Thu, Sep 19, 2013 - Page 11 News List

Book review: THE WORLD’S RAREST BIRDS

A lavishly illustrated book bursting with details on bird species that are dangerously threatened by human activity

By Bradley Winterton  /  Contributing reporter

THE WORLD’S RAREST BIRDS, by Erik Hirschfeld, Andy Swash and Robert Still.

Samuel Coleridge’s celebrated Ancient Mariner may have suffered remorse over the death of an albatross, but today’s reality is that 100,000 albatrosses are killed every year — that’s one every five minutes — mostly on the baited lines of modern industrial-scale fishing vessels. At this rate, extinction is all but inevitable.

The title of this book, The World’s Rarest Birds, may sound as if it’s announcing an account of exotic avian species living in happy isolation far from the eyes of man. There are indeed some such cited here, but for the most part this is an illustrated catalog of species that have suffered so disastrously from what we’re pleased to call “development” that they’re now coming close to final disappearance.

The extinction of any creature is a form of tragedy. It has evolved over millions of years, and is unique in the universe. Yet, often in a relatively short period of time, a combination of factors, almost always related to human activity, renders its continued existence impossible. The last specimen silently dies, and all but the most dedicated professionals, and maybe a few locals, are wholly unaware of its demise.

There are believed to be 27 of New Zealand’s Black Stilts in existence, whereas the total for Hawaii’s Oahu Alauahio is given here as anything from one to seven. Many species are listed as possessing fewer than 50 individuals (and this is not taking into account 60 species about which so little is known that they’re listed as “data deficient”). It’s hard to know which is more extraordinary, the plight of these creatures or the dedication of the individuals who are able to come up with such precise numbers.

Publication notes

By Erik Hirschfeld, Andy Swash and Robert Still

360 pages

Princeton University Press

Paperback: uk


The purpose of this magnificent book is to catalog all these threatened species. It’s striking on two counts — its detailed information and its illustrations. All 650 species are illustrated either by a photograph or, in 76 cases where no photograph exists, by a painting based on the bird’s known characteristics. The photos are the work of over 300 enthusiasts who responded to a competition sponsored by, among others, the quality optics company Minox.

One thing is absolutely clear — the responsibility for the threat to these precious species is ours. Whether it’s hunting, logging, the international trade in exotic species, the destruction of wetlands, industrial-scale fishing, the introduction of previously unknown mammals such as rats and feral cats, dams, pollution, residential development, mining, man-made climate change, or war, we are exclusively and culpably the villains.

About 130 bird species have become extinct since 1500, with a current total of 9,934 living species recognized by BirdLife International, the conservation-coordinating authority responsible for this book. Of these, 197 are considered as Critically Endangered (i.e. near to extinction), while 389 are Endangered, the next category down this list.

Yet everywhere there are groups, listed here, dedicated to helping these creatures, breeding them in captivity where possible when numbers are low, for example, and then releasing them back into the wild. The Syrian Society for Conservation of Wildlife (SSCW) is, I’m pleased to see, included in the list.

Broader measures can also be put into place. Take the albatross again. These fabulous, slow-breeding birds are major victims of the international fishing industry, with most of them dying on the baited hooks of longline fishing vessels. Yet simple, inexpensive measures can reduce this toll almost to nothing.

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