800 Comments and Counting: The Reasoning Behind Our Kingfisher Posts

Our recent stories on specimen collection made waves across the media landscape. Here’s what happened—and how people responded.

Earlier this month, certain corners of the Internet erupted over a small bird called the Moustached Kingfisher. The adorable and aptly named critter was spotted for the first time in decades, and a male specimen was captured and photographed by scientists for the first time ever.

The combination of a charismatic species and first-ever photographs was enough to cause significant buzz, but it was a third element that pushed this story over the top: After scientists photographed the bird, they collected it for scientific study—and yes, “collected” means they killed it.

People freaked out. Comments poured in on our original story, and other news media got in on the action (the timing was particularly ripe following the recent Cecil the Lion media explosion). Did the researchers really have to kill the little bird in order to study it?

The short answer to that question: Yes. (The long answer is here.)

A little over a year ago, Science hosted this very debate in its own pages. Researchers, quite reasonably alarmed by the rapid rate of extinction across the planet, penned an editorial pondering whether specimen collection is in some extreme instances to blame, and wondering whether there was perhaps a better way. In response, Science published a rebuttal signed by more than 100 researchers explaining the flaws of the editorial (specimen collection has never caused a species to go extinct) and reiterating that, in fact, such collection is essential to our ability to study and understand the natural world (which is pretty important right now, given how much of an impact humans have had on it).

In the words of Kenn Kaufman, Audubon’s field editor and world-renowned bird expert:

Specimen collection has been a standard element in biology (including ornithology) for centuries. Essentially 100 percent of ornithologists understand the concept. And probably more than 90 percent today would agree that continued collecting of specimens is justified, at least in some situations, for the scientific benefit to be gained.

I've never done any collecting of bird specimens myself (although I've taken a few plant and insect specimens for established collections), but I've spent thousands of hours studying bird collections at museums and universities while researching some of my book projects. And for decades, some of my best friends have been people who do collect bird specimens as part of their research, mostly in remote tropical areas. None of these people enjoy killing things, none of them are going for “trophies,” none of them collect more than the bare minimum number of specimens needed for research, and all of them are passionately dedicated to conservation.

At the opposite extreme are people (with little knowledge of nature or science) who are shocked to discover that scientists sometimes kill things. Some of these people are among my good friends as well, and I appreciate the fact that they are gentle and kind-hearted. But I can't support them when they get up in arms and decide to launch attacks on science.

After spending some time in the literature and listening to the perspectives of various scientists (including the original researchers and the Science article authors), we came to a comfortable conclusion: Specimen collection, while potentially uncomfortable for much of the population, is standard scientific practice; to assign, report, write, and publish a piece exploring the subject “from both sides” would reinforce the opinion that this is a matter that is up for debate, when in fact it is one on which the scientific community is quite unified.[1]

Hence our decision, as a follow-up, to publish an essay by the scientist who did the collecting explaining why he had done what he had done, rather than investigating a “controversy” that, in the scientific community at least, does not exist.

Outside of the scientific community, however, the debate rages. This has been quite apparent in our comments section, where the quality of discourse has significantly raised the bar on what I normally expect in comments—though the number of death threats I’ve had to delete likely cancels that out (you can’t win ’em all).

Given the great erudition in most of these comments, we wanted to highlight some of the debate that’s continued to emerge around this topic. (Anyone interested can find all 800 and counting of them here.)

One cause of concern was the kingfisher’s inclusion on the IUCN red list

“The crux of the justification is that ‘we think this bird is not as rare as everyone else does,’” reader Tom[2] wrote. “It is listed on the IUCN red list as endangered and the population is estimated as less than 1500, maybe much less, based on best available knowledge at this time. Yet based purely on anecdotal information and very tentative field work these researchers have come to the conclusion that the forests are in fact full of these birds. . . It is best to err on the side of caution, something that was not done here. Until valid field studies have in fact confirmed that the population is large, viable and sustainable, collecting what may still turn out to be a rare individual, perhaps crucial to the survival of the species, is inexcusable.”

In response, Jose America[2]  wrote—“There are fewer than 1500 because it lives on a freaking tiny island. There can never be hundreds of thousands of them. Density is a far better indicator of the population's status and they did appropriate due diligence in seeking that information.” Matthew Kolmann, a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto studying ecology and evolutionary biology (who posted under the Disqus username Mk_ichthyo), also wrote, “Mind you, the IUCN report could have relied on equally or even more ‘anecdotal’ information. IUCN, as it should, panders towards precautionary, conservative estimates.”

BirdLife International’s page on the bird’s status states: “This spectacular species is judged to be Endangered on the basis of a very small estimated population which is suspected to be declining, at least in part of its range. However, further research may reveal it to be more common.” The IUCN’s page on the species states the same thing.

Couldn't they have done more research first?

In response to concerns over inaccurate or underrepresentative data, Kolmann went on to explain some of the harsh realities scientists often face when it comes to collecting that data: “Unfortunately funding does not exist in excess to fund the majority of field studies (especially to places as remote as the Solomons), so waiting another 15-20 yrs to do so could be more damaging to the bird than taking a single specimen. These are ‘what ifs’ admittedly, but something to keep in mind.”

Would video have worked instead of collection?

In response to several questions about whether there was a better way to learn from the specimen—for example, by taking a video, tagging the bird, or x-raying it while alive—Kolmann offered the following reflection on whether that would work, and why collection is often the only—if uncomfortable—option:

Im really at a loss about the sorts of technology we could use to offset the taking of a holotype/paratype. If you could do computed tomography scanning on a live specimen—that could give you great skeletal/biomineral information—but the specimen would have to stay absolutely still for at least an hour . . . so at that point you’re temporarily paralyzing an animal. But even after x-ray scanning youre still missing a lot of the “soft” anatomy—organs, brain matter, etc. External 3D scanning couldn’t get the internal osteology data (or anything external in high-enough resolution).

