Why I Collected a Moustached Kingfisher

The field biologist who has spent 20 years working in the Solomon Islands explains the reasoning behind his decision.

Editor's Note: Last week, we published a story detailing how researchers in Guadalcanal had found and photographed the first male Moustached Kingfisher ever recorded, then euthanized the individual bird to preserve as part of the scientific record. Many readers expressed concern at the specimen collection, so we reached out to the researcher, who explains his decision below.

A little less than 2 weeks ago, I captured a poorly known bird, photographed it, and then euthanized and prepared the bird as a scientific specimen. This was neither an easy decision nor one made in the spur of the moment.

For a quarter century I have worked to sustain wild country, the nations of non-human organisms thriving there, and our own species’ interactions with these places—the ragged, untrammeled edges of a world increasingly dominated by our collective patterns of consumption. Our recent fieldwork was not just about finding the Moustached Kingfisher. This was not a “trophy hunt.”

The Moustached Kingfisher was captured during a groundbreaking international, multi-disciplinary biodiversity survey of the uplands of Guadalcanal Island in the Solomon Archipelago that was led by Pacific islanders. Collecting the kingfisher and other biological specimens were team decisions made in the broader context of this work. Nonetheless, I feel it is important for me to personally articulate why I collected this particular specimen.

I have spent time in remote, and not so remote, forests of the Solomon Islands across nearly 20 years. I have watched whole populations of birds decline and disappear in the wake of poorly managed logging operations and, more recently mining. On this trip, the real discovery was not finding an individual Moustached Kingfisher, but discovering that the world this species inhabits is still thriving in a rich and timeless way. 

Our first full day in the field, we detected the Moustached Kingfisher by its unmistakable call. Over the next several days, we assessed the population of birds across the area where we were working most intensely, recording calls of individuals as well as numerous sightings along a ~2 km ridgeline transect ascending to the high central massif of Guadalcanal Island. During this survey work, we recorded several calling individuals in an area totaling about a square kilometer, estimating three pairs and possible offspring or social groupings (in one instance we detected three birds in a small forest glade).

Population Assessment

The total land area of Guadalcanal is roughly 5300 square kilometers. If, conservatively, 15 percent of this area represents suitable habitat, and if we assume densities we encountered are on the high end, this gives a population estimate of over 4000 individuals, a robust number for a large island bird. Significantly, habitat in the documented elevation range of the Moustached Kingfisher (800 m to at least 1500 m) remains largely as it has been for centuries. Though sightings and information about the bird are rare in the ornithological community, the bird itself is not. Elders of the local land-owning tribe (now living at lower elevations) relate stories of eating Mbarikuku, the local name for the bird; our local partners knew it as unremarkably common. With a remote range so difficult to access, there has been a perception of rarity because so few outside people or scientists have seen or otherwise recorded the bird. As I wrote from the field, this is a bird that is poorly known and elusive to western science—not rare or in imminent danger of extinction. 

The Scientific Gold Standard

In this context, the decision to collect an individual specimen of the Moustached Kingfisher as part of our survey work reflects standard practice for field biologists. A large literature (including a recent piece in the journal Science) addresses the importance of specimen collection in depth, carefully debunking claims that selective collecting has caused species extinctions, justifying the sacrifice of individual lives and the overall utility of scientific collecting relative to other less-invasive options. Ethical collection of any individual organism is determined by basic criteria including collection below levels that will impact populations, adherence to permitting guidelines, and consideration of the importance of voucher specimens. With this first modern voucher of the kingfisher, the only adult male, we now have a comprehensive set of material for molecular, morphological, toxicological, and plumage studies that are unavailable from blood samples, individual feathers, or photographs. There is also a deeper reasoning here—the value of good biodiversity collections lies partly in the unforeseeable benefits of those collections to future generations. Detection and understanding of the impacts of marine pollutants, eggshell thinning from DDT, and anthropogenic body size shifts in widespread species, are examples of the power of natural history collections.

