Thursday, April 11, 2013

Are You Into Rare Birds?

Here on my desk is a copy of a new book from Princeton University Press entitled The World’s Rarest Birds. The content makes for disturbing reading, packed as it is with evidence and insight into how man is slowly but surely eliminating many of Planet Earth’s 10,000 bird species. 

The bare facts from The World’s Rarest Birds are not simply worrying, alarming or even disturbing, they are far worse. On a scale of scary words perhaps “chilling” or “frightening” could more accurately describe how: 

• 197 Critically Endangered bird species face an extremely high risk of extinction within the lifetime of the present human generation 
• 389 Endangered species are also at a very high risk of extinction 
• 4 species extinct in the wild now exist in captivity only 
• 60 more species are so poorly known they are classified as Data Deficient 

The World's Rarest Birds - Princeton University Press

Fortunately there are conservationists motivated enough to document this appalling situation in the hope it will stimulate others into action sooner rather than later. I have to sympathise with the trials and tribulations of the authors Erik Hirschfeld, Andy Swash and Robert Still, who together with the publishers Princeton University Press and BirdLife International decided to compile this book, the aim being to raise the profile of bird conservation efforts worldwide. In 2012 the book was scheduled to publish when events overtook the project, entailing a complete revision to account for the release of a major update to BirdLife International’s list of threatened birds. “Good News” they thought when seven species were removed from the list thanks to conservation measures or new population discoveries. The bad news for them was that 23 species had to be added, but following no further setbacks The World's Rarest Birds was finally published on April 3rd 2013. 

After spending a couple of days exploring the book I have no doubt that if it receives the circulation, attention and acclaim it clearly deserves their efforts have not been in vain. 

For all the wrong reasons The World’s Rarest Birds is an impressive book, remarkable for the fact that in the large format 360 pages of 8 ½ x 11, there are 977 colour photographs and 610 coloured maps which document and detail the many birds of the world under serious threat. It is worth repeating those figures - 360 pages, 977 photographs and 610 maps describing, listing, picturing and mapping threatened birds. In other words, this is not a tiny problem that will go away if we ignore it, but more precisely a major catastrophe that the whole world should act upon.

 Globally Threatened Bird Species - The World's Rarest Birds

The Introduction to The World’s Rarest Birds sets the scene for the remainder of the volume, describing the background to the book and the source and inspiration for the many fine photographs contained therein. There are short accounts of the diversity and distribution of bird species, the endemic and important bird areas, together with an illuminating section on the interaction between birds and the human race. Humans are of course at the root of the many problems that birds face but thankfully this latter discussion is not entirely negative. Witness the fact that despite the pressing need for this book, more is known about the status and distribution of birds than about any other order of plants and animals. This apparent contradiction is due in no small part to the mainstream involvement of ordinary bird watchers in Citizen Science such as the Christmas Bird Count in the USA, the Big Garden Birdwatch in the UK and to the many, many hours of field work donated by bird counters, bird ringers and amateur ornithologists all over the world. 

More than 25 pages are devoted to discussion of the pressures that birds face, ranging through agriculture and aquaculture, hunting, climate change, human disturbance, pollution, energy production, mining, damming and water abstraction, fishing, logging etc. and ad infinitum - The list seems endless. 

The major part of the book which lists the species of concern is entitled The Regional Directories and sub-divides into geographic regions of Africa, Asia, Australia, Oceanic islands, The Caribbean with North and Central America, South America, and Europe with the Middle East. This vital and detailed section is sure to become the main focus of a reader wherever they are based in the world, including as it does snapshots and photographs of the species themselves, on-going or planned conservation measures and risks to the particular species. 

Naturally enough I focused on the section for Europe and the Middle East where I found familiar names and faces.

 Europe and The Middle East - The World's Rarest Birds

Approximately 730 species have been recorded breeding or wintering on the landmass of Europe and the Middle East or migrating regularly through the region. Forty of those species - or over 5% - are globally threatened, including Red-breasted Goose, Balearic Shearwater, White-headed Duck and Velvet Scoter. 

The book touches upon other European species which may be “Next On The List”, the naming of which ensures the calamity becomes personal and immediate to any reader. European Turtle Dove is depicted, a victim of habitat loss in the UK and unsustainable hunting in blackspots like Malta where European Birds Directives seem to be regularly and quite belligerently ignored. 

European Turtle Dove - Phil Slade

It is in Europe also where agriculture and fisheries policies are implicated in declines of many species. Once a common enough bird in the UK, the only time I see Turtle Doves nowadays are on holidays to the Balearic island of Menorca where old-time agriculture holds sway - for now. 

The Egyptian Vulture, another species I see regularly in Menorca and the Canary Islands is globally endangered due to multiple threats across the 82 countries it occupies in Europe, Asia and Africa. For the Egyptian Vulture its disastrous decline is caused by the disappearance of wild animals on which it depends for food, poisoning of carcasses near the birds’ breeding grounds, collisions with power lines and the growing veterinary use of anti-inflammatory drugs in Africa; as the book explains and illustrates throughout, there is no single threat to a particular species, but more likely a series of misfortunes or deliberate acts which lead down an often short road to danger or even extinction.

Egyptian Vulture - Phil Slade

The Critically Endangered species Balearic Shearwater is another species I see in Menorca and where I admit until now I failed to appreciate the true extent of the endangered status of the species. That’s the other problem, endangered species don’t fly around with an “Endangered” label attached - the key to understanding is education and awareness of what is at stake for humans, birds and the environment alike. 

