Thursday, May 7, 2009

First United States record of Crowned Slaty-Flycatcher ... in the name of science RIP

The following was copied from Surfbirds:

I collected the bird. I knew it wouldn't be popular, but I considered it important. I could go on at great length about why I feel that's so, but clearly this issue is deeply emotional and philosophical, and in such instances, we're as likely to change our minds as we are to breathe underwater.

I am on the LSU permit, but the focus of anger in this thread against LSU is unfounded. The bird was collected in Louisiana, and LSUMNS was simply the recipient of the specimen. They learned of the collection like everyone else, after the fact.

If I had it to do over, I would. I believe in what I did, just as strongly as many of you believe against it. My intentions and reasons were honest and clear. Some of you will find fault with that; you have that right.

Paul Conover
Lafayette, LA

This article came in my mailbox via North American Birds, Vol. 62: No. 4, 2009, page 638.  I wanted to write about this from the moment I read the article. I didn't know of the Surfbirds thread until I began to do some research for my blog entry.  I'm not a member of Surfbirds so I cannot read all of the, apparently unfavorable, posts written on this topic.  Clearly the comments were strong enough to compel Mr. Conover to reply; in my mind, inadequately.

I am going on record to say that I strongly disagree with Mr. Conover's actions.  He states that he "could go on at great length about why it was important that he collect the bird." He could also go on at very short length, because it was not important for these two individuals (his collaborator was Buford Mac.Myers) to collect the bird for any reason other than self-importance and profound selfishness.  The most egregious thing about their action is also the most disturbing- they collected the bird because they could. Mr. Conover, at least, is named on the Louisiana State University permit to collect birds, and the two collectors carried with them the means to do so.  A review of the AOU guidelines on bird collection suggests that they collected the bird as a museum voucher specimen.  Of note, a member of the Louisiana State University Museum of Natural Science (LSUMNS), Robb Brumfield, is also a member of the AOU Bird Collections committee.  This seems to me a significant conflict of interest.  Mr. Brumfield should consider stepping down from the AOU committee.   

Without summarizing an article that can be found and read on-line, the event in question occurred on June 3, 2008. Several things stand out about the collectors' actions.  They got photos - good photos - of the bird.  Furthermore, they heard the bird vocalize.  They did not know definitively, but they had a strong hunch, that the bird was a Crowned Slaty-Flycatcher (Empidonomus aurantioatrocristatus) but in the field could not recall the scientific name.  They went into the field with a camera and also with a gun of some sort.  After killing the bird they called the Louisiana State University Museum of Natural Science and spoke with the collections manager who was able to confirm the bird's identity by comparison with specimens of the same species already in that collection.  Apparently, LSUMNS has one of the largest (the largest?) collections of South American birds.  They took the bird to LSUMNS and it was immediately prepared as a study skin (LSUMNS catalog No. 180361).  The bird was an adult male and was in peak migratory condition.

Given the actions of these two men, I believe the AOU needs to reevaluate its bird collection and permit granting guidelines carefully.  Additionally, consideration should be given to removing the two men who killed this bird from the LSU collection permit, and LSU should be censored and or fined for allowing and supporting the action of the collectors.

Each day I am besieged with mail solicitations to join and donate money to organizations whose mission it is to conserve birds and other wildlife.  As I write this, I have the American Bird Conservancy form on my dining room table waiting for me to renew.  On the other hand, we have "scientists" among us who behave as if they live in Audubon's time.  (It is generally accepted knowledge that Audubon also killed birds just for the sport of it).  
J.J. Audubon's contribution to bird art and bird identification is beyond measure.  In the days before optics and camers, I'm sure he felt that his gun was his most valuable tool.

