RSS Feed (xml)

Powered By

Skin Design:
Free Blogger Skins

Powered by Blogger

Monday, August 24, 2009

21st Century Bird Collectors

I'm bugged about the bird surveyors in Louisiana that shot the first Crowned Slaty-Flycatcher ever discovered in North America instead of alerting the U.S. birding community.

(PS I'm in personal communication with folks from LSU and those involved in collecting this bird. We clearly disagree about the merits of collecting vagrants but we aren't going to change each other's minds through online debate. I'm not accepting further comments on this post since I'd prefer to disagree without being disagreeable and would rather not risk flaming the fires online where passionate words often miss their mark. These are discussions more suited to personal communication, preferably while out in the field enjoying the birds we all love.)


slybird said...

I just noticed this:

Flycatcher at Grand Isle--Another Possible First US Record

"Someone with proper permits who could mist-net it and
get it in hand could solve the mystery."

Can't wait to see the outcome of this one. :)

J. "Kyron" Hanson said...

Hmmm... I'm never a fan of "shoot first and ask questions later", which is literally what was done here. Are you telling me, with the bird right in front of them, they couldn't have called someone at LSU to help w/ the ID? Instead they "collected" (shot) the bird first, THEN called from the field to begin the identification process!?!

Specimen collecting does still have A place in today's field ornithology, IMHO. However, where are the protocols for digital documentation (visual, aural), and/or mist-netting and bio-metrics collecting (e.g. blood, feather, measurements, etc.) in a field situation such as this? If the learned to be prepared (armed) for a 19th century specimen collecting outing, they can learn the same for a 21st century one.

By all metrics they describe, this was a healthy adult male bird. Now this bird has no chance to return to this area in future years, and no chance to pass on it's potentially peregrinacious genes to other generations...

... *sigh*.

Gunnar Engblom said...


Made a link to your note on my facebook. A heated collecting debate to start with and then some interesting more specific comments.

If you want to read the discussion I am accepting all birders as facebook friends.



Anonymous said...

I am reposting here a comment made on the LA-bird mail list by J. Van Remsen, Curator of Birds at the LSU Museum of Natural Science:

"1. Yes, we collect birds at LSU and this automatically makes us and many other museums targets of hate mail. Many of the detractors are much more concerned about missing something for their lists than about the birds themselves, and few can match our track record of tangible rewards for ornithology and conservation. Our inventories in South America, for example, have resulted in setting aside literally millions of acres of prime habitat for many millions of birds, including major blocks of Crowned Slaty wintering habitat. Those who don't like it that we kill birds seldom seem concerned about the ethics of expensive long-distance bird-chasing.

2. With respect to the Crowned Slaty, the collectors themselves have invested many thousands of hours of their own time at their own expense documenting bird distribution and population changes in Louisiana -- both have made lasting, tangible contributions to our knowledge of Louisiana bird distribution. For documenting a first record north of South America for a species that is common there, the two collectors have been subjected to vitriolic and menacing hate mail far worse than in the link below. At the time of the observation, they did not know what the bird was except that it was a flycatcher clearly unknown from North or Middle America. They obtained photographic documentation (thus refuting the mindless "19th century" field work accusation in the blog comments ... but as those familiar with blogger mentality know, why would a blogger ever be concerned with actual facts?). However, they had no idea whether the photos would be conclusive to clinch the ID of a plain grayish flycatcher (as may be the case with the flycatcher just photographed at Grand Isle) and so decided to collect it. As for netting, again the bloggers' lack of knowledge of the species is glaring (and lack of attempt to gain any is revealing) -- this is a midstory/canopy flycatcher that is seldom netted. I'm not sure that we've ever netted one despite extensive fieldwork for 5 decades in its winter range.

3. In addition to confirming the ID, the specimen showed that the bird was extremely fat, thus very likely on its way elsewhere that evening -- there is a very high chance that listers would have driven hours for nothing. The specimen also allowed us to confirm that it was the expected migratory subspecies (thus eliminating any doubts on origin if it were the sedentary subspecies), and its DNA sample (or radio-isotope analysis of feathers) may allow eventual pinpointing of origin. The usual full necropsy label data (that many of you are familiar with) were obtained, including stomach contents.

I recognize that there will always be hard feelings about collecting -- we get it. We do what we can to minimize those, but it will never be enough for some -- we get that, too. Most of you know us well enough to know that we "LSU bird-killers" and "so-called ornithologists" like live birds just as much as you, and I suspect that our track record of working with the birding community compares favorably with that of any research museum.

Van Remsen

J. V. Remsen
Museum of Natural Science
Foster Hall 119

Gunnar Engblom said...

BTW. That is birders in a broad sense. I do include ornithologists among birders.
There are 37 comments so far.

birdchaser said...