Menorca - Balearic Shearwater project 

The European pages mention others too, once common farmland species like Starling and House Sparrow which may be sinking towards threatened status. On a purely local level will other species like Corn Bunting and Yellowhammer soon appear on such shameful lists? 

In a section entitled Threats Without Borders the authors remind us that almost one-fifth of the world’s bird species migrate, making regular movements beyond their breeding grounds, often crossing one or more national boundaries on their long-distance travels. Strategies such as this can expose birds like the Basra Reed Warbler to threats on not only its main breeding areas but also in the wintering area of Kenya. Another example of this cross boundary phenomenon centres upon especially threatened groups of soaring birds such as cranes and raptors which migrate along narrow corridors of land subject to rapid changes in land use: also waterbirds which find more and more of their coastal wetland sites disappearing because of land reclamation or change of use.

Threats Without Borders - The World's Rarest Birds

There is a fine Appendix and Index to The World’s Rarest Birds, part of which is a three page list of extinct birds dated according to their passing. The 130 strong inventory stretches from the 1500s with the St Helena Dove all the way up to the Kauai Oo declared extinct on Hawaii in 1987. Along the way this sad list takes in the likes of Mauritius Night Heron in the 1600s, Jamaican Red Macaw circa 1700, Bonin Thrush in the early 1800s and Labrador Duck in 1875. We could go on adding to this roll of misfortune and we probably will. 

As the publishers quite rightly say with their accompanying literature, “this is a book that we all wish wasn’t necessary” (my emphasis). This is a sentiment that will resonate to most reading this blog but the book needs to find a wider audience rather than simply reach the already converted. The World’s Rarest Birds deserves that wider audience and I sincerely hope it reaches them; otherwise we may need to produce another and more desperate volume in a short number of years. Let’s hope not. 

This is a great book, and I have a suggestion. Buy two and send one copy to your elected representative at the highest level possible. I think I’ll send a copy to my European Member of Parliament, include a photograph of a Turtle Dove and a promise to use my vote wisely at the next European election.

Buy this book at Princeton University Press  $45 or £34.95.

I'm linking this post to I'd Rather Be Birding .


DeniseinVA said...

Thank you for such an informative post. It would be a very sad world without birds.

Wally Jones said...

I'll be ordering 2 copies soon. Excellent suggestion on what to do with my second book.

This hits close to home as I've been hearing rumors one of our local species of the Grasshopper Sparrow (Ammodramus savannarum floridanus) has declined so severely that consideration is being given to trying to capture all those remaining in the wild.

I'm currently involved in a six year breeding bird atlas project. It will be interesting to compare the results with the previous data from 30 years ago.

Thank you for an important, if alarming, post.

Kay L. Davies said...

Hi Phil —
I've sent my husband a link to this post.
I was saddened by the sight of the European turtledove, because we often have turtledoves here, often on the telephone wires beside our house, cooing sweetly. One year, there were three, one obviously a juvenile, being trained by its parents. I was delighted.
A late friend of ours was very active in working to re-establish populations of Bald Eagles on the British Columbia coast. He installed many "eagle cams" in trees where the growing population can be watched. There are several nests with young in them this year, and the populations are thriving.
In California, the San Diego Zoo has been active in re-establishing populations of condors in Mexico's Baja California and other areas.
I hope this book can serve as a warning to many people that something needs to be done, and done soon.
Meanwhile, I've looked for more photos of birds from our visit to Italy, and have only been able to find one more "unknown" but it is just another cormorant. Of course, we saw plenty of pigeons!

Russell Jenkins said...

Thank you for introducing me to this book, Phil. I'll order my copy this weekend.

Stuart Price said...

Looks like an interesting read...........

Mary Howell Cromer said...

Very nice entry and maybe I will have to get this book too;') I love your Turtledove image, wow, what beauty!

Ayuwat Jearwattanakanok said...

Wow, seems a very interesting book. Sadly so many birds are turning from common to endangered species....

Choy Wai Mun said...

Phil, this is a very good review. Although seeing a rare bird is always an exciting experience, we still cannot deny the fact most of these birds are now rare because of us humans.

EG CameraGirl said...

It's very sad that humans are destroying so much of what makes our world so special. The balance of nature is going in the wrong direction and most of the world doesn't get it.

TexWisGirl said...

the turtledove is beautiful. i hope it does not make 'the list'.

HansHB said...

Great photos, perfect for the bird-themes!

E.liza"BETH" said...

i might be an odd one - but i have been a real fan of vultures. any sort. i think they look so tough & mean. a bit of armor too. ( :

Anni said...'ve outdone yourself on this post. Not only informative, but it really opens a person's eyes to the fact of we humans need to conserve our nature and the world that surrounds our lifestyles.

You say: "the key to understanding is education and awareness of what is at stake for humans, birds and the environment alike" Yes indeed.

I will check to see where I can purchase one of these books. It should be a must read. Perhaps getting schools involved in this ... getting this book for text purposes to teach Science. The younger generations should become aware.

Cheryl said...

Thank you for this Phil. Chilling is the term that stuck in my mind and heart when I read your account. I'm not sure if I want to read this but I feel as though it would be wrong not to. We really are the Earth's worst enemy.

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