Ornithology, Methods & Mystery

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Ping Zhu

Some contributors to our pages here would likely have much more clear views on this story than I do. I am certain that I favor scientific method, and this scientist followed protocol. And yet, the fallout from his scientific methods was intense. And it was not as simple as trolls gonna troll. I understand the fallout but instead of outrage I am full of questions about this story about The Ornithologist the Internet Called a Murderer by Kirk Wallace Johnson:

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The mustached kingfisher. Robert Moyle

For some time, I’d been searching for Christopher Filardi, a biologist with decades of field experience in the Solomon Islands. I wanted to interview him for a book I was writing, but the email system at the American Museum of Natural History, which once listed him as the director of Pacific programs at its Center for Biodiversity and Conservation, bounced back my message.

The auto-reply said that he’d moved to another organization, Conservation International. When I wrote him there, another auto-reply informed me that he had moved on. I couldn’t find him on Facebook or Twitter. The man seemed to have vanished.

When I finally found a working number for him, he was reluctant to talk. Three years ago, his life was overturned by an online mob that accused him of murder. The fact that the mob’s outrage was driven by ignorance didn’t make it any less frightening.

2017 Pew study reported that 40 percent of Americans have experienced some form of online harassment, but what Dr. Filardi experienced was far worse than a few mean tweetsHe has never given an interview about what happened. He agreed to tell his story on the condition that I not reveal where he lives.

In September 2015, Dr. Filardi and a team of researchers from the museum and the University of the South Pacific ascended the rugged Chupukama Ridge, on Guadalcanal, one of the Solomon Islands, which he described in his field journal as “a sky island filled with scientific mystery.” The goal of the mission was not only to study Guadalcanal’s ecosystems, but to make the case for preserving them at a time when the Solomon Islands are under pressure to open more land up to logging and mining.

On the third morning, the sound of “kokoko-kiew” pulsed through the forest. The call was unmistakably a forest kingfisher’s. Dr. Filardi’s heart raced. For 20 years, he’d been searching for the mustached kingfisher, known as a “ghost” bird. Only three individuals, all female, had been discovered by scientists over the past century. There were no male specimens in any of the world’s museums; not even a photo of one was known to exist. He got a glimpse of the bird, just a flash of blue and gold, before it vanished.

Days later, when the team captured a male in a mist net, Dr. Filardi gasped. “One of the most poorly known birds in the world was there, in front of me, like a creature of myth come to life,” he wrote in a dispatch to the museum.

While the expedition was still underway, the museum released the first photographs of the bird, which seemed to be mugging for the camera. The mustached kingfisher became a viral celebrity, under headlines like “ridiculously gorgeous.”

Read the whole story here.

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