20 April 2014


Although tens of thousands of birders weren't lined up waiting for this release, it's a very interesting collection of information and it touches on a subject most birders, including myself, are probably very much interested in.  "The World's Rarest Birds", by Erik Hirschfeld, Andy Swash, and Robert Still, was published in 2013 by Princeton University Press.  It is 360 pages, hardcover, and costs $45.00.

Ok, before I get into the details of the book, check out this awesome-looking bird:

As you can read, it's a LONG-WHISKERED OWLET.  What you might not know about this bird is that it was first described to science only 37 years ago.  Why so recently?  Well, its range is limited to just a few isolated ridges in the East Andes of Peru.  Furthermore, it prefers the understory of very wet elfin forests with abundant epiphytes, bamboo thickets, scattered palms, and tree ferns at 1,890-2400 meters.  The population is estimated to be between 250-1000 birds worldwide.

If I'm being honest, it was reading about species such as this that was part to blame for me becoming so interested in birds many years ago.  The realization that there are species still out there waiting to be described blew my mind (and still amazes me).

Now fast forward to today and this book review... stepping into the world painted by this book is almost like a childhood dream of mine.  Birds have interested me for a long time but RARE birds truly catapulted my imagination as a kid... and now I'm lucky enough to be reviewing a book focused entirely on the stories of birds like the above owlet.

This isn't a field guide.  This isn't a textbook.  Instead I'd call it a photographic catalog/reference guide.  It's based on the IUCN/BirdLife rankings which, if you're not familiar with them, is a widely used conservation status listing and ranking system used for all sorts of creatures (not just birds).  The introduction of the book has a couple of charts highlighting those ideas:

The below chart would do a better job at describing the thresholds than I would... so give it a look:

Also in the introduction was this somewhat-generic map showing species by country.  I'm not sure why I took a picture of it but hey, it's kinda interesting if you like maps, birds, and bird maps:

As best as I can tell, the book is organized by region.  First comes a couple of broad-topic pages filled with nice photos, maps, and illustrations:

Then the species accounts begin.  You'll notice them off to the right of the below spread.  Each species doesn't exactly get an in-depth review but it does highlight where they were/are found, how many are believed alive, as well as the threats that species faces:

Switching regions, here's a view of the introduction page for Polynesia and Micronesia.  Notice the Tuamotu Sandpiper in the lower right, a species I've wanted to study ever since I started working with shorebirds almost 10 years ago:

The following close-up examples should look familiar to most of us; they're found here in North America:

And hey, John Sterling, nice pic:

Seems kinda lame that I wasn't aware that fewer than 5000 BCPEs exist... although I'm not really sure what I expected:

Switching gears to South America... did I mention that the photography in this book is quite stunning?  These 2-page spreads mark the start of a new region... and also highlight some pretty amazing photos.  You might recognize this as the very rare Marvelous Spatuletail from Peru:

Although I was excited to bird in the Amazon Basin a little in 2005, I was much less excited just now seeing what this map shows:

Sweeeet, more mergus (and definitely not one I've seen).  Give it some time and I bet Tim will have one at Tiscornia:

This map shows a generic migration schematic which is pretty self-explanatory:

... as is this one:

In a way, it's really sad that this book has so many species in it.  However, I've never seen such an impressive collection of information about rare birds.  Although it's more of a coffee table/picture book, it's one you must have if you're interested about the rare birds of the world.  Considering I'm well out of my element with many of these species, I really don't have anything critical to say about the book in general.  Is it one that I'll use often?  Probably not.  However, I'm glad it exists!

If you'd like to learn more about it or order it from Princeton University Press, visit here.

I received a complementary copy from the publisher for review purposes, 
but the viewpoint expressed in this article is entirely my own.