First look at the moustached kingfisher


Bec Crew


Bec Crew

Bec Crew is a Sydney-based science communicator with a love for weird and wonderful animals. From strange behaviours and special adaptations to newly discovered species and the researchers who find them, her topics celebrate how alien yet relatable so many of the creatures that live amongst us can be.
By Becky Crew 21 October 2015
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The rare moustached kingfisher has been photographed for the first time amid a controversial expedition.

FEAST YOUR EYES on this dapper gentleman: this is the first male moustached kingfisher (Actenoides bougainvillei excelsus) ever seen, and the only photograph of the species in existence.

Recently spotted in the remote, moss-covered jungles of Guadalcanal, the largest isle in the Solomon Island archipelago, this bright-blue bird with the golden crown gave researchers quite a show before being snared in one of the their ultra-fine mist nets.

“There, in plain sight, pumping its tail, crest alert, in full colours, was the moustached kingfisher,” reads the field journal by Chris Filardi, director of Pacific Programs at the American Museum of Natural History’s Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation.

“And then, like a ghost, it was gone.”

Chris says he gasped aloud when he came upon the netted bird. “One of the most poorly known birds in the world was there, in front of me, like a creature of myth come to life.” Chris has been searching for this species for over 20 years, and the fact that he actually got to see one – and a male, no less – is pretty incredible.

While the species was discovered back in the 1920s, we’ve seen and heard very little of this stunning bird over the past century. Prior to this recent discovery, just three specimens were known to science – all of them female – and the species had only been seen in the wild once.

We know next to nothing about the bird’s behaviour and ecology, and the official estimate for population numbers is between 250 and 1000 mature individuals, which puts it firmly in the IUCN Red List’s ‘endangered’ category.

(Chris places this estimate up around 4,000 individuals, however, based on densities of calls in its known habitat.)

A controversial mission

“This spectacular species is judged to be endangered on the basis of a very small estimated population, which is suspected to be declining, at least in part of its range,” says the ICUN website. “However, further research may reveal it to be more common.”

And this brings us to the sad part of the story. Despite the risks of depriving the population of a healthy and mature male, Chris and his colleagues elected to kill the bird and preserve it as a scientific specimen.

Not surprisingly, this decision has been met by much controversy, and prompted an essay by Chris Filardi justifying what they’d done.

“The spectres of extinction for island birds loom in today’s world. The collection of a single moustached kingfisher is not among them,” he writes. “And, beyond advancing science, I believe this act will positively impact the kingfisher’s world.”

Chris and his team will continue their research on the species in Guadalcanal, and are working closely with the locals, who have their own name for the plucky beauty: Mbarikuku. They have recorded its call for the first time – described as an unmistakable “ko-ko-ko-kokokokokokokoko-kiew” – which they’ll hopefully make public very soon.