Exactly 1,313 bird species around the globe — about 13 percent of all birds — face extinction, according to BirdLife International. Both the number and the list of threats — invasive species, agriculture, logging, and climate change, to name a few — are so extensive that the topic can be overwhelming.
That’s why The World’s Rarest Birds, though hefty, is so valuable: It offers short informative profiles of 591 of the most at-risk species, the birds classified as Endangered, Critically Endangered, or Extinct in the Wild. Instead of numbers on a chart, it allows us to see Cuba’s Zapata Wren, Kenya’s Taita Thrush, South America’s Yellow Cardinal, and other species as birds worth caring about.
A photo or a painting depicts each one — an astonishing accomplishment. Authors Erik Hirschfeld and Andy Swash conducted an international contest to find photos of as many of the species as possible. The effort produced images of 515 species. Acclaimed Polish wildlife artist Tomasz Cofta painted meticulous illustrations of 79 birds, most of which have never been photographed. (His depictions of Eskimo Curlew and Ivory-billed and Imperial Woodpeckers alone are worth the book’s $45 price tag.) Readers with smartphones or tablets can scan QR codes that connect to more detailed species accounts on the BirdLife website. And essays on more than a dozen threats provide excellent, if sobering, overviews.
One of the North American species profiled in The World’s Rarest Birds is Marbled Murrelet, a northern Pacific seabird that nests in old-growth forests from Alaska to California. It is the focus of Maria Mudd Ruth’s book Rare Bird, which has been re-issued by Mountaineers Books after first appearing in 2005.
Ruth tells of the first sightings by European explorers, the mid-1970s discovery of a murrelet nest, and efforts to protect the species ever since. An up-to-date epilogue and advice on how to help the bird conclude the new edition.
Like many areas that are home to threatened animals, communities throughout the seabird’s nesting range face conflicts, Ruth writes, “on issues of land use, private property, ethics of conservation, and the ‘rightness’ of saving imperiled wildlife and habitats.”
The Passenger Pigeon didn’t survive long enough for the general public to wrestle with such questions. Unrestrained market and recreational hunting drove it to extinction in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. By the time anyone suggested it needed protection, it was too late.
Author Joel Greenberg, one of the leaders of Project Passenger Pigeon, chronicles the rapid decline in A Feathered River Across the Sky, which is due out in January. It’s the first book about the bird since A.W. Schorger’s classic 1955 study The Passenger Pigeon: Its History and Extinction, and it is just as authoritative and just as important.
Perhaps if enough of us care about the seabird that still nests in the forest and the pigeon we lost a century ago, when the time comes for the second edition of The World’s Rarest Birds, it won’t need to be so thick.
Books about threatened or extinct birds
A Feathered River Across the Sky: The Passenger Pigeon’s Flight to Extinction
Author: Joel Greenberg
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA, 2014
304 pages, $26 hardcover
Rare Bird: Pursuing the Mystery of the Marbled Murrelet
Author: Maria Mudd-Ruth, Paul Harris Jones, illustrations
Publisher: Mountaineers Books, 2013
312 pages, $18.95 paper, $9.99 ebook
Connect with Maria Mudd-Ruth on Facebook
The World’s Rarest Birds
Authors: Erik Hirschfield, Andy Swash, Robert Still
Publisher: Princeton University Press, 2013
360 pages, $45 cloth
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