A Bird Unknown to Science

The scientific history of Mbarikuku is brief and shallow. A single female was collected in 1927 during the American Museum of Natural History’s Whitney South Sea expedition. This became the holotype or primary voucher for what was described as a subspecies found only on Guadalcanal. Subsequently, in 1953, a team from Oxford University prepared two specimens (also females) that were collected by local hunters. The adult male plumage of this bird has remained unknown and the absence of genetic and other comparative material linked to this plumage has precluded evolutionary analyses—until now. Analyses of the specimen in question will clarify evolutionary relationships among Moustached Kingfishers and help answer important questions about the evolution and biogeography of kingfishers, of high elevation bird communities, and of southwestern Pacific biotas more broadly.

Though finding this kingfisher and its world is heartening, the future for the species is far from secure. Like all single-island endemics, threats to persistence include habitat transformation from mining and logging, invasive species (that if not controlled will continue to overrun most tropical islands on earth) and a changing climate that could shift forest dynamics in ways that push higher elevation species literally up and out into the heavens. These are real and enduring threats, not the fault of some mining company or unscrupulous logger. These are threats from all of us who use petroleum and petro-chemicals, consume wood products, invest in extractive industry, or type on computers filled with metals dug from places rich in ore like the realm of the Mbarikuku.

The specters of extinction for island birds loom in today’s world. The collection of a single Moustached Kingfisher is not among them. And, beyond advancing science, I believe this act will positively impact the kingfisher’s world.

Conservation Impact

The multi-disciplinary expedition that resulted in the collection of the kingfisher was designed with two interconnected purposes: documenting poorly known, threatened ecosystems, and advancing a conservation strategy for the vast central uplands of the island, land held by local Uluna-Sutahuri people through an age-old system of customary land tenure. As with small, rural communities around the world, balancing increasing pressures from international development interests, limited options for cash income, and shifting demographics has resulted in a devastating trend of social and ecological unraveling across the Pacific. Over a period of many years, the American Museum of Natural History’s Center for Biodiversity and Conservation has been privileged to partner with the Uluna-Sutahuri people, and through this expedition, partnership has expanded to include the Solomon Islands Government, regional biological and resource management training institutions, local and international conservation organizations, and a cadre of exceptional Solomon Islands biologists and students—all united in an attempt to foster a different outcome within Uluna-Sutahuri customary lands. 

Upon return from the mountains, the survey team, including chiefs and key representatives of the Uluna-Sutahuri people, presented findings to government and other local leaders. Among many novel scientific findings, we presented the collection of a single male Moustached Kingfisher, and our encounters with its still thriving world. For the first time in my decades of work in the region, all present—including relevant government ministries, the Prime Minister’s Office, local leaders, and the Uluna-Sutahuri tribe—formally agreed that this area should advance toward national recognition under the recently passed Protected Areas Act. In just over two weeks, I will be returning to meet with the Uluna-Sutahuri Tribe, colleagues, and Solomon Islands government officials to outline next steps. The expedition was part of the beginning of a partnership, not an end.

I have come to know, through firsthand experience, how specimens and other artifacts in museums can over time become sacred. Within the collections of the museum, I have drummed ancient songs, cried tears of sorrow and joy with the descendants of long deceased mask-carvers from a world that evaporated with the near genocide caused by European histories in the Americas. I have watched sparks ignite in the eyes of Pacific Islanders holding specimens of extinct species doomed by habitat loss, invasive species or disease. I have watched my friends, my colleagues—those I work both for and with—go home and out into the world and make a difference. These moments drive my work.  Through a vision shared with my Solomon Island mentors, and focused keenly on sacred Uluna-Sutahuri lands, the Moustached Kingfisher I collected is a symbol of hope and a purveyor of possibility, not a record of loss.

Filardi is the director to Pacific Programs for the American Museum of Natural History's Center for Biodiversity and Conservation.