Working for birds in Africa

The World's Rarest Birds

Sat, 24/08/2013 - 15:28 -- abc_admin
Erik Hirschfeld, Andy Swash & Rob Still, 2013. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press / WildGuides. 360 pp, 877 colour photographs, 103 colour illustrations and 610 maps. Hardback. ISBN 978-0-691-15596-8.

In 2008 and 2009 Erik Hirschfeld edited two volumes of the Rare Birds Yearbook that featured those species categorised as Critically Endangered by BirdLife International - close to 200 at the time. The introduction to the volume under review explains that, following a meeting between Erik and Andy Swash of WildGuides, it was decided to expand the project and produce a new volume to include those species categorised as Endangered or Data Deficient, as well as those regarded as Critically Endangered. Thus this book covers the world’s 650 rarest bird species.

The authors sought to include photographs of as many species as possible and therefore organised a competition with a range of sponsored prizes, to which over 3,500 photographs were submitted. Many of these appear here, although photographs could not be sourced for 76 species, and these are illustrated by the Polish artist Tomasz Cofta, whose top-quality artwork matches the high standard of the photographs.

The first 50 pages include introductory chapters entitled ‘Introduction to the world’s birds’, ‘The world’s rarest birds’, ‘The  threats birds face’, ‘The need for conservation’, and ‘Threats without borders’. These are well written, providing a clear background to the ‘problem’ and are lavishly illustrated with many superb images.

The remainder of the book is divided into Regional Directories, which cover Europe & the Middle East, Africa & Madagascar, Asia, Australasia, Oceanic Islands, the Caribbean, North & Central America, and South America, with a final section covering Data Deficient Species. Each Regional Directory has its own introduction, which highlights particular regional ‘hotspots’ or specific threats (in the case of Africa, for example, Madagascar and Angola are the hotspots, and grassland management is the main threat discussed).

The relevant species that occur within each region are then covered in systematic order with four species per page. For each species there is a single photograph or illustration, a distribution map, a population estimate, a list of specific threats, and a paragraph of text numbering c.100 - 110 words. In addition, a QR code is provided for each species that can be read by a smartphone (if loaded using the QR Reader app) and will then open the latest version of the BirdLife International species factsheet. High tech stuff, though possibly not that much faster than using Google to find the factsheet.

Species that occur in more than one region appear in both, with different texts tailored by directory. For example Rüppell’s Vulture Gyps rueppelli appears under Africa and Europe, the main points being covered in the first-named section, while the text in the latter deals with the recent records in Spain and Portugal.

As the Africa & Madagascar section is likely to be of most interest to readers of this review, it is perhaps worth mentioning that 86 species are covered here, 15 of them Critically Endangered and 71 Endangered. No photographs could be sourced for 11 of these - a challenge for Club members for the next edition perhaps?

Although this new work clearly differs significantly from its predecessor volumes, a few comparisons are worth making. While the yearbooks were in a smaller format, each species was generally devoted a full page, meaning that far more information was provided for each than here. Obviously, the yearbooks covered less than one-third of the species treated herein, and similar coverage would have resulted in a very large book, so there is no easy answer to this conundrum. But, I do wonder about the maps. In the new volume, the entire map of Africa is used, even though most of the relevant species possess tiny ranges. In the earlier works, larger scale maps were used where necessary, for example, the map for Madagascar Fish Eagle Haliaeetus vociferoides in the Rare Birds Yearbook 2009 covered Madagascar alone and therefore showed more detail than is possible here. It surely should have been possible, if more time-consuming, to produce maps on a scale tailored to the range of the species?

This is nit-picking. The authors have produced a superb book that summarises the threats faced by far too many species in the world today. They have illustrated each of those species well, and highlighted the urgent need to conserve them. We can only hope that the book inspires people around the globe to take more interest in the plight of these endangered birds, and to work in whatever way they can to support their survival. Purchasing this book makes a small start and I encourage readers to do so.

David Fisher

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