Book Review: The World’s Rarest Birds

world's rarest birds feature

While ‘relaxing’ in the beer tent at this year’s British Birdfair I was waved over to a table where sat a group of people I knew but hadn’t seen for quite some time: Andy Swash (manager of the ‘wildly’ successful ‘WildGuides’ publishing company and one of my first ever interviewees on Talking Naturally), Gill Swash (Andy’s partner), and Erik Hirschfeld (air-traffic controller, birder, and author of the superb ‘Rare Birds Yearbooks’ who I interviewed way back in 2009 – all of four years, but it seems a long time ago anyway).

Seeing them reminded me that I have had a review copy of their latest publication, The World’s Rarest Birds (TWRB), for quite some time. I’m not sure why I haven’t got around to reviewing TWRB: perhaps because it deserves to be examined properly (and that takes time I haven’t had recently), and perhaps because I only know a few ways to say ‘superb’ and I needed to learn more before settling down. They were very good about it of course. Erik is the epitome of a laid-back Scandinavian, and Andy seems to be perpetually grinning as if plotting something mischievous, and when TWRB has had as many excellent reviews as it has so far, not having one on Talking Naturally is hardly a big deal. Nevertheless I was invited to the party when I was sent the book and I do feel guilty about not filing an RSVP…

So what is TWRB? As can be seen for the photo above it’s not a field-guide or a lightweight paperback. It is a substantial volume (360 pages including the index), looks fabulous (yes, of course you can judge a book by its cover these days – cover design is now an art-form, and the displaying Red-crowned Crane has been chosen very deliberately), and it just oozes beautiful design.

The grown-up offspring of a much smaller book devised by Erik back in 2008 (the ‘Rare Birds Yearbook’, which Erik had initially hoped to bring out every year but which – after two volumes and countless hours of work – he realised was simply far too much work for one person and his small team of colleagues to deliver), TWRB is exactly what should happen when money is spent on developing a worthy project. I’ve no personal stake in this excellent book, but to see Erik and Andy proudly presenting the 2013 version to the world actually gave me quite a buzz. Great ideas don’t always take off, but this one deserved to fly and, boy, does it soar…


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Clearly I rate this book incredibly highly (as does everyone else who’s seen it, as far as I can tell, so no big surprise or ‘bucking convention’ statement there). It’s easy to explain why. Published in partnership with Princeton University Press, inside the book those hundreds of pages focus on the 197 Critically Endangered (CR) and 389 Endangered (EN) bird species listed by the IUCN in their 2012 Red List update. While that might sound a little dry, nothing could be further from the truth. This is a hugely exciting and well-designed book, absolutely stuffed with the best photographs the authors could get their hands on – sourced via a competition that attracted 300 photographers who offered over 3,500 photos (just seeing some of these species is hard enough let alone photographing them so well, and for even more top-notch images check out WorldWildlifeImages.com a ‘small’ side project Andy and Gill somehow manage to find time for!). Where no modern photos of a species exist (Eskimo Curlew, Imperial Woodpecker, Night Parrot for example) superb illustrations by Tomasz Cofta are included instead.

So is TWRB little more than a list of rare birds surrounded by great photographs? It’s far more than that. As well as being gorgeous to look at, every page of TWRB is packed with information. There are short but precise summaries of each species (culled and expertly condensed by Gill from BirdLife International website texts), plus numerous chapters outlining the regions the birds occur in, the conservation threats facing groups like vultures, seabirds and shorebirds, and a birder’s eye view of Threatened Bird Hotspots. The text is bang up-to-date and thorough, and the relevant information is right there at your finger-tips. Far from being just a list of rare birds and pretty pictures then, TWRB is a well-written, superbly-illustrated reference book that should be valid for years to come.

It should be valid for years to come. The sad truth, however, as anyone interested in conservation will undoubtedly know, is that things are changing incredibly rapidly across this gorgeous planet of ours. Most hotspots, most Important Bird Areas (IBAs), and most rare birds are under intense pressure. Whether they’re protected or not we are a relentless species with often little regard for park boundaries or global scarcity. The threats facing each species are listed above their respective texts but its clear that every single one – whether it be Agriculture, Development, or Hunting etc – is actually just another way of saying ‘We’re to blame’.

So it is us of course that are driving those changes referred to above. Yes, there are a handful of ‘wins’ amongst all the losses (and the book looks at them as you’d expect), but the momentum is downwards. Does that make TWRB a depressing read then? It is possible to become thoroughly depressed when faced with such huge loss, but actually it’s also possible to become enthused by what’s left, dazzled by the extraordinary diversity of bird life on the planet, and cheered by the work being done in every nook and cranny of planet Earth by some remarkable people and organisations. I recommend taking a healthy chunk of the latter rather than a bleak drizzle of the former…

TWRB will next be updated (according to Andy) when the IUCN next revise the lists of CR and EN species in a few years time. In the meantime this superb book will stand as a celebration of the world’s rarest birds and a magnificent gallery of what we stand to lose. While some of the species featured are iconic symbols of conservation (the Spoon-billed Sandpiper and Whooping Crane for example) few of us will know every bird in it (Erik clearly does, but he must be one of handful that know much about eg the Rio Branca Antbird or the Matinan Flycatcher): so dive in, have a good look around, and make the mental decision to do something about the threats facing these incredible birds.

Not many of us will make the contribution that Erik, Andy, and Robert Still have made by collating and organising all this information and then making it so accessible, but as Erik has demonstrated with TWRB (and Andy with WildGuides in fact), even the smallest idea can grow into something magnificent if you’re determined enough.

 

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Erik Hirschfeld (left) and Andy Swash (right), British Birdfair 2013.
Photo Charlie Moores

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press (22 Mar 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0691155968
  • ISBN-13: 978-0691155968
  • Product Dimensions: 3.1 x 21.6 x 28.5 cm

 

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About the author

Passionate about animal welfare and conservation, veggie and dairy-free, I live in the Wiltshire (UK) countryside. I birded the world for twenty years before quitting my airline job and am now freelance. I co-founded Birders Against Wildlife Crime and Birds Korea. Trustee of the League against Cruel Sports On Twitter @charliemoores

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