The moustached mystery
The existence of the Guadalcanal moustached kingfisher, also known as the Mbarikuku, had remained a mystery to scientists for decades. Having a large, orange and white body with a prominent blue “moustache” and blue wings, the species is very showy. However, due to its secluded environment, it has remained poorly documented and labeled a “ghost.”
Endemic to the remote highlands of Guadalcanal Island of the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific Sea the bird was primarily described by early European colonizers. As the Europeans were mainly interested in the fertile and accessible lowlands, few dared to enter the misty “sky forests” up above. In 1920, a single female bird was collected and used to describe the species. Two more female specimens were collected in 1950 by indigenous hunters and a sighting was made in the wild soon after. However, no sightings had been made since. Given the lack sightings and male birds observed many declared the species extinct.
Chris Filardi thought differently.
Out of the blue
Filardi, a biologist, was director of the Pacific programs for the American Museum of Natural History’s Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the time. Filardi was leading a team on the island to survey biodiversity and work with the local government, partners, and tribes like the Uluna-Sutahuri to establish protected areas in untouched rainforest. After spending 19 years in the field surveying and discovering other species, Filardi was sure more of the birds existed, but their habitat simply had not been explored by modern scientists.
One day in the field, Chris heard a distinctive “kokoko-kiew” call of the kingfisher. Moments later, he saw a flash of gold and blue fly out of the underbrush and disappear . His heart raced. Could it have been the elusive bird he and his team had spent almost 20 years searching for?
This question prompted Filardi’s team to set up large, thin mist nets in the field. Days later, his team found a bright sapphire of a bird, the kingfisher, in their net. Better yet, it was confirmed to be a male, never before observed. “One of the most poorly known birds in the world was there, in front of me, like a creature of myth come to life,” Filardi reported back to the museum.
Piqued by their astounding accomplishment, Filardi and his team made further studies and forays into the mountainous sky forests. There, they discovered a thriving population of kingfishers the world had never seen. From these estimates, Chris and his team were able to make further observations and population assessments. The “ghost” bird had just been hidden all along.
Murderer or conservationist?
Immediately after observing the first male bird, Chris “collected” or euthanized it to preserve it as a specimen. This created massive online backlash once announced. Despite Chris’s observation that the population was thriving at around 4,000 individuals, not endangered, and the removal of a single male was not estimated to create problems within the species, he received calls from the public and some fellow scientists to be retired as a conservationist. He even reportedly received death threats online and to his home phone number.
Despite the backlash, Filardi is confident the path he chose was correct. Collection is a standard practice for biologists, and despite many beliefs, does not lead to ecological extinction as factors such as population size and health are considered. The specimen Filardi collected will aide future scientists in morphological, toxicological and molecular studies that blood work alone could not provide.
A mountain of hope?
While the population of Guadalcanal moustached kingfishers is currently thriving, their fate is unclear. Like all island species, the kingfishers face numerous, diverse threats. Invasive species and development continue to modify the lowlands in ways that make them unrecognizable to a visitor 200 to 300 years prior. According to Filardi, “changes in lowland environments can have a huge impact on these montane areas,” including changes in hydrologic cycles and forest temperatures. Logging companies on the east and west of the island and threats of development from international mining companies also pose habitat destruction for the kingfisher.
Filardi, however, is confident that the discovery of the kingfisher will shed light on Guadalcanal island, and bolster the work the Solomon Islands are doing to protect untouched forest habitats like the kingfishers’. With the combined efforts of the Solomon Islands, donors, and Filardi, the newly discovered populations of “ghosts” will never have to become them.
- Platt, J. R. (2015). Beautiful “Mustached” Bird, Lost for 60 Years, Photographed for First Time. Scientific American Blog Network
- Johnson, K. W. (2018). Opinion. The Ornithologist the Internet Called a Murderer. The New York Times.
- Filardi, C. E. (2015). Why I Collected a Moustached Kingfisher. Audubon Society:
- Silber, E. (2015). Moustached Kingfisher Photographed for First Time. Audubon
- Kaplan, S., & Moyer J. W. (2015). Why a scientist killed a bird that hadn’t been seen in half a century. The Independent