by Kristoffer Whitney
Posted on: December 3, 2015
About This Reading
Originally published 2015 in the online magazine Edge Effects, in this article, Kristoffer Whitney examines the continued ornithological practice of collecting specimens, or, in other words, killing birds in the name of scientific inquiry.
Christmas is coming, and with it—in birding circles anyway—comes the “Christmas Bird Count.” Reading through the history of this informal, annual census on the Audubon website the other day, I was reminded that the beginnings of this tradition are rooted in late-nineteenth-century bird conservation. This conservation movement was a reaction to the excesses of “market gunning” and millinery—industries largely blamed, then and now, for the rapid decline and occasional extinction of numerous avian species. Sport hunters, frequently from a different socioeconomic class than either their subsistence- or revenue-seeking counterparts, were fiercely defensive of their pastime, insisting that they were not to blame for crashes in bird populations. In the end, through several Federal-level legislative actions like the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, hunters of all stripes found their activities curtailed in the name of conservation and a new legal commons: migratory bird populations.
Throughout all of this, scientists generally considered themselves exempt from concerns about over-hunting, despite the fact that “collecting” bird specimens, as it was and is euphemistically called, involved the same techniques, tools, and in many cases individuals as out-and-out sport or market hunting. The scientific response to vanishing bird populations was often both intensely conservation-minded and specimen-hungry. If a species of bird was going extinct, in fact, would you not do your best to protect it and procure as many specimens as possible for science and posterity? Live birds were valued in many ways, including as pest control for agriculture, but dead bird “skins” were valuable for answering a host of scientific questions related to taxonomy and population distribution.
This tension has not disappeared. Also on the Audubon site, you can find a postrecapping the recent dust up over the decision by a scientist to collect a Moustached Kingfisher on a remote Pacific island. In the article, Audubon and the scientist stick to their guns, as it were, reaching the “comfortable conclusion” that there is no controversy in ornithology and related fields over lethal collecting, and that it is easily justifiable in both scientific and conservation terms. Making an analogy to the “debate” over climate change, the article points out that controversy over scientific collecting largely exists in the media and the public, and that debates in scientific journals over specimen taking are infrequent and come down heavily in favor of continuing the practice (the article cites one such exchange in the pages of Science). Audubon and commenters who wrote in to support the Kingfisher collection also pointed out the hypocrisy displayed by a “public” (very loosely defined) concerned about the death of birds collected for science but indifferent to larger-scale, more diffuse deaths caused by the everyday infrastructures of modernity: collisions with buildings, perhaps, or the habitat loss associated with our relentless need for natural resources.
Their defense seems reasonable, but I am not so sure that justifiable specimen collection is as “comfortable” in science as the article lets on. While the article quotes Audubon’s field editor as saying “specimen collection has been a standard element in biology (including ornithology) for centuries,” this rather blunt use of history obscures the fact that collection and its place in ornithology has changed markedly over those centuries. The waning influence of collecting for taxonomic purposes, the proliferation of (mostly) non-lethal mark-recapture techniques, and reflection on scientific practices in the wake of the environmental and animal rights movements have greatly diminished the frequency and perceived necessity of taking biological specimens from the wild. Indeed, the very references that scientists make to ethical guidelines and deliberation—in print and in the field—over collecting are evidence that current practices are the product of a long history of negotiation in the scientific community over the time, place, and manner in which to kill wild animals. I might also speculate that the use of technical, clinical, and otherwise euphemistic language to describe this killing (“take,” “collect,” “euthanize,” “sacrifice,” etc.) is itself evidence that field biologists are not fully “comfortable” with scientific specimen procurement.
One of the more eloquent reflections on the failure to acknowledge the history and language-choice of field biologists comes from the ecologist Christopher Norment. Commenting in the pages of Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment on his own history of collecting sparrows in the Canadian arctic, Norment writes:
I lived with conflicting sentiments—anger, sadness, and belief that the deaths of these birds could be justified and that the research collections housed in natural history museums throughout the country were valuable and should continue to grow. I could justify my actions on an intellectual level, yet I desired some sort of absolution—even as I believed that none was truly possible. The best that could be hoped for was an honest appraisal of what I had done, an acknowledgment that began with the use of direct and truthful language: “I killed eighteen Harris’s Sparrows.”
Rather than using the past, present, and future of biology to justify the need to kill birds, or for that matter to implicitly accept bird deaths as the price of having tall buildings and pet cats, perhaps we would all be better off following Norment’s lead and acknowledging our lethal impacts on wildlife directly. To borrow a phrase from Donna Haraway, let’s avoid “comfortable conclusions” and instead “stay with the trouble.”