American Birding Podcast



Rare Birds

A review by Eric Salzman

Atlas of Rare Birds, by Dominic Couzens

MIT Press, 2010

240 pages, $29.95—hardcover 

ABA Sales / Buteo Books 13366

The World’s Rarest Birds, by Erik Hirschfeld, Andy Swash, and Robert Still

Princeton University Press, 2013

360 pages, $45.00—hardcover 

ABA Sales / Buteo Books 13699

Common, everyday field guides try to portray the most common, everyday birds (along with the occasional local rarity); that makes sense for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is that it helps sell a lot of books.

A volume of rare birds, on the other hand, is bound, almost by definition, to be itself a rarity, a special publication for connoisseurs of rare things, like expensive fine wines or limited-edition publications. I remember a 1990 volume out of New Zealand (of all places) in which 100 depictions of 50 rarae aves by one Blake Twigden were bound up in a leather-bound edition of such luxuriousness (and cost) as to dwarf the pictures and the subject matter. Many, perhaps most of the birds were painted from specimens; certainly, few readers in those days ever expected to see very many of them alive and in the wild.Screen Shot 2013-06-21 at 1.15.39 PM

imes have changed. Twenty years later, Dominic Couzens selected his own 50 rarities, many (if not most) of which he has undoubtedly seen himself. The title Atlas of Rare Birds is misleading; the book is organized not geographically, but conceptually, with five birds assigned to each of ten categories:Back From the Brink, Island Living, Oddball Threats, Problems
of Migrants, Unexpected Calamities, Lost Causes, Controversies, Recent
Discoveries, Rediscoveries, and The Unknowns. That takes him from the California Condor to the Ivory-billed Woodpecker while circling the globe in between. Couzens has enough room to spread out that he can devote two to four pages to the story of each of these sought-after creatures. Still, there are only 50 and, while each one is worthy, there are more rarities gone  missing than accounted for.

he World’s Rarest Birds
is actually the volume that deserves the title of
Atlas. This new and comprehensive work is organized on strictly geographic
principles. Relying on the IUCN Red List, it covers all 590 species rated in that list as Endangered or Critically Endangered, all laid out in a series of
Regional Directories: Europe and the Middle East, Asia, Australasia, Oceanic Islands, the Caribbean, North and Central America, and South America.

Screen Shot 2013-06-21 at 1.19.00 PMEach of these geographic sections is introduced by essays on threatened hotspots and regional conservation challenges. Every species gets a medium-size illustration (515 of them with good color photographs, the others with paintings), and each is given its own range map and a tight, informative paragraph based on data from Birdlife International.

The book’s front matter presents a very useful compendium of the major threats facing birds worldwide. Additional sections are devoted to extinct species, to globally threatened bird families, and to species where data are inadequate.

No one person has seen all the birds included here, but there are birders out there who have logged a very high number of them (even I have seen a few dozen). If you do any sort of
world birding, or even just dream about it, this is nothing short of scripture.

– Eric Salzman is a composer, writer, and birder, and the former review editor at Birding. Labor Records/Naxos is re-issuing “The Nude Paper Sermon” and the four works that constitute the “Wiretap” album, and his opera “Big Jim & the Small-time Investors” is scheduled for production in 2014. Salzman birds from the south shore of Long Island.

Recommended citation:

Salzman, E. 2013. Rare Birds [a review of The World’s Rarest Birds, by Erik Hirshfeld, Andy Swash, and Robert Still, and of Atlas of Rare Birds, by Dominic Couzens]. Birding 45(4):66.