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.