I think everyone balks at the the limited sample size used to make the estimates. I do, too, to some extent—unfortunately it’s often incredibly difficult to have the time needed to do these surveys—birds and frogs you can count calls and “spot” individuals—but for something like mammals you have to find scat or post camera-traps (which you then re-collect potentially much much later). You have to make the call of collecting a potentially important specimen (in this case, “the” specimen) or waiting and never getting one. I can understand how this makes people uncomfortable.

As for “justified” killing . . . this is just something you agree with or not. As horrible as it sounds for me to “call out” commentators about their eating meat, using cellphones, etc—it’s meant to shock people into thinking about all the “murder” their everyday life entails. It’s also a strangely dualistic philosophical topic—life cannot proceed without death; its inescapable. I think we justify the killing or “collecting” by knowing that this one bird will be immortalized in a collection and used for years and years by a number of biologists. Biologists who won’t have to collect another animal because this one can serve as an analog. I don’t expect everyone to agree or even respect this opinion (procedure), but I can only emphasize that (A) it is vital to understanding the taxonomy/biology of the animal and (B) is probably negligible to the population's health—regardless of its stability.

Others wondered if the bird could have been preserved alive. Herman Mays, assistant professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Marshall University and a research associate at the Cincinnati Museum Center (where he previously served as curator of zoology for seven years), explained the amount of resources that would have required (posting under the Disqus account name Hermmays): “The short answer is that this would be extremely impractical and the specimen wouldn’t die a ‘natural death’ but more likely a very stressful death from captivity. Not all animals respond well to being kept in captivity. Plus, in an era where research dollars are stretched incredibly thin you are asking for years of extra costs to be added to the project. Maintaining wild animals, especially vertebrate animals, in captivity requires enormous amounts of space, specialized food, and round-the-clock staff.”

‘Euthanize’ wasn't really the right word.

Along with a general distaste for the sanitized word “collect,” others took issue with our use of the word “euthanize”—FosterCat[2]  wrote: “Euthanasia is meant to relieve suffering, not kill a healthy being for ‘scientific purposes.’ This bird was not euthanized, he was killed.”

Others agreed—Mays wrote: “Euthanasia is not the right choice of words in this case. This is a ‘take’ in the sense that recreational hunters use the word take. The conundrum is that most scientists desperately want to share the work they do with the public but there is a very vocal subset of individuals who are appalled at virtually any of the details regarding how animals die. There are people who even think we should never even handle wild animals at all. This is true of scientific collecting, biomedical research, recreational hunting, etc. I suspect even that there are many who would be put off by the details of how animals are euthanized in wildlife rehab facilities or how otherwise healthy animals are killed in shelters or how wild animals are killed by conservation managers to protect other species (Brown-headed Cowbirds, for instance). Euthanize was not the right choice of words in this case but I do understand the goal of trying to be tactful.”

What are conservationists trying to protect?

After coming to this conclusion, Mays added some more thoughts on death, and survival:

Conservation biology is about preserving populations, not individuals. All individuals die. It is the population that we seek to preserve, at least through its natural cycle and not only until a premature death at the hands of human activity. There is virtually no evidence that modern scientific collecting has been detrimental to plant or animal populations. Objections to scientific collecting are an outgrowth of subjective sentimentality, not objective evidence-based science. We justifiably kill animals for any number of reasons either for food, medicine, as pests, and even legal recreational hunting. Science is one area where carefully considered, regulated taking of animals is justified. No scientist takes pleasure in collecting specimens but they realize the long-term benefits of doing so. Specimens are a tangible record of biological diversity and without them many of the most fundamental advances in conservation would have never been possible.

Kolmann raised the concern that climate change could wipe out the entire species before anyone returns to the island again: “Filardi could have chosen to not kill the kingfisher. We run the risk, though (which is, admittedly a subject of probabilities), of not collecting the bird, coming back in a decade (maybe less, sounds like AMNH has a good working relationship there), and finding the bird gone. One of the things no one has brought up (probably because it'll bring up a veritable storm of anti-science rhetoric, but here goes . . .) is climate change and the effect on mountain ecosystems. If this bird has a narrow habitat swath it can inhabit on the mountain, and that range gets shifted up or down due to climate change—we could lose the animal without any record of it being there. Moreover, we could lose the animal without really having any conventional, easily-understood entity like a mining group or hunters lift a finger to destroy it.”

Can we pivot from outrage to action?

Which brings us to our final note—we can say with confidence that the level of outrage seen here was beyond anything we’ve seen on stories that have addressed much larger threats to birds—including habitat destruction, buildings, and even climate change.

As JoseAmerica wrote, “You know, just once Id like to see people take this passion about birds and direct it towards an issue that actually does have a measurable negative impact on wild bird populations. Like feral cats, for instance. I mean, people get all bent out of shape about the death of one kingfisher for a demonstrable greater good, but try to get them mobilized to stop something like the destruction of primary rainforest for palm oil plantations in southeast Asia and you can't get them to even give up their Nutella. Weird. And frustrating.”

We can’t help but agree. 

[1] There’s another problem—one with ramifications much more severe—that also happens to be supported by most scientists while remaining extremely controversial among the general public: climate change. Peer-reviewed scientific literature has shown us that 97 percent of publishing climate scientists agree that climate change is real. As John Oliver demonstrated quite effectively on his show last year, this level of consensus exemplifies why the “debate” over climate change is over. It is irresponsible journalism to continue to cover this as if the overwhelming majority of the scientific community has not already come to a conclusion.

[2] These are the names provided in Disqus—the commenter either did not reply to our request or did not wish to be identified.