Nick B, I'm gonna stick with what I've said here. I consider the value of the bird to have been much greater to the birding community than as an LSU specimen. I've read the explanations and disagree with the assumptions that led to the bird being collected.

birdchaser said...

As for Van's comments, I don't find them convincing or relevant in the least.

1) I'm not unalterably opposed to collecting, and LSU's record in other endeavors doesn't matter here in this case.

2) So what? Nothing here justifies the shoot. Thousands of rare birds are documented each year without killing the bird. They could have spent the rest of the day photographing it, getting others to come observe it, whatever instead of shooting it and driving across the state to have it skinned.

3) So what? A little extra data that is basically adds only trivia to the record.

I find it arrogant (and clearly undemocratic) to believe that the "scientific" value of this specimen outweighs the clear birding value of this bird, or that enough of real scientific value was obtained to justify shooting the bird.

Richard Gibbons said...

Rob, come on man! What's with the rock throwing?

You are perpetuating an unnecessary rift between the museum and birding communities, both of which are working toward many of the same goals. I am familiar with the "holier than thou" attitude of some birders and ornithologists that think collecting is the embarrassing vestige continued in the slow south by unenlightened yokels. I harbored many of the same misinformed barbs prior to learning more about modern museums and systematics.

I respect the philosophical choice to not take life needlessly or without respect. However, to run down LSU and the few collectors that provide the bulk of the specimens which are used to establish species limits and provide insights into evolution, phylogeography, and thereby helping to establish conservation targets is pretty weak.

Taking specimens is done with respect so that we will have the population level information, accurate alpha taxonomy, and a resource for generations to come. You can't get that with a digital photo and a feather sample.

National Audubon has benefited greatly from the scientific collectors and continue to use the reputation and art of a bird killer who frequented Louisiana by the name of John James Audubon.

Maybe you just wanted to see the Crowned Slaty and are bummed. I'm with you on that. Coming from someone who's been on both sides of the fence, I am glad those guys were out birding in a buggy hot time of the year AND that they had a collecting permit.

p.s. thanks for the new AOU quiz bowl team name!

Nate said...

I could not agree with you last comment more, Rob. This isn't a collecting vs anti-collecting issue as Remson wrongly implies.

This bird did not need to be collected. And Remson's response is absolutely arrogant and self-serving.

Also it should be noted that Remson admits that the collectors didn't know what the bird was, when Conover took me to task for implying the same thing on my blog (see last comment here:

Perhaps they should get their story straight before they attempt to justify their actions.

Anonymous said...

I'm not clear as to how the value the bird would have had to the birding community is really any value at all. As a specimen, this bird has great potential to science that will outlive us all. As a tick, it goes down as a vanity mark on a birder's list that is really valuable only to the birder, and even then the value dies with the birder.

I see this issue as akin to--albeit of much less import than--the stem cell issue. People with an ethical or values-based opposition to a research practice are trying to put a halt to it. Why? When ethics and values are so diverse, why should one group feel the need to legislate to the whole based on their personal perspective? That's pretty selfish, and viewed through my values, offers a good explanation of why people are bent about this: utterly selfish disappointment.

Of course, I'm sure no one will say, "Yeah, you're right, I'm just bummed because I didn't get to see it." I expect to check back later and find out that I'm part of the problem.

By the way, is there widespread opposition to every other branch of life science that takes specimens? Is this "rare" bird that's actually abundant somehow more valuable to society than a darter from an Appalachian stream or a crab from a deep ocean vent? Or, God forbid, the cow that was carved up to make the steak you ate tonight?

birdchaser said...

Hey Richard. I'm not bashing LSU for collecting birds. I'm questioning the importance of collecting this particular individual bird when it has so much more value for most people as a potentially chaseable vagrant, rather than as a museum specimen. You know what a bad reputation LSU has among birders for this kind of shooting, and in the past I have chuckled at bird shooting rumors and thought that the birders were just paranoid. But in this case, all that paranoia seems to be validated. Guys with guns really are blasting birds for that birders would really want to see.

Nate said...

@Anon- Who cares how common it is in South America? How many birders from Louisiana are going to be able to take a trip to South America to see Crowned Slaty-Flycatcher versus how many people get turned onto birding because of the excitement surrounding a first ABA record? How much money gets pumped into a poor corner or Louisiana?

Conservationists need people to care about ecosystems and species they may never see. In a way, this bird is a way to connect them to the the abstraction of a distant place in need of protection.

What Conover and Myers did not even appear to contemplate for one second was the value this bird has beyond its skin. They didn't even take the time to properly identify the bird before they shot it. They had a gun and a permit and went ahead and took it. That's the problem, the complete lack of consideration, not some old irrelevant collecting versus not argument.

Richard Gibbons said...

