Whether or not we are in the midst of the so-called Sixth Great Extinction - this time human induced, although there is some debate about this - this book is a timely exploration of the issue as it currently plays out for birds. The authors are scientifically and professionally very well qualified to speak on this issue, although when I started to read the book, I wondered if the writing would successfully combine academic treatment with inspiration? It does so, and requires the reader to alternate between the serious consideration of issues and the showcase studies of how conservation knowledge can help save birds.
The first two chapters on the nature and patterns of rarity are detailed and thought provoking, and explain well our interest in all things rare. Where birds fit in the rarity of nature sits nicely with consideration of the world's rarest bird, and unusually the importance of rarity, not least for conservation, is emphasised well. These concepts are seldom treated in depth, and the authors strike a nice balance between detail and accessibility.
The species chapters include examples from all the major continents, and begin with an up to date account of using satellite tags to discover the African wintering grounds of Sociable Lapwing Vanellus gregarius in Sudan. This finding completed our life cycle knowledge of this threatened bird, and enabled planning for its effective conservation. The most exciting and intrepid story of conserving a threatened African bird is the rediscovery of the Madagascar Pochard Aythya innotata and subsequent action to ensure its survival. Hair-raising logistics, serious conservation science and personal passion (one of the conservationists named his daughter Aythya after this mythical bird!) combine to make threatened extinction come alive for anybody reading this book. Making the issue relevant to people is surely part of the requirement. The chapter on the Liben Lark Heteromirafra sidamoensis of southern Ethiopia is highly topical in the year Birdfair 2010 proceeds are contributing to conservation programmes for this and other southern Ethiopian endemics. Let us hope the recently acquired and careful knowledge of this lark's requirements described here means the Liben Lark escapes the dubious accolade of mainland Africa's first bird extinction of historical times.
Rarity and extinction on islands looks at the special threats experienced by species as diverse as Tristan Albatross Diomedea dabbenena and Raso Lark Alauda razae, whilst the section on saving the world's rarest birds travels the globe incorporating the well-known stories of Kakapo Strigops habroptila in New Zealand and Spix's Macaw Cyanopsitta spixii in Brazil, with the very recent demise of Asia's vultures. The book ends with a thoughtful look to the future, recognising that hope lies in the skills of conservationists learnt through experiencing the extinctions and near extinctions described here. Lost and found includes our current knowledge of two possibly extinct curlews. For me this account raises an intriguing possibility - will the Slender-billed Curlew Numenius tenuirostris be rediscovered on a remote North African shore this winter? This book inspires us to keep looking!