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

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198783In our ever photographic world, where satellite technology can reproduce an image from anywhere on the planet, and cell phone cameras are as plentiful as pocket change, it is hard to imagine any mundane image not captured by the lens of a camera. In the huge and exhaustive new book The World’s Rarest Birds by Erik Hirschfeld, Andy Swash, and Robert Still (Princeton University Press, 2013), we’re reminded that advanced photographic technology can do wonders, but it can not lift the canopy off a jungle forest and record the creatures living there. They must be sought after the old fashioned way — beating a path on foot with a good camera.

It is noted here that 75 of the 590 species of the world’s birds that are either endangered, critically endangered or living only in captivity, have never been photographed. The existence of these 75 species is known only through eyewitness accounts and illustrations. Yet the likelihood of their existence, in remote, difficult to access areas of the planet is promising. Reports of extinct species of birds being seen keep bird conservationists unwilling to classify a bird as extinct until all possible avenues of discovery are exhausted.

b_orange-bellied_parrot_jpgOrange-bellied Parrott, photo by Chris Tzaros

The species of birds that have never been photographed, but are presumed extant are meticulously illustrated here by renowned wildlife artist Tomasz Cotta. His work is so well defined it appears photographic. The actual photographs of the 515 birds known to be endangered are stunning, partly the result of a prestigious international competition organized by BirdLife International for the publication of this book. The authors have canvassed the four corners of the world to obtain images of the most elusive, sometimes the most fabled birds known to exist. Brilliant tropical colors splash across the pages and dizzying aerial flights add excitement to what could have been a big and beautiful (but unread) coffee table picture book.

But the urgency of the narrative, and the alarming statistical data makes The World’s Rarest Birds a compelling read as well as a gorgeous book. As if in a race against time, the authors address the great efforts underway, and the obstacles against —  loss of habitat, poaching, hostile or indifferent political structure — insuring the survival of endangered bird species. A great sadness is felt reading through the list of birds species known to be extinct, akin to reading through a list of human fatalities.

The book is divided into global geographic areas documenting the species of birds of that region threatened with extinction. Each species is given a detailed description regarding its threatened status, its estimated population, and a map showing its likely occurrence. It is like a colossal version of the classic Peterson’s Field Guide To The Birds, but with the emphasis not on the discovery, but the survival of bird species. With its comprehensive appendixes and thorough index, and some of the most breathtaking pictures of birds ever recorded, this volume is an essential and timely study of conservationism and natural history.

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