The likelihood that the bird would have ever been seen by anyone else (admit it) is extremely remote. Now, people will be on the look out. The first non-South America record was from Panama last year and now this. Perhaps it's a trend and the listers will get their tick.

We guessed this would raise the hackle of hardcore birdchasers. It boils down to someone with state and federal collecting permits was out birding in a hot buggy time of year when very few others bother to leave the A/C chose to eliminate doubt from an obviously important record. That it denied others a chance for the tick, is just how it played out. The birder/collector found it and decided to collect it. That is their business.

You refer to guys with guns blasting birds that birders wants to see. We don't collect birds that birders find and are sharing with others. To imply however that a pass should be made on a specimen so that a birder -a minimum of four hours away- MIGHT get to see it isn't really worth getting your birding vest in a twist.

Come on down to the Gulf Coast and find another one. I'll go see it without my shotgun.

birdchaser said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
birdchaser said...

As for the claim that the specimen "has great potential to science that will outlive us all" that is utter nonsense. What, beyond the trivial aspects of the birds sex, fat content, and subspecific affiliation was determined by this dead bird? Even if the DNA could be fully sequenced, it would be a sample of one and not informative in any significant way. Practically nothing was gained in knowledge that can help explain why the bird made it to LA. Its a real disservice to science to claim that this specimen is anything more than a trophy. And that is what scientific collecting should never be, and any scientific institution or individual that defends the practice of trophy taking deserves to be seriously discredited.

birdchaser said...

Nick B, I do not know the exact relationship between these collectors and LSU, except that they were in such close communication that to deny any connection is ridiculous. Whether they are "from" LSU, officially employed by LSU, or merely "associated" with LSU (which can't be denied based on this story) is pretty much irrelevant. LSU ornithologists foster a tradition and lore that makes this latest incident possible, and are the direct "beneficiaries" of the trophy collecting practice we are seeing here. Rumors of LSU trophy collecting have long legs among Gulf Coast birding circles, and now we are seeing why...because LSU ornithologists foster and supports just this kind of collecting. For that LSU deserves all the questioning that we care to muster. That doesn't make me anti-LSU. If anything, I'd like to see a more humble LSU tradition that doesn't flaunt a "more scientific than thou" pro-trophy collecting attitude.

birdchaser said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Patrick B. said...

I have nothing to add to the debate that hasn't already been said, but this has got to be the highest ratio of words in a post to words in comments on a birding blog. One sentence = 19 pretty long comments!

birdchaser said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Richard Gibbons said...

Rob, you can FOI the permit like any other citizen.

You maintain the ridiculous point that a permitted collector should be working as a scout for the birding community. Hunters are responsible for many state's first duck records and they don't catch hell so why the double standard?

Trophy collecting?! That's funny coming from a hardcore trophy lister.

birdchaser said...

Richard, I'm not saying that permitted collectors should be scouts for the birding community, but that most birders and ornithologists and hopefully our federal laws have moved beyond shooting birds just to verify their identification.

As for hunting vs. collecting...they both need to be regulated. Duck hunters aren't allowed to shoot pelicans, and scientific collectors shouldn't be collecting specimens that aren't part of a valid scientific study.

You just don't like me calling a spade a spade. I'm not here to make your LSU degree less marketable, just to ask folks if it isn't time for LSU to put its trophy collecting (as opposed to legitimate collecting) days where they belong, back in the 19th century :-)

Anonymous said...

Someone please correct me if I'm wrong, but it's my understanding that for species not covered under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which includes many well-documented vagrants, no federal permit is required to collect one as a scientific specimen, trap and band it, shoot it to eat or stuff or simply as target practice, or catch it and keep it in a cage for personal or public amusement. That's how Wisconsin's Green-breasted Mango ended up at the Brookfield Zoo with the Fish & Wildlife Service having no say in the matter. Some states may have more restrictive regulations, of course.

heidi said...

Van clearly states that the issue is far more complicated than a few pictures or recordings. I am certainly in favor of observing creatures when it's possible, but one stray bird during migration will give you an amazing amount of information in the hand... as opposed to snapping a few pixels flying away. Hence, I also get rather exasperated when birders don't pick up (or even stop to check) roadkill or window killed birds - that's an immeasurable amount of information left to decay.

birdchaser said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
J. "Kyron" Hanson said...

I have read Mr. Conover's explanation on another blog, the ABA article, and Mr. Van Remsen's positions/opinions on LABIRDS (reproduced here). The issue here, to me, is about field sampling methods more than anything. My belief is that collecting a specimen is not the only way to achieve DNA samples, or other biometrics - regardless of whether it is the current field standard. I simply disagree with the choices made by both Mr. Conover and Mr. Myers.

birdchaser said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

OK, let's try to find a statement we can agree on. I propose this:

Every single person who objects to collecting - generally or in some specific case - forfeits the right to object every time they let their cats roam outdoors.

