Thursday, 6 November 2014

'The World’s Rarest Birds' book review by Oliver Simms

The World’s Rarest Birds by Erik Hirschfield, Andy Swash and Robert Still

Of the things that I did when I was in the committee, the thing that I’m most proud of is the partnership that I managed to set up with Princeton WildGuides, which has meant a discount of 35% for NGBS and a steady stream of books being sent to various NGBs for review. While discussing ways to develop the partnership at Birdfair, Caroline of Princeton suggested that I should review a book myself rather than use them simply as competition prizes. Seeing the stunning cover photo of a Red-crowned Crane, I immediately requested The World’s Rarest Birds.

With such a high expectations, my initial reaction on reading it was one of disappointment. The book, despite the stunning photos of some of near mythical bird species, is not a joy to read nor is it written with the sort of captivating authorial passion of many other conservation-related works. However, there lies the point of this book. It is not meant to be a celebration but an objective reminder of the stark realities facing numerous bird species on the planet.

The opening section of the book sets the tone with four pages devoted to recent extinctions. I found the two grainy photos of Poo-uli and Bachman’s Warbler particularly poignant as the photos brought home how recent these species were probably lost to the planet. The introduction moves on to look, in a formulaic manner, to look at the 15 threats faced by the world’s rarest birds. Throughout the whole introduction, the technical text is softened, or perhaps enhanced, by the omnipresent photographs, which really underline the authors’ intentions for the birds themselves to be at the centre of the book. A favourite of mine was Savio Bruno’s charming image of a Brazilian Merganser with 8 chicks, which seemed to symbolise a tiny chink of hope for these threatened species.

The main section of the book is sorted into continents and consists of species accounts for all of the birds classed as Endangered or Critically Endangered by the IUCN. The book supplies distribution maps and population estimates but the focus of the accounts is very much on the threats facing each bird. As could be expected, the highlight is the often superb photos that accompany most accounts. Where photos for some species simply do not exist, they have been replaced by illustrations by Tomasz Cofta. While I found these drawings a bit childlike and unrealistic, the need for them really brought home quite how perilous the situation is for these species to the extent that no one seems to have been able to have ever taken a publishable photograph despite the recent advances in camera equipment. The species accounts are preceded by a description of the key conservation challenges in each continent and by a look at threatened bird hot spots. I found these particularly fascinating.

Overall, my abiding memory of this book is its photographs of some of the birds I most crave to see. A couple, from the once declared extinct Black-hooded Antwren, which I travelled two hours for in Brazil several years back, to the more familiar Red-breasted Goose, which I twitched in Hampshire, I have already been fortunate enough to see. I am not sure though how this reflects on me. This book was not meant to act as a wishlist but as a powerful reminder that we could lose such spectacular species. If you’re after a great read, this may not be the book for you but it is one that any world birder really should read. For this reason, I look forward to contributing this book to the newly created NGB book swap.

I would like to thank Caroline Priday of Princeton WILDGuides for inviting me to review this book and the company as a whole for the continued support for Next Generation Birders. To look at the great selection of books that they have available, please visit:

-Oliver Simms
Oliver is a recent Classics graduate from Durham University and, after spending his last free summer as a bird guide and hotel manager in Ecuador, now works as an auditor at the National Audit Office. He previously served as Trip Officer in the Next Generation Birders committee and is a trustee of Waderquest charity. When he is not staring at spreadsheets at work, he enjoys NGB trips to Spurn, hill walking and birding in the tropics.

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