that by Suzie’s own account she knew the offending post would not have been published had other 10000 Birds contributors had a chance to review.

  2. Elliot Tramer
    Nov 18, 2015

    As a birder and professional ornithologist, I understand the value of maintaining museum collections of birds, and have used those resources myself. But in the modern world of digital photography, and given the extreme rarity of this species, I don’t support taking this individual. Take its measurements, take a series of diagnostic photos from a variety of angles, band it — then release it.

    • Scott Winton
      Scott Winton
      Nov 22, 2015

      Thanks for this comment, Elliot.

      I suspect many other birders and ornthologists may share your opinion, though I’m not sure your reasoning is that well justified.

      The calculus the scientists use (admittedly, the ones who did the collecting, so a potential for conflict of interest) is that the taking of one male from a population of 4000+ has a negligible effect on the viability of the population. So I’m not sure “extreme rarity” is a given in this case.

      Also, the Science article linked above discusses the value provided by a specimen that photos cannot.

      Does that added scientific value justify the moral hazard of collecting in this case? I think that can be debated.

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