Hah! Two third-rail topics at once. Top that!

Rick Wright said...

Two words: Cox's Sandpiper.
Anybody remember that fiasco??

birdchaser said...

Van Remsen's 1993 defense of LSU vagrant shooting tradition:

Mostly seems to either turn a tin ear to birder outrage, or to otherwise discount it.

The issue will not go away as long as LSU affiliated collectors are shooting vagrant birds that thousands of others would like a chance to see.

Richard Gibbons said...


Let's be perfectly clear because it is obvious you have missed this point repeatedly in multiple forums. Read it as many times as you need for it to sink in.

LSU staff, students, associates, and people that support the museum do not -I REPEAT- do not collect vagrants found by birders. Believe it or not, almost all of the people that collect are also avid birders that are very active in the birding community. It is a long standing policy that rare birds found by birders are not collected. It's rude and selfish to put one's interests above the discovery and hard work of another birder. This case was different because the discoverer was a collector. It is not the same. They made the decision to collect and it was their decision to make.

Please stop distorting the circumstances and perpetuating unsubstantiated rumors about LSU sneaking around collecting vagrants that birders find. You have no evidence of this and it's flat out wrong. Geez man, you sound like Sean Hannity.

Richard Gibbons
Coordinator, Louisiana Bird Resource Center and PhD Candidate
LSU Museum of Natural Science
119 Foster Hall
Baton Rouge, LA 70803

birdchaser said...

Richard, no need for the patronizing, I think you are misreading me. I never said that LSU shoots birds that have been previously found by other birders, and clearly linked to "Vans Rules" about when they think its OK to shoot vagrants.

The point is that LSU collectors shoot vagrant birds (that they find) that the birding community would like a chance to see. It's a clear difference in values that we are debating here.

Richard Gibbons said...


I believe there is a glimmer of progress.

Others have successfully reduced this to its rub and you state it here:

"I dispute your claim that it was the business of the two collectors to decide whether or not to shoot the bird or alert the birding community. That seems pretty arrogant when there are hundreds who would clearly disagree with their choice. The collectors showed a blatant disregard for birding culture and decades of rarity verification traditions in taking it upon themselves to secure the specimen."

I understand your point and heartily disagree. The centuries of rarity verification were far from disregarded and they were thinking about the distant future rather than the next 24 hours. There are many competing interests in the world and tolerance and sympathetic understanding are necessary in a democracy. Birders get along with hunters (especially well in Louisiana I should add) and choose to find common ground to rally for shared interests rather than nitpick the value-based differences of the two cultures. This is no different. This is a values difference and therefore we can agree to disagree and move on.

Inciting mob mentality by name calling based on rumor and half-truths will not help either endeavor and we've seen the bitter results in other values-based differences of opinions.

As a collector, I'm sorry birders didn't have an opportunity to see the Griseotyrannus aurantioatrocristatus. I would have liked to have seen it as well. I know Paul and Mac were torn with the decision, but I maintain it was theirs to make and it wasn't a whimsical trophy kill.

Mistakes were made on both sides here and perhaps you can understand that the collectors are gun shy about broadcasting a collected rarity. Michael Retter said it best:

"There will always be a fringe that opposes all collecting, but if collecting is done in a responsible way that considers the consequences to birders, I think they will remain a fringe."

I believe the collecting community is very much sensitive to the birding community as they are all members of both, but could have done a much better job with this event. This doesn't mean that vagrants should never be collected, it means they should consider the repurcussions. That's why we have the long-standing policy of never collecting stakeouts. We are birders and respect our friends in the birding community. I know Mac and Paul missed a few high fives for not staying on the bird and alerting the birders, but they stick by their decision and I respect their choice.

If you would like this acrid discussion to simmer, it would be a nice gesture to retract the LSU Birdkiller title and issue an apology for misunderstandings in a separate blog installment. That would go a long way in mending the freshly crowbarred rift.

Richard Gibbons

Offshorebirder said...

All birder -vs- collector religious arguments aside:

I bet people who own businesses near the site would have enjoyed some ECOTOURISM revenue during these tough economic times. Had the bird not been collected, an ecotourism bonanza would have almost certainly occurred.

Ecotourism = tangible conservation benefit.

Nate Dias

Anonymous said...

I saw the blog it is a nice site to visit netting bird, it was a lot of fun reading the blog. In fact, netting bird is an interesting destination i.e. covered by many websites. In fact
We bought bird netting too, Katrina - already had a couple of small tomatoes ruined by birdie beaks. Early on there were a couple of nice peppers and a few Juliet (grape) tomatoes - but the hail set back or killed many plants so might not get any Black Krim tomatoes. I’ve thrown old basil seed around and still had it come up. Don't give up yet ;-]

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Nature Blog Network Fatbirder's Top 1000 Birding Websites