A good thermometer for how poorly humans take care of the Earth is how many species have disappeared because of our parasitic “development” of its continents. Big and small, inhabitants of land, air and sea, countless species wildlife have met with an untimely demise simply because of our quest to conquer the world rather than to be good stewards of it.
The disappearances have been subtle and many go unnoticed, like the sudden extinguishing of a single candle in a room full of thousands. But as climate change and human development continue to accelerate at break-neck speeds, the growing darkness is becoming easier to detect.
The World’s Rarest Birds is a new book that marks a monumental effort to elevate the visibility of bird conservation efforts worldwide. The story of the making and publication of this book is a testament to the severity of the issue. Originally slated for publication in 2012, the book had to be completely revised to account for the release of a major update to the list of threatened birds by BirdLife International, on behalf of the International Union for Conservation of Nature, in June 2012.
The good news is that seven species were removed from the list thanks to conservation efforts or new population discoveries, but the bad news is 23 species had to be added.
“Birds provide a range of ‘services’ that often go uncosted, and are therefore overlooked,” write authors Erik Hirschfeld, Andy Swash and Robert Still. Some have co-evolved to be the main or exclusive pollinators of some plants and trees. Others control populations of pests such as worms, rats and mice, or feed on animal carcasses, offal and other wastes left behind by carnivores.
The bulk of The World’s Rarest Birds is composed of region-by-region snapshots of conservation, threats, and, of course, the species at risk. Call-out sections reveal some of the “Threatened Bird Hotspots” in each region and the “Conservation Challenges” faced by individual species. What follows is a comprehensive catalogue of the most threatened birds. Photographs and paintings of beautiful birds share space with scary figures like “Population <50”.
The images, while strikingly beautiful, are also haunting. To celebrate the book, and the vital conservation work it endorses, we’ve selected several of the rarest species on the brink of extinction. Without a change in the way we view and utilize natural resources, books like this one might be the last chance future generations have to enjoy these birds’ beauty.
Amber Mountain Rock Thrush (Africa)
This small, iridescent sunbird is found only in Kenya and Tanzania, where it feeds on nectar, insects and arthropods. Forest clearance is the main threat to its survival, although it can exist, at least temporarily, in nearby degraded habitats. “The Arabuko-Sokoke Forest in Kenya is now the focus of a project to promote long-term forest conservation, and remains the most reliable site for the species,” write the authors.
Red-and-blue Lory (Asia)
This striking parrot is now confined to the Talaud Islands, almost exclusively on Karakeland, Indonesia. “Until recently, 1,000-2,000 birds a year were being exported, mostly illegally, for the cage bird trade. Stricter export controls are beginning to reduce losses but habitat destruction, the use of pesticides, and the transmission of diseases from cage birds remain ongoing threats,” write the authors.
Bare-necked Umbrellabird (Central America)
This strange-looking bird lives high on the Caribbean slop of mountains in Costa Rica and Panama, where males inflate their bare, red-skinned neck as part of the mating ritual. “The population is declining rapidly due to habitat loss and degradation, especially in its lowland range, due to conversion to agriculture, the expansion of cattle-ranches and logging,” write the authors.
Lear’s Macaw (South America)
It was 1978 before an active wild population of these macaws was found. It requires large stands of a special type of palm, the nuts of which are its favorite food, in order to survive. “Major threats include habitat loss due to the impact of livestock grazing and illegal trapping. Birds are occasionally persecuted for foraging on maize crops and may sometimes be hunted,” explain the authors.
California Condor (North America)
This huge raptor once roamed the skies from British Columbia to Baja, California. During the 20th century, however, population numbers became so low that the last remaining individuals were taken into captivity in 1987. “The decline is principally attributed to persecution and the accidental ingestion of lead from gunshot in carcasses,” write the authors. “An intensive conservation program…has been successful and led to the establishment of a tiny but increasing wild population in California and Arizona/Utah.”