After my post about collecting two weeks ago I received a bit of feedback, some positive, some negative, and I’ve been mulling it over with the intention of writing about some of the issues that could be considered the root cause of the disagreement. Then I read Linda Hufford’s guest post, hosted by our own Suzie, and decided that first I had to write another piece, a reply to that post. This is not a case of simply disagreeing with Linda’s post so much as finding the arguments and even layout problematic.
Set the scene: Scientists are “EVIIILLLLLLLL”
The piece is about an ornithologist in tropical Melanesia, so obviously it starts out by painting a wholly unflattering picture of some scientists in a different part of the world. It’s different to know exactly what to make of this section. While it makes a passing attempt to say not all scientists are like these monstrous fiends (or truly arrogant, as she dubs them) it mostly focuses on these monstrous fiends simply to prove that scientists in wildlife conservation can be monstrous fiends, particularly compared to the environment-loving oil industry of Alaska. As related by people who financially fight wildlife conservationists all the time to open up more of the area to more drilling. Clearly those people have wildlife’s best interest at heart.
Best guess? The start was there to try and break the warm fuzzies people have about wildlife biologists, people generally well regarded for doing badly paid work trying to help photogenic animals in the wild. It’s important to set up the premise that these well meaning and well liked people are actually truly arrogant, or at least can be truly arrogant. Now I’m a former wildlife biologist and can assure everyone that wildlife biologists can be every bit as flawed as anyone else. At the same time the field is somewhat lacking in people unconcerned with habitat or wild animals, but if Linda says that they do more damage to permafrost than oil companies dumping 94 thousand gallons of oil laced water on the environment, who am I to argue?
Enter the Villain of the Piece (Dramatic Music)
Having warned to her theme she introduces her villain of the piece, the AMNH researcher Chris Filardi, who collected a kingfisher. The previous set up made sure that you discounted 20 years of working in difficult jungle in remote countries to better understand and conserve rare and interesting species, and gets you ready to treat him like the truly arrogant monster he undoubtedly is. One look at his bio and you know he’s trouble.
“He has, among other things, studied foraging behavior of Palm cockatoos in Papua New Guinea in an effort to expand CITES protection; worked with the Wildlife Conservation Society to set up one of the first community-based wildlife reserves in the country; and studied radiations of Pacific birds to clarify boundaries among species and begin unraveling the origins of pan-Pacific bird groups. Throughout his professional career, Chris has maintained a commitment to bridging his research interests with grassroots conservation. While not in New Guinea and the tropical Pacific, he helped establish natural history-based undergraduate student programs that integrate indigenous communities with wildlands conservation in threatened landscapes of western North America and Central America.”
Clearly a man dripping with contempt for the natural world and high regard for his own importance. No doubt he reads that bio and goes “It’s good, but what I really want to do is kill some f***ing birds”.
Linda doesn’t waste any time in deciding which camp Chris belongs to. He’s in the truly arrogant camp before Chris’s reasons for collecting the bird are even discussed. His reason is dismissed before it is even stated (“it’s ridiculously laughable”). Only once we’ve seen the pretrial condemnation do we get to see the way Linda considered his case, and it’s astonishing and, I am sad to note, dishonest. You see, the bird was collected for scientific study. Says the prosecution to this:
“Can a dead bird educate the researcher on its song? Or how gracefully it flew? Where and how it gathered food? How its diet changed seasonally? How it raised its chicks? Who its predators were? How it is being affected by human intrusions? Its natural longevity? The unique behaviors this mysterious species might exhibit? The relationship between this bird and other animals and plants?”
To see why these questions are so dishonest you need to consider them this way. The preferred alternative to collecting a bird is to take photos and a blood sample. Now, which of the questions asked can you answer with photos and blood?
Science doesn’t work that way!
Studying a wild animal is a multi-disciplinary exercise. So yes, you cannot answer many behavioural and some ecological questions with a dead bird. But, and I can’t believe I have to type this, those are NOT THE QUESTIONS PEOPLE ARE TRYING TO ANSWER WITH A DEAD BIRD. Honestly, you may as well criticise a Chevy Tahoe for not having the ability to fly you from LAX to LHR.
In the Victorian era and before much of what we knew about the natural world came from specimens and the study of their morphology and distributions. Today we augment that knowledge with live observations and survey to build up a much more complete study including understanding of their behaviour and ecology. But we still need to know about morphology and use it to unravel their phylogenetic relationships and evolutionary histories. I used the collections in Australasia to examine how climate and isolation affected the sized and shape of birds across New Zealand. Other scientists have used collections of amphibians to map the spread of chytrid fungus infection, one of the greatest threats to amphibians in the world. Similarly the threat posed by DDT was proven using museum collections, which led to its ban. Surely most people that aren’t Rush Limbaugh can agree that was a good result?
