Field of Science

Book Review: The World's Rarest Birds, by Erik Hirschfeld, Andy Swash and Robert Still

The World's Rarest Birds is a fairly self-explanatorily named new book from Princeton University Press, a copy of which was recently forwarded to me to review. Published under the auspices of the conservation group BirdLife International, this book aims to provide information on every one of the world's 650 (or so) endangered bird species. To gather material for this, we are told, an international photography competition was held, and the book features mostly new photographs of nearly 600 bird species. Only 76 of the species covered could not be illustrated by photographs, and all of these have been represented with paintings by the artist Tomaz Cofta. And the results are...well, just take a look at this:

This is an incredibly handsome book. Every page just absolutely pops with colour, a veritable kaleidoscope of flight and feathers. Hours could be spent contemplating the images presented. A mass of red-breasted geese take flight on page 51, a pair of Bali starlings imitate gossiping suburban housewives on page 10, a Laysan duck strides amongst a flurry of flies on page 186, and a gloriously draggy bare-necked umbrellabird sneers at the camera on page 247. The images are crisp and clear, and accompanied by authoritative text. Nor does the book drop the ball any with the individual species accounts:
Every species receives a representative illustration and a quick rundown of status, estimated population, primary threats (represented by codes explained in the introduction to the book) and distribution map, though in the case of population estimates the choice of model can make some seem a little spuriously precise (such as the estimated 2090 Uvea parakeets). A red or green arrowhead against each species allows the reader to see at a glance whether a species' population has been declining or recovering (sadly, all the examples in the spread above are declining). A brief blurb provides specific information, most commonly a further rundown of the primary threats. Each species also has a barcode that is supposed to take the reader directly to that species' page on the BirdLife International website where more extensive information is available (not having the necessary features on my phone, I wasn't able to test this myself). The book and species accounts are divided into sections by continental mass; where a migratory and/or wide-ranging species can be regularly found in more than one continent, it is represented in multiple sections.

The real highlights of the book, in my opinion, are a number of sections covering more overarching topics: particular geographic regions (as in the example above), or particular groups of conservation interest such as bustards, vultures, or migratory birds. These provide a more synthetic view of the challenges, pressures, and occasionally conflicting interests affecting conservation around the world. However, it is also with these sections that one wonders how well the book is achieving its stated goal of advocacy. There are few images in the book other than those of birds, and I personally feel that the summary sections would have been a suitable place for some pictures more directly conveying the threats involved. A few well-placed photos of land clearance, grazing damage, or hunting snares may have sharpened this book's impact.

My other complaints are fairly minor. Some of the photos chosen to illustrate species accounts may have benefited from captions clarifying details such a whether the individual(s) shown is male or female, or where the photo was taken. The text's practice of consistently capitalising terms referring to formal conservation categories such as 'Endangered', 'Critically Endangered' or 'Extinct in the Wild' together with vernacular names, and of insistently providing the conservation status of each species when mentioned (never just 'the White-backed Vulture', but 'the Endangered White-backed Vulture'), can feel a bit heavy-handed at times. It can be hard not to read certain sentences as if Punctuated. For. Emphasis.

There is also the question of price. In an ideal world, one would not quibble at paying for quality, but sadly this world is not ideal. And so, having seen how much this book is awash with colour, how much effort has evidently gone into compiling it, it is with trepidation that we ask: how much?

And as it turns out, the list price is just $45 US. So if nothing else, the price of admission alone makes this worth it.


  1. I'm going to have to keep my eyes on this one. Too bad I live someplace that will be so well represented in the book. Thanks for the heads up!

  2. The book covers in detail the information on these birds and how they are classified and what it means to be included in this book. The IUCN red list data explains how they are listed and what it means for the population of that species.


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