Book Review: The World’s Rarest Birds

TheWorld'sRarestBirds k9844The World’s Rarest Birds, by Erik Hirschfeld, Andy Swash, and Robert Still, Princeton University Press (http://press.princeton.edu/), 2013, 360 pages, $ 45.00.

In 2008 and 2009, BirdLife International – the global partnership of conservation organizations – initiated a short-lived project known as the Rare Birds Yearbook, two yearbook-styled guides to the world’s Critically Endangered species. The concept was sound – to spotlight the world’s Critically Endangered bird species on an annual basis – but ruffled few feathers around the world. Returning to the drawing board, BirdLife International decided to breath new life into the project through a collaborative team effort with WILDGuides. Their new goal: an authoritative guide to the world’s 197 Critically Endangered, 389 Endangered, 60 Data Deficient (species about which little is known), and 4 captive species (those that survive today only in captivity). So was born The World’s Rarest Birds, the authoritative guide and lasting tribute to 650 of the world’s rarest birds.

From its roots as a yearbook whose classmates’ signatures would have been hard to come by, The World’s Rarest Birds has instead fledged into an encyclopedic opus-bordering-on-obituary of scarcity and borderline extinction among the world’s winged denizens. Neither iteration is any more cheery – imagine a yearbook of “students least likely to survive long enough to attend their 10th reunion” – but with more than three times the number of bird species treated, the more recent pheonix-like folio of rare birds is certainly more thorough.

At its inception, part and parcel to the project was to include high-quality photographs of as many species as possible. An international photography competition to that effect assembled 536 high-end images, which were paired with more than 800 additional photographs in an exhaustive visual catalogue. An additional 76 species – birds thought to be extinct, those never before photographed, or those rarely seen – were meticulously illustrated by Polish artist Tomasz Cofta.

Considering the caliber of photography that graces it pages and the attention to detail evident on every page, The World’s Rarest Birds does double duty as not only a work of reference but also as a high-end coffee table book. The individual mug shots featured throughout the pages of the “regional directory” – effectively, the field guide portion of the volume – are interspersed with spectacular full-page portraits and insets, atlas-quality regional maps, and concise text on not only the threats these species face, but the unique conservation challenges that confront each region. Every species even has a QR code, which when scanned links up to BirdLife International’s most up-to-date species factsheet and a high-resolution distribution map.

Due to Rarest Birds‘ ambitious global scope, several North American and Pacific Coast species are called out in the directories, including the ashy storm-petrel, California condor, marbled murrelet, and Kittlitz’s murrelet. Altogether, 84 (6-7%) of North America’s 1,252 bird species qualify as globally threatened. With so many species at stake, one can only hope a resource such as this will help draw international attention to these at-risk species, allowing this yearbook’s student body of birds to matriculate from rarity to regularity.

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