With only 58 of these rare birds left alive, the Guam kingfisher should be considered even more valuable than a Strad

Commentary, St. Louis Post-Dispatch
By Jeffrey Bonner
August 19, 2002

There is some debate about how many violins made by Antonio Stradivari survive to this day, but 700 instruments is a good guess. They vary greatly in value, but can fetch up to $3.5 million at auction.

There is no debate about how many Guam kingfishers survive to this day. As I write this, there are 58 birds left alive. I have no idea what you’d have to pay to own one, but my guess is they are worthless. There is simply no economic demand for them.

The Guam kingfisher is a beautiful bird with a sad story. Properly called the Micronesian kingfisher, it was found only on the island of Guam. At some point during or immediately after World War II, a cargo ship accidentally brought some vicious stowaways to the kingfisher’s island paradise. The stowaways were brown tree snakes, a mildly venomous native of New Guinea. The tree snake had no natural predators on the island and their population size went from a handful to perhaps 10,000 per square mile in just a few short years. They ate almost every bird on the island, including our beautiful kingfishers.

Let me give you an idea of how many snakes 10,000 per square mile really is: A common cause of power failures in Guam is the weight of brown tree snakes hanging on utility lines.

By the time we got to the Guam kingfisher, there were only 29 birds left. By 1990, we had built the population up to 60, where it has stabilized. Today, eight of those birds live at the St. Louis Zoo -- three breeding pairs and two chicks (or about 12% of the world’s population). We don’t put them on display. They’re simply too precious to us, even if they don’t have any value on the open market.

A Stradivarius can go for upwards of $225,000 an ounce. People will really pay that much, even if they never play them or seldom see them. The Smithsonian keeps them in its collections and we as taxpayers underwrite their care. They are considered art, with intrinsic value for all of humanity. As one enthusiast wrote, they dare to “challenge the ingenuity of God’s own designs.”

If scarcity is a measure of value, the Guam kingfisher should be even more valuable than a Strad. There are fewer of them (and they weigh less, too). They may not be considered art, but they are beautiful beyond doubt. They do not challenge God’s own designs: they are examples of it.

I think I understand why people care so much about a Stradivarius violin and its superb voice. If only we cared as much for the Guam kingfisher and its plaintive call. Perhaps it’s only a matter of exposure; most people just don’t know enough – or anything, for that matter – about the Guam kingfisher. Or perhaps it’s a matter of marketing, and applying the principles of supply and demand. Perhaps we would value this bundle of feathers more if we could create demand for it through slick marketing.

So here’s my slick offer. I’ll let you see the Guam kingfisher for a mere $1,000. For a $1,000,000 I’ll let you adopt one. But just like people buy Strads and then let the Smithsonian keep them, you’ll have to let us care for your kingfisher. Still, it will be yours: rarer than a Stradivarius, sweeter than a symphony, more delicate than any concerto.

With the right marketing, we could soon be referring to Strads as “the kingfisher of violins.”

Jeffrey Bonner is president and chief executive officer of the St. Louis Zoo.

Republished with the permission of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Copyright 2004 St. Louis Post-Dispatch
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