In 2015, Christopher Filardi of the American Museum of Natural History found, documented, and photographed the first ever male moustached kingfisher, an elusive bird living only on the Solomon Islands. He sparked controversy when he then decided to kill and collect the bird. Did he make the right choice?
Historically, scientific efforts to learn about new animals relied heavily on collecting specimen – sometimes, to an extreme. For instance, the great auk, a penguin-like flightless bird that lived along the coasts of the north Atlantic, went extinct in 1844. The great auk was over hunted, and its rarity only made the bird more desirable. Now, society recoils at the idea of killing an animal at the sake of science because it’s a reminder of trophy hunting. What could justify Fildori’s collection of a bird like the moustached kingfisher, which has an estimated population of less than 1,500? Given today’s greater scientific knowledge and technology, most (but not all) of the same information that Fildori collected could be gathered from a feather and a blood sample. Why, then, did the scientist Fildori choose to kill the bird he had spent over 25 years in Solomon Islands looking for?
In a statement defending his choice, Fildori pointed out the ugly but necessary collection of specimens for scientific examination. For instance, the collection of bird eggs over an extended period of time demonstrated the gradual thinning of eggshells and led to the eventual banning of DDT in 1972, a pesticide that had catastrophic effects on the environment. Only with the sacrifice of thousands of eggs were scientists able to identify the problem and preserve thousands of future generations of birds at risk because of DDT. The scientists of the early 1900s had no way of knowing that the eggs that they collected would be used to ban DDT in the 1970s. Fildori made the same argument: although science may not have an immediate use for the moustached kingfisher he killed, having more data never goes amiss.
Perhaps Fildori’s choice to euthanize the moustached kingfisher he found may be the key to solving a future conservation effort. Or perhaps he simply was responsible for the death a beautiful and endangered bird.