The World’s Rarest Birds
by Erik Hirschfeld, Andy Swash and Robert Still, (2013) Princeton University Press
Reviewed by Keith Clarkson, May 2013 on behalf of Birding Frontiers
This remarkable book vividly depicts the 590 most threatened birds on Earth. It provides up-to-date information from Birdlife International on the threats each species faces and the measures being taken to save them. Impressively, the book features photographs of 515 of the most threatened species. The remaining 75 species, for which photographs do not exist, are illustrated by the wildlife artist, Tomasz Cofta, who sourced museum specimens and past and present descriptions to reconstruct these unique artworks.
The ‘coffee table’ format belies the extraordinary amount of research and the sheer volume of information presented. The authors have produced a reference book of outstanding quality. But this is no ordinary reference book to be occasionally picked off the shelf, dusted down and browsed rather it is a treasure chest of stories of discovery, loss and re-discovery. I found each visit to these beautifully presented pages unearthed more gems and yet more extraordinary insights into our most threatened birdlife.
Strangely, even though the book focuses on the parlous state of our natural world and is functional in its reading style, it was a surprisingly uplifting read. I found myself starting to relate to the predicament of birds I had previously never heard of, birds that inhabited remote islands and far-away countries I have never been to and birds which, until now, had passed me by. Having read the book I feel inspired, I want to make a difference, I want to do my bit to help safeguard our globally most threatened birdlife.
So how did this change come about?
The World’s Rarest Birds, which evolved from Birdlife International’s Rare Bird Yearbooks, uses the IUCN 2012 Red List as its source reporting on 197 ‘Critically Endangered’, 389 ‘Endangered’ and four more species, the Hawaiian Crow Corvus hawaiiensis, Guam Rail Gallirallus owstoni, Alagoas Curassow Mitu mitu and Socorro Dove Zenaida graysoni that are only known to exist in captivity.
Perhaps surprisingly, the list of Critically Endangered species includes fourteen species tagged ‘Possibly Extinct’ or ‘Possibly Extinct in the Wild’, a third of these have not been seen for over fifty years and may well be extinct. However, time and time again as you go through the species accounts there are tales of birds thought to have been extinct being rediscovered. This phenomena has led to the adoption of the term ‘Romeo Error’.
The introductory chapters set the scene – describing how the IUCN define thresholds of rarity to produce the Red List categories, teasing the enquiring reader with the 60 bird species for which there is insufficient data to assess their status- the ‘Data Deficient’ category. Here the appetite of the modern-day bird hunter is whet and probably drawn to New Guinea and its islands and the Democratic Republic of Congo, Cameroon and adjacent West African countries which together almost half of all 29 Data Deficient species.
The distribution of threatened birds is then explored. Revealing, not surprisingly, that the countries with the greatest proportion of globally threatened birds are islands whereas the largest number of globally threatened species are found in Brazil, Peru, Indonesia, Colombia and Ecuador. The majority of globally threatened birds only occur in a single country and three-quarters are associated with forests. Seabirds are the most threatened group of birds with 38% globally threatened or Near Threatened. Alarmingly, 200 species are now believed to be restricted to single sites! The factors driving these alarming figures reveal that agriculture and aquaculture, logging, hunting and invasive species are the most serious threats. A summary of the impacts of these and other key threats is provided.
The body of the book is the species accounts of the most threatened birds. This part of the book is divided into seven regional sections. Each region includes a well presented summary of the key threatened bird hotspots and the main conservation challenges followed by a comprehensive illustrated directory of the most threatened birds in the region. Each entry includes a photograph or painting of the bird, a distribution map, the IUCN Red List category, population trend and size and the key threats for each species plus a concise summary of the issues and a QR code which provides a direct link to the species factsheet on the Birdlife International website. The latter is freely accessible to readers and updated annually providing some inspired added value and continuity.
It is here in the body of the book, flitting from section to section, that I started to make connections. Close to home I was shocked to see that Velvet Scotor Melanitta fusca is now classed amongst the most threatened birds in the world as the global population has collapsed by more than 50% in the last ten years – it makes those sightings of a handful of wintering birds in Filey Bay, on the Yorkshire coast, ever more significant.
I was already familiar with the Spoon-billed Sandpiper story, thanks to the fantastic publicity machine of the RSPB and Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, but having recently witnessed a flock of over 40 Spotted (Nordmann’s) Greenshank, near Thailand’s Pak Thale Spoon-billed Sandpiper site I was shocked to find out that the global population of the Spoonies less sensational neighbour may lie somewhere between only 330-670 individuals. At the same locality I watched large flocks of Great Knot feeding on the muddy shores of the Gulf of Thailand unaware that the destruction of the Saemangeum wetlands in South Korea appears to have resulted in the Great Knot population declining by some 90,000 birds. By now the stories were becoming personal and discussions with fellow travelling birder, Simon Roddis, highlighted that many of these birds can be seen with relative ease belying there true rarity and vulnerability.
I am also, thanks to the outstanding work of the SAVE (Save Asian Vultures from Extinction) project, familiar with the collapse of Gyp vulture populations in India and South-East Asia but was unprepared to read that the population of the Egyptian Vulture Neophron percnopterus which stretch across Europe, Africa and Asia is Endangered and the global population may have fallen to between 13,000 and 41,000 individuals.
Evermore curious I started to read more intensely, noting the demise of the Yellow-crested Cockatoo Cacatua sulphurea of which the total global population is less than 14,000 birds and yet, in a 12 year period towards the end of the 20th Century over 100,000 birds were exported legally from Indonesia.
But it isn’t all depressing reading, the re-discovery of species assumed extinct always gives hope perhaps none more so than the story of the New Zealand Storm Petrel Oceanites maorianus, known only from three specimens taken in the 19th Century, prior to being rediscovered in 2003, near the Mercury Islands. Subsequently a flock of 16-20 were photographed off Little Barrier Island.
Even more rewarding is to read of back-from-the-brink conservation success stories and if you search hard enough they are in there. In 1981 there were only seven individual Asian Crested Ibis Nipponia nippon in the wild. Since then, thanks to conservation efforts, the population has increased steadily to over 500 birds in Shaanxi province, China and there are now plans to re-introduce them in Japan and South Korea. Similarly, the Chatham Island Black Robin Petroica traversi is distinguished by recovering from the lowest population of any wild bird – three males and two females, one of which proved to be infertile! Following extensive habitat creation on Mangere Island the population has increased to 224 individuals evenso the spectre of chronic in-breeding and loss of genetic diversity hangs over the population.
In Simon’s words ‘this is a book that should be presented to every Environment Secretary or the equivalent Minister, of every country on Earth!’.
The stories go on and on in this beautifully presented, monumental book. Go on treat yourself, at £34.95 it will provide hours of insight and inspiration and the purchase contributes towards supporting the BirdLife International Preventing Extinctions Programme which amongst other conservation successes has backed the Madagascar Pochard Aythya innotata project resulting in a quadrupling in the population and has established a breeding centre for Spix’s Macaw Cyanopsitta spixii, from which birds will be released into the wild later this summer.
Keith Clarkson is the warden at Bempton RSPB reserve, EastYorkshire, active in global conservation measures relating to birds and one Britain’s leading pioneers of visible migration watching.