The Crowned Slaty-Flycatcher is dead.  There is nothing to be done about this now. Arguments that suggest the bird would have died anyway or would never have found its way back to its breeding grounds are empty and shallow.  The Crowned Slaty-Flycatcher is housed in a dusty museum drawer with a tag on its leg.  What have we learned about this bird?  We know that it made an extremely unlikely and amazing migration to become the first record for its species in the United States and only the second record in all of North America.  The collectors knew this before they killed it.  What else do we know?  The answer to this question is the most discouraging.  We know nothing.  For me, the presence of this bird in the LSUMNS taints their organization and that collection.
Mr. Conover closes his Surfbirds response with, "my intentions and reasons were honest and clear."  To this statement I would add that they were also misguided.  He goes on the write, "some of you will find fault with that; you have that right." We do indeed have that right and we are expressing it.  This bird was far more important to science alive and the actions of the collectors take us back to the bleak times of Audubon, Alexander Wilson and other early naturalists, not to mention the plume hunters who shot birds and sold the feathers to decorate women's hats.  
Alexander Wilson (top) and an early 20th century plume hunter.  It is generally thought that Alexander Wilson was not an accomplished artist.  When it became apparent that plume hunting had caused a dramatic decline in numbers of birds, there were forward thinking citizens who put a stop to killing birds for the sake of women's couture.

Wilson wrote of an injured Ivory-billed Woodpecker he captured and imprisoned in his inn room for three days while he drew it. The bird died while being held captive by Wilson and he wrote, "I witnessed his death with regret." One could surmise that Wilson felt regret because he had not yet completed his drawings, but at least he was regretful. 


ellen abbott said...

Typical human behavior. There are no reasons good enough to justify what they did.

Julie Craves said...

Conover's point that going into reasons why collecting is important when few minds can be changed is a good one. LSU has a long history of copious collecting, sometimes under circumstances I don't agree with. In this particular case, I'd say that there probably is more to be gained from collecting the bird than leaving it alone. If it had not been collected, it would have served only to be added to the lists of birders, probably at the expense of the property it was in. I can think of little other knowledge gained by this, and the likelihood that this bird would have survived to return to wherever it came from was probably quite small.

Collected, the feathers and tissues can be examined for isotopes, DNA, blood or brain parasites, and whatever else researchers come up with in the future that can help establish more specific origin, subspecific status, possible reasons for such vagrancy, etc. Research collections such as LSU's are extremely useful -- many new species have been discovered in those dusty drawers. Aside from taxonomic work, these collections serve as reference points on distribution (including vagrancy) that are invaluable far in the future.

I feel sort of the same way about collecting as about hunting. I wouldn't want to do it, but I think it has value if done responsibly.

Laurent said...

Funny that nobody thought that taking a picture, recording the call, and just leaving the bird alone without telling anybody was an option.

IT would be fun to know all the collectors of the US (we should create a website, like the CIA "10 most wanted personns")and to flush all the birds around them if we spot them on the field. Even more fun than birding!

Nice blog, cathy.

Neil Gilbert said...

I've got to agree with Julie on this one. I know many people would have liked to chase it, but of what use is the bird to science if it had flown off five minutes later?

Interesting post though, and definitely something to think about. Thanks for taking the time to write it.

Christopher said...

Important clarification: The drawers are NOT dusty, nor are the specimens. I recommend you redirect your ire towards the ca.100,000,000,000+ birds that are killed annually by other human activities, rather than the handful that are taken for scientific and educational purposes, and preserved at great cost in order to document biodiversity for future generations.

Brendan F. said...

I do not know how it compares to collecting in scientific gain, but what happened to that old trick of collect then release, AKA banding? It's not just all tagging: you can take some measurements, a blood sample, whatever you please, then let the bird go! The Old World's first Alder Flycatcher was disovered last year. A tricky ID indeed, so how do they know? DNA and measurements collected when the caught it in a mistnet. Then they let it go. Tons of hungry twitchers got to see the bird, scientists had all the info they needed to be somewhat satisfied with the ID, and the bird got to continue its spectacular vacation!

Nate said...

I recommend you redirect your ire towards the ca.100,000,000,000+ birds that are killed annually by other human activities, rather than the handful that are taken for scientific and educational purposes,

This isn't an either/or thing. We can be concerned of the millions of birds that are killed by human activities and be concerned about the taking of this Flycatcher.

There was no scientific value to be gained by the collection of this bird that couldn't have been also gotten with photographs. Vagrancy is not, in and of itself, a justifiable reason for collection. Otherwise you'd have people collecting vagrants wherever they show up all over the country. And I say that as someone who generally supports museum collections.

Conover shot the bird because he didn't know what it was, and because he could. End of story.

And he was wrong to do it.