Monday, December 17, 2007

Book Note: Rare Birds Yearbook 2008

I recently received a new publication on threatened bird species, Rare Birds Yearbook 2008, edited by Erik Hirschfeld. The yearbook is the first edition of what is intended as an annual guide to the most endangered birds in the world. Currently BirdLife designates 189 species as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List. Future editions will include more or (hopefully) fewer species as their status changes.

About 80 pages of introductory chapters describe some of the issues and research relevant to extremely rare birds. Short essays profile working ornithologists, highlight a few individual species, and provide information on ecotourism. An essay on migration is particularly interesting as it discusses current research methods, from simple banding studies to satellite telemetry and analysis of isotopes.

The bulk of the Yearbook is comprised of species accounts for each of the 189 Critically Endangered Species. Each account provides as much information as possible about the species's range, threats to its survival, and past and future conservation actions. Many well-studied species, such as the California Condor, receive lengthy accounts of their conservation status. Other accounts, like those for the Negros Fruit-dove and Siau Scops-owl, are very short, reflecting a lack of information. One thing that becomes clear from leafing through the Yearbook is just how much is unknown about many threatened species. Sometimes even the continued existence of a species is in question. One of the most commonly noted "conservation actions required" is to conduct surveys that will establish what population may remain.

Each species account includes at least one accompanying illustration - a photograph when available or a painted illustration otherwise. (The photographs resulted from an online competition.) This in itself is a useful contribution since it can be difficult to find illustrations of rare or newly-discovered species. Full page photographs of threatened species are interspersed throughout the book. These serve to enhance the book's visual appeal, which is considerable.

Appendices list species known to be extinct, world tour guides, and lists of endangered species categorized by country and type of threat. Perusing the latter is interesting in itself. From that list it becomes clear that the major threats to rare birds come from land use decisions. Logging, livestock farming, and crop cultivation contribute the most to species extinctions. After land use, the next most common threat comes from invasive non-native species (like the rats and cats of New Zealand).

A portion of the proceeds from yearbook sales benefit BirdLife's conservation initiatives.