(Moreover, as something of an aside, you actually can answer some of those questions with a dead bird. The morphology of the wing can tell you stuff about the way it flies. The body is potentially host to new parasites we haven’t seen before. Stable isotope analysis of bird tissue can give you a long term history of diet changes. And a lot of what we know about the diet of birds? Stomach content analysis from collected specimens).
Describing the position that Linda took with regards to the validity of the science as dishonest may have been unfair. It assumes that she knew there were scientific reasons why scientists collect birds and other animals or museums and intentionally withheld them to make their position seem absurd and scientists seem truly arrogant. The alternative is hardly flattering though. Linda knew that scientists considered collections important, but made no effort to understand why.
Either of those positions speaks of a disinterest in what the scientists are looking for or doing. You can’t help feeling it is not the scientific justification that Linda finds unsatisfying, it is any justification. I feel two questions have been conflated into one here, question the first being “do scientific collections tell us anything useful about the natural world” and question the second being “is it ever acceptable to kill a wild animal”. From these two issues one can grapple with the third, wider question “do the benefits of collecting wildlife outweigh the costs”. There is room in science to disagree about question one, and certainly have intelligent discussions about when and where collecting is acceptable or not. And it is almost a certainty that people will disagree with the second question. But Linda has completely refused to engage with the first question in a meaningful way and instead attacked a straw man, possibly because of strong feelings regarding the second question, and that stymies any chance of discussion about the third question.
Featured image: Study skins of Garrulus glandarius in Museum für Naturkunde, Berlin. Image by LoKiLeCh, CC
Great response. I read the original post by the rehabber in disbelief that someone could be so willfully ignorant. Coming from someone that rehabs starlings and House Sparrows makes it all the more ridiculous.
How does rehabbing “starlings and House Sparrows” make it all the more ridiculous? Stick to the facts and not the mudslinging.
I’m glad to see a thorough response to that piece posted here.
tlmarko, it’s all part of a no-nothing syndrome that privileges _individual_ duckies and bunnies, house sparrows and starlings, over entire species, habitats, and scientific knowledge. It’s animal-rightsist thinking in yet another setting.
tlmarko, it’s all part of a know-nothing syndrome that privileges _individual_ duckies and bunnies, house sparrows and starlings, over entire species, habitats, and scientific knowledge. It’s animal-rightsist “thinking” in yet another setting.
“do the benefits of collecting wildlife outweigh the costs”. Great question. But don’t forget to include the cost of bad PR into the equation. Which could mean less public funding and permits for the biologists. Fair or not, this is a reality, and biologist may want to keep that in mind before collecting cute birds (after posing with them!), or potential high profile birds (like super rare vagrants)
On the long run, a few less collected birds might be good for PR, good for public funding, and good for science.
Good point. This whole recent brouhaha could have been avoided had whoever wrote the first announcement said simply “The first male mustached kingfisher was collected….”rather than dwelling on its cute cuddliness. I trust that some careless publicist’s Christmas bonus will be a bit short this year.
Because that woman has probably killed more bluebirds with that idiotic shit than the number of birds this scientist has collected during his work.
In case you miss it, a colleague of Chris’s wrote an excellent defence of him and collecting in the facebook comments section of Linda’s article. He also linked to another useful article on collecting.
The snarky attitude displayed in this post, both by Duncan and other commentors is hardly in keeping with scientific professionalism. Linda made many valid points.
@John2 If Linda had any valid points I missed them as I was too distracted by the contempt scientists and in particular a scientist with a lifetime’s contributions towards the conservation of endagered species and habitats and gross misrepresentation of science.
Do you have any specific points to make about my arguments, or are you just concerened about my tone?
If you think this post is snarky in a way that the Hufford post isn’t, then I expect you’re not able to be objective on this topic.
Thanks for this piece. Hard not to react to the vitriol and bias in Linda’s piece, but I think this is a fair reply.
I can also understand the knee jerk response of horror to collecting by someone who loves wildlife.
