In his review of the Rare Birds Yearbook 2008 Simon Barnes wrote (beautifully and accurately) that it was “the best of books, the worst of books. It is a book of hope, it is a book of despair; it is a book of beauty, a book of ugliness…”. I knew exactly what he meant. Full of glorious photos of birds on their way to extinction and accounts of the reasons why, it was a book that needed writing but wasn’t easy to read, an unflinching, unsentimental dissection of what we’re doing to the world’s rarest bird populations as we humans crash around like living wrecking balls taking apart one unique eco-system after another. But it was also a book that looked for the positive: the conservation stories, the principled people who’ve dedicated themselves to birds most of us had never heard of, the sharing of data vital to saving the rarest birds on the planet. It was, exactly as Simon Barnes, said, “the best of book, the worst of books”.
The 2009 version – which has just been published – is much the same: a book dedicated to ‘the world’s 190 most threatened birds’ as designated by BirdLife International, beautifully presented, lavishly illustrated, comprehensive, and superbly written. Much the same, but not ‘the same’. This edition is even better than the previous one.
In his Introduction the unassuming editor, Erik Hirschfeld (who perhaps in the interests of disclosure I should say I have met a couple of times and who is an extremely ‘good bloke’), says that his personal challenge in the time elapsed between the 2008 and 2009 editions was “to update as many facts as possible in the species accounts and to present completely new material relating to conservation in the features“. It must have been a full-time job because the Rare Birds Yearbook 2009 is a remarkably informative and up-to-date volume.
Each Critically Endangered species gets a full write-up complete with a fascinating potted history, the latest information on its status (population size and threats), and the measures that are being taken to protect it (a number of sample pages are available online as .pdfs). Open almost any page and you’ll be presented with remarkable photos (I say ‘almost any’ because a few species are so rarely seen that there are no photographs and paintings have been used instead) sourced from an international army of photographers. In fact some of the photographs – given that the vast majority of these species are not easy to find let alone photograph – are just stunning: check out the gorgeous Blue-crowned Laughingthrush Garrulax courtoisi on the front cover and on pages 190/191, the Chinese Crested Terns Sterna bernsteini on page 139, the Puerto Rican Nightjar Caprimulgus noctitherus on page 160, or the Araripe Manakin Antilophia bokermanni on page 168.
As well as a thorough and detailed look at each of the 190 featured species, new essay-length articles cover a range of topics such as Bamboo Specialists, the reintroduction of the Californian Condor, philosophical/religious conservation issues, and the latest news about the BirdLife Preventing Extinctions Programme. Towards the back of the book is a long and extremely interesting section headed “Critically Endangered Birds in the news the past year” (which actually begins with an entry about the Bengal Florican from August 2007); a list of Tour Operators who specialise in seeing and helping protect these species; and a breakdown of which countries the birds are found in. It’s a remarkably well-constructed overview, and completes a superbly authoritative package.
And it needs to be. From habitat loss to casual introduction of alien predators, from over-hunting to collection for the pet-trade it’s usually lack of information and lack of understanding of consequences that causes species extinctions (and whatever you think causes it, climate-change may be an increasingly important factor in years to come). And bird populations can be surprisingly vulnerable when we don’t – or won’t – understand what we’re doing. In the same way that most nineteenth century Americans could never have imagined skies empty of Passenger Pigeons, how many birders thirty or even twenty years ago would have suspected that for example the Spoon-billed Sandpiper (pages 136/7) would become so rare in such a short time (the ones fighting the Saemangeum Reclamation perhaps, but not many others). How many could have predicted that India’s hundreds of thousands of vultures (pages 122 – 125) would be all but wiped out in a decade by a commonly-used livestock drug called Diclofenac?
Highlighting any bird from this beautiful book does, I’m well aware, run the risk that a potential purchaser in the US or Europe might well wonder why he or she needs to know about birds they’ve possibly never heard of and probably will never see (I’m reasonably well-travelled but I’ve only seen about ten of them, and had never heard of several – Faichuk White-eye or Entre Riso Seedeater anyone?). The glib answer in this “twitch” obsessed world might be because it gives a list of targets that you need to get to before they vanish, but I hope no-one would buy a book like this thinking about how it helps THEM rather than how it helps the BIRDS.
Aside from the fact that Erik is generously donating a percentage of sales to Birdlife’s Preventing Extinctions programme (so every single book sold aids conservation straight away) the stark truth is that despite ongoing efforts 66% of all Critically Endangered birds are declining, >10% of all bird species are threatened with extinction, and unless we take the time to understand what’s going on in habitats and environments all over the planet, we not only stand to lose them but many other species that we’re all much more familiar with as well.
Which now relatively common but rapidly-declining birds might join the critically-endangered list in the not-too-distant future if we don’t: European Turtle Dove Streptopelia turtur (62% decline in recent years), Evening Grosbeak Coccothraustes vespertinus (78% decline in last 40 years), Yellow-breasted Bunting Emberiza aureola (decline not calculated but disappearing from many breeding and staging areas), or many of the world’s penguins which are now “suddenly” threatened by climate change and over-fishing perhaps? There is just far too much at stake for us to do nothing…
Many of the species detailed in the superb Rare Birds Yearbook 2009 may only be known by a handful of local ornithologists but we need to get to know them as well. Saving endangered species takes money, political pressure, and collective will. Without all of us learning about the Critically Endangered birds covered in this book, without all of us understanding what’s causing their declines, and without all of us wanting to contribute to their survival, they will simply slip away unseen.
The Rare Birds Yearbook 2009 may not appear at first glance to be an ideal companion to mince pies and fairy-lights, but I personally think that a time of celebration and excess is exactly when we ought to be re-evaluating our place and our impact on what is still of course a beautiful and richly diverse planet. Get this book and raise a glass to Erik for all his efforts in putting it together and to all the hundreds of dedicated, under-funded researchers working in forests, swamps, and mountains all over the world. They deserve it – and so do the birds you’ll be helping when you take this important “best of books, worst of books” home.
Rare Birds Yearbook 2009. Edited by Erik Hirschfeld. Softback. 274 pages. Published by MadDig Media 2008. Price GBP18.95. ISBN978-0-9552607-5-9
Like to see for yourself how good this book is? To download a pdf of the pages relating to the Spoon-billed Sandpiper click Species Account: Spoon-billed Sandpiper
For more information and online purchasing details please visit the Rare Birds Yearbook website.