‘Facing Extinction’ is the third book on birds, extinction, and conservation I’ve reviewed in the last eight weeks. As the old joke about buses goes, you wait ages for one to come along and then three turn up together…
Of course there is a good reason for the very welcome concentration on conservation and why books like Dominic Couzens’ excellent Atlas of Rare Birds, the American Bird Conservancy’s groundbreaking Guide to Bird Conservation, and ‘Facing Extinction’ are all coming out this year: 2010 is (lest we forget) the International Year of Biodiversity.
The International Year of Biodiversity (IYB) was organised by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) which maintains the renowned Red List of Threatened Species on which so many conservation decisions are made. In the lead up to IYB the IUCN stated that 12% of all birds, almost 200 species, were classified as Critically Endangered, meaning they were at imminent risk of global extinction. It’s no surprise then that conservationists worldwide are committing their thoughts to paper, especially as we are, as we’ve been told many times this year – and is in fact superbly detailed and explained in ‘Facing Extinction‘ – in the middle of one of our planet’s great extinction events, “one that is predicted to take more species with it than any of the five previous mass extinctions documented by the fossil record”.
Why are so many birds ‘Facing Extinction‘ though, and what are the mechanisms driving this enormous loss of biodiversity? The simple answer is us humans – our abundance, our unceasing demand for resources (especially food), our casual introductions of non-native predators like rats and cats. We are behind so much loss it is enough to make you weep. As ‘Facing Extinction‘ explains the arrival of Polynesians in the Pacific signalled the end of huge numbers of island endemics (many of them flightless and/or highly specialised and totally incapable of surviving such huge changes to their habitat); the arrival of Europeans in the Americas wiped out what was once the world’s most abundant bird species (the Passenger Pigeon) and is now threatening to destabilise vast forest eco-regions in the Amazon; and in Asia we are on the verge of seeing the collapse of biodiversity hotspots in eg the Philippines, Borneo, and Malaysia.
As the subtitle of this endlessly fascinating book – ‘The World’s rarest birds and the Race to save them’ – implies though, it’s also us humans who are doing what we can to prop up (and perhaps even repair) some of those hotspots and the birds they support. The four authors of ‘Facing Extinction’ – Paul Donald, Nigel Collar, Stuart Marsden, and Deborah Pain – have been at the forefront of bird conservation for many years and are all renowned and highly-respected conservationists: between them they either work for or have worked for the RSPB, BirdLife International, and the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust and/or have served on countless international conservation committees. They are authoritative and superbly qualified to guide us through the problems we are causing and what the solutions might be.
As you might expect from such erudite and scholarly conservationists ‘Facing Extinction‘ is a more scientifically-based and academic book than eg ‘Atlas of Rare Birds’ (which is not to denigrate the latter in any way, it’s just a different approach). The text, split into twenty-six chapters but arranged under six headings (including for example a superb look at ‘The nature of rarity and the rarity of nature’ and a truly educational investigation of ‘Rarity and extinction on islands’), is always accessible though and will be hugely thought-provoking. It’s packed with examples and statistics, sentences that will stop you in your tracks, and whole pages that convey a real sense of expertise, experience and knowledge. It is not, however, a book that is difficult to read or is dense with impenetrable jargon. Quite the opposite really: yes, it demands some concentration (more so than either Atlas of Rare Birds or the ABC’s Guide to Bird Conservation both of which, with their ‘short article’ style and mass of gorgeous images, can be more easily dipped in and out of), but that doesn’t mean you’ll need a hushed library-like atmosphere to read and absorb it. Apologies for introducing nakedness into a book review, but I read huge chunks of this book in the bath and enjoyed it immensely!
While ‘us’ will inevitably be the simple answer to “Why are so many birds threatened?”, there is of course more to the explanation than that. Extinction – or even the sometimes surprising lack of it given how much environmental havoc we’ve wreaked – is a complex event in many cases, inevitable in others. The factors at work are more varied than many of us probably realise, and a vast amount of expertise and research has already been put into understanding them. ‘Facing Extinction‘ offers explanations and doesn’t flinch away from scientific terminology and ecological concepts when they need to be used. It introduces readers (‘introduces’ to those of us without a science background anyway) to the ‘taxon cycle’ , the ‘Allee effect’, and ‘extinction debt’: not common currency perhaps, but they are explained so well that I can’t imagine anyone being overwhelmed. In fact, I should imagine that readers who aren’t already familiar with such important conservation thinking will come away greatly enthused and with a far deeper understanding of the problems than they previously had – which is the point of the book course.
‘Facing Extinction’ is a remarkable book, firmly pointing to where the blame lies for the imminent collapse of so many bird populations, but also celebrating the successes that have rescued some species from what seemed like almost inevitable extinction (eg the Kakapo, Seychelles Black Robin, and Mauritius Kestrel). The ‘race’ in the title is not yet over, and we – as in all of us – can still do something to help. There is still hope but we need to act, and we need to act now: the very fact that the authors work for different conservation organisations (which used to mean so much in-fighting that many projects never even got off the ground) but are speaking with one voice should act as a powerful pointer to how we all need to act if we want to head off extinctions on a huge scale. Together.
On a slightly different note I wrote in my reviews of Atlas of Rare Birds and Guide to Bird Conservation that both are absolutely packed with top-class, beautiful, and often rare photographs and maps and diagrams. Given its more detailed and academic approach does ‘Facing Extinction’ contain much in the way of illustration (apart from the wonderful Philippine Eagle staring out of the cover into an uncertain future)? Thankfully for those of us who do like a darn good photo ‘Facing Extinction’ has some absolute crackers including a Spoon-billed Sandpiper chick (how can we lose something so utterly exquisite?) and Madagascar Pochard ducklings, a photo I’ve not seen before of a mounted Stephens Island Wren, a gorgeous Bengal Florican, and such uber-rarities as Royal Cinclodes, Forest Owlet, and Liben Lark (widely expected to become Africa’s first mainland bird extinction). It’s not as image laden as either Atlas of Rare Birds and Guide to Bird Conservation but then again I can’t really imagine anyone thinking of buying a book like this because of (or because of the lack of) pictures.
‘Facing Extinction’ is a fascinating read from cover to cover and I came away from it with a new determination to educate myself and to learn far more than the sometimes sketchy overviews I base some of my opinions on. The excellent writing is clear and strong, and also always leaves you in no doubt whatsoever that the authors – whom I have great admiration for – are passionate about birds far beyond seeing them as simply objects of scientific study. The quality of production is typical Poyser (ie extremely high) and when you add in that all the royalties from sales of ‘Facing Extinction’ will be donated to BirdLife International’s Preventing Extinctions Programme‘ I can’t think of a book I would recommend more.
Finally, given the messages of hope contained within ‘Facing Extinction’ do I now think that things aren’t as gloomy for our birdlife as I previously believed? ‘Facing Extinction’ doesn’t aim to paint a rosy tinge on the prognosis facing so much wildlife on a planet besieged by humans so ‘no’, however it does make me appreciate again just how hard some very dedicated and extremely likeable people are working to head off the collapse of ecosystems that all of us – you, me, our children, and everyone we know – also depend on.
Facing Extinction: The World’s Rarest Birds and the Race to Save Them
Paul Donald, Nigel Collar, Stuart Marsden, Deborah J. Pain
# Hardcover: 312 pages
# Publisher: Poyser (16 Aug 2010)
# ISBN-10: 0713670215
# ISBN-13: 978-0713670219
# Product Dimensions: 25.9 x 19.4 x 3 cm