I’ve worked with wildlife biologists who do the baseline studies and ongoing monitoring on large development projects like mining and oil and gas. Her piece shows no understanding for that practice, but does seem to reflect the negative view I’ve personally seen by ppl working in industry for anyone doing environmental work. That being said, there are also technicians with certain enviro consulting firms who have been known to be thrown into the field with low guidance and low budget who can and do poor data collection .. Without more info it’s hard to say more about that aspect, although it is absurd to think of the biologists doing damage compared to industrial scale exploitation. .. just sayin.
As for me. I don’t think I could do it — bird collecting — myself. Even something like buying those pinned beautiful butterfly collections that supposedly help fund rainforest conservation is something I have trouble stomaching. But I DO have respect for the scientists who dedicate their lives to the work, which may sometimes involve collecting, which is never an easy decision to make, and has to be justified by modern science ethics standards and protocols.
More on the debate on collecting reported in the UK paper, The Guardian. Has a link to a write up by Filardi himself. http://gu.com/p/4d98a/stw
Instead of whining constantly that bird collectors are unfairly victimized, what’s about trying to improve Public Relations a little bit?
No pictures with cute birds to be euthanized to piss off the bunny lovers. No targeted effort to collect super rare vagrants to piss off birdwatchers and bird listers, and make the collectors look like trophy hunters.
That would seriously reduce the number of collected birds by only a few samples, would give bird collectors less opportunities to shoot themselves in the foot (figuratively) and would greatly increase the reputation of collectors and museums.
Maybe the museums could even provide more obvious (or even VERY obvious, what’s about on EVERY page?) links on their websites on how to give found dead birds to the museums. Instead I checked the university of Alaska website (http://www.universityofalaskamuseumbirds.org/) and could not find any obvious way to give them a dead bird. A quick google search did not provide any obvious link either. Instead the site shows a paper justifying the collection of birds! (the few other museums I checked produces the same result).
The Ornithological Council has a fact sheet about how to donate salvaged birds to museums. There are, however, some legal barriers. First, it is still illegal for citizens to possess MBTA and ESA species without first obtaining a permit. The USFWS proposed a regulatory change about five years ago, in the context of a regulation proposing a new permit for conservation education. That regulation has been sitting uncompleted for about five years now, largely as a result of staffing shortages (resulting from our unfortunate Congressional situation). So some museums are reluctant to accept salvaged specimens, though it is hard to imagine that this is a USFWS law enforcement priority. Second, there are instances in which the states or the USFWS won’t allow salvage because they are trying to determine mortality due to various causes such as power lines, wind turbines, oil and chemical disposal pits, etc. And it is important to know how to preserve the bird and associated information. For that, see the Ornithological Council fact sheet.
I am currently in Indonesia and just returned to Jakarta from South Kalimantan, where I’ve monitored a certain piece of forest since 2012. Due to the prolongued dry season (or rather severe drought), the illegal logging and burning of forest this year was extreme, as you may know. My survey area has lost approximately 40% of its forest this year alone and will likely be completely gone in another year or two. Last year these forests were teeming with birdlife and gibbons. This year, all that’s left is ashes and animal corpses. Unless you’ve personally seen it, you can’t imagine the scale of destruction currently going on in Indonesia, very likely also in the range of said kingfisher species.
And we spend hours and hours discussing if a single bird should have been killed for science or not? To me, this is what we call a “luxury problem” in German, it is a sign of decadence. If you are going to talk conservation, focus on what matters, not on ethical reflections.
I am sorry, this is not a good comment, it is probably wrong and I shouldn’t have written it. It just feels so insignificant in the face of what I’ve just seen that it made my head spin.
No, your comment is fine Jochen. Prioritisation – identifying what’s important and what isn’t, is enough of a problem in conservation without worrying about every single animal.
I agree with Ellen, it’s more complicated that simply having museums ask for things people find. Besides, its more productive to target people more likely to find potential specimens with information. When I worked for the USFWS on a seabird colony we collected dead birds we found for use by vetinarians and museum staff. We were in a position to find lots of good speciemens and collect them properly.
It’s worth noting that while specimens that just happened to die are preferable to going and killing them, there are drawbacks too, as they may not be representative of the whole population.
Helpful and informative post. Glad to see the huge response. Thanks.
Science needs a break, such lab experiments should be banned all over the world. As humans, we need to realize that birds and animals have rights to be free, to be alive as much as we should protect species from going extinct instead of killing them in the name of collective betterment of nature. I have these alexandrine parakeets Alexandrine Parakeets just look at these beautiful souls and imagine what if someday this breed went extinct? or if someone killed them in the name of science? I feel terrible for all those who support birds killing for experiments and hunting.
Is the birds dead on the first picture, if it is you are just a carol to the birds?????????????