Book Review: The World’s Rarest Birds

The Worlds Rarest Birds Erik Hirschfeld

The World’s Rarest Birds,” by Erik Hirschfeld, Andy Swash, and Robert Still and published by Princeton University Press, was created by BirdLife International to document birds that are listed as Endangered, Critically Endangered, Extinct in the Wild, and Data Deficient on the International Union for Conservation of Nature, or IUCN, Red List.  Today, 571 bird species are classified as critically endangered or endangered, and a further four now exist only in captivity. This book covers more than 500 of these species. To obtain photos of the birds, BirdLife International organized a photography competition, and the results of this are on rich display in this book. More than 536 species have accompanying photos, and another 76 species are illustrated.

The scope of this book is impressive, especially given the tiny populations and remote ranges of many of these species. The book begins with an overview of the various issues, such as agriculture, logging, invasive species, and hunting, that have contributed to the decline in bird populations. Most of the book is filled with short paragraphs about individual species; these are organized by region and each region has a few pages on particular areas that are under threat.

Screenshot World's Rarest Birds 2

The juxtaposition of beautiful photographs with one relentlessly grim fact after another makes this a hard book to read. For example, I learned that after the creation of the Ghatigaon Bustard Sanctuary, displaced miners started relentlessly shooting bustards as an attempt to undermine the rationale for the sanctuary; the Bali Starling is in such demand as a cage bird that the captive breeding center was broken into and most of the birds awaiting release were stolen; and, by one estimate, an albatross dies every 5 minutes from longline fishing.

Screenshot World's Rarest Birds 1

Although there are some attempts at pulling together broader themes, the threats are so great that even discussing relatively concrete topics like wetlands conversion in the migratory path of the Spoon-billed Sandpiper or the crushing toll that diclofenac has taken on old world vultures seemed like impossible tasks that were outside the scope of this book. I would like to see another book by the same authors that goes into more depth on why some of these birds are endangered, such as the links between consumer goods, the legacy of colonialism, the industrialization of the developing world, and the global economy.

One thing that this book did that I thought was brilliant and that more bird books should take advantage of is the inclusion of QR codes under the range maps for each species. The species accounts in the book are terse, but each QR code takes you to BirdLife International’s full species account on their website, which has much more information about the species, including a list of references. Since most birders nowadays have a smartphone as part of their field gear, the ability to link to songs, videos, and an abundance of text seems like an obvious direction for field guides to take.

This is an important book and it’s worth getting for the photography alone.

Available in print, but you can also buy The World’s Rarest Birds as an eBook from iTunes.


The Worlds Rarest Birds Erik Hirschfeld


The World’s Rarest Birds

by Erik Hirschfeld, Andy Swash, and Robert Still.

Princeton University Press. 2013

360 pages.

Buy now at Amazon or iTunes.



Brooke McDonald is a technical editor for an environmental consulting firm in Northern California. In her free time she birds, gardens, plays with her dogs, and researches an obscure Calvinist sect.

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  • Laura Kammermeier February 20, 2014, 08:31

    Thanks for your review, Brooke.

    I think this is a great work that provides incredible value to the ornithological community.

    I often need to gain a quick perspective on rare species – what it looks like, where it’s found, and what is making it rare. I am grateful to the authors for putting this epic volume together.

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