This is the first comprehensive review of the hundreds of bird species and subspecies that have become extinct over the last 1,000 years of habitat degradation, over-hunting and rat introduction. Covering both familiar icons of extinction as well as more obscure birds, some known from just one specimen or from traveller's tales, the book also looks at hundreds of species from the subfossil record - birds that disappeared without ever being recorded.
Julian Hume and Michael Walters recreate these lost birds in stunning detail, bringing together an up-to-date review of the literature for every species. From Great Auks, Carolina Parakeets and Dodos to the amazing yet completely vanished bird radiations of Hawaii and New Zealand, via rafts of extinctions in the Pacific and elsewhere, this book is both a sumptuous reference and an amazing testament to humanity's impact on birds. A direct replacement for Greenway's seminal 1958 title "Extinct and Vanishing Birds", this book will be the standard reference on the subject for generations to come.
"Which of us has not been fascinated at some time or another by stories of extinct birds? Who has never wondered what it would have been like to see a Moa Dinornis sp., or fantasised about finding a Great Auk Pinguinus impennis? Much has been written on the subject of bird extinctions and much, much more on species teetering on (or creeping ever closer to) the brink of extinction. But while it has sometimes been possible to find out a great deal about some lost birds (the Great Auk is a case in point), it has been a lot less easy to track down others or to get a modern, comprehensive overview of the whole subject. This is not to denigrate Errol Fuller’s Extinct Birds (OUP, 2000), which is very good, but in his own words, in the foreword to the present work, it is ‘something of a romantic ramble through the subject’ and somewhat incomplete. James Greenway Jr.’s excellent Extinct and Vanishing Birds of the World has long been a standard work, but it too falls a little short – not least because it is now more than 40 years old.
Julian Hume and Michael Walters have stepped into the breech and more than filled it with what I can only describe as a superb work of ornithological scholarship which will surely become the standard point of first reference for years to come. They have broken new ground in going back 700 years, rather than the 400 or so of earlier authors, and by including sub-fossil remains. Another important consideration is that they have moved beyond species and considered subspecies too, so that their statistics refer to taxa rather than species alone – you need not venture far into the text to find ample justification for this treatment. This is perhaps the point to quote the authors on their sources – which they describe, inter alia, as ‘sometimes spectacularly confused literature’. All praise to them for doing so well; the reference list runs to 69 pages!
The major part of the book covers nearly 500 taxa, the main contributors to the long, sad list being ducks and geese (Anatidae, 29 taxa), rails and their allies (Rallidae, 63), pigeons and doves (Columbidae, 50) and parrots and their ilk (Psittacidae, 33). The individual accounts vary in detail, depending on what is known – in some cases it is not much. There are succinct summaries for the well-known cases, for example the Dodo Raphus cucullatus, the Great Auk and the Passenger Pigeon Ectopistes migratorius, and enough on many other species to keep you interested for hours on end. For instance, have you ever heard of the Consumed Megapode Megapodius alimentum (which was apparently just that), or the gigantic Haast’s Eagle Harpagornis moorei, by far the largest eagle ever? The unfortunate Wake Island Rail Gallirallus wakensis is here too – probably also eaten into extinction by starving Japanese troops during World War 2. A second, much shorter section dicusses 40 ‘hypothetical birds’; species which are known from a unique type or just a few specimens, or from accounts or illustrations of doubtful validity. Seven taxa of birds of paradise (Paradisaeidae) are good examples. Some of these may be valid, others not.
The book concludes with three fascinating appendices. Appendix 1, covering 30 ‘data deficient’ taxa, is self-explanatory. These are birds which are ‘difficult’ to assess for various reasons (skulking, nocturnal, occupying remote areas, etc.), and which may or may not be extant. Not surprisingly, perhaps, five are owls (Strigidae) and four are nightjars (Caprimulgidae). The list also includes the famously elusive Red Sea Swallow Petrochelidon perdita. Appendix 2 is an annotated list of 470 taxa which are considered ‘doubtful and invalid’. This is where their existence is down to hearsay, inadequate descriptions and illustrations, lost specimens and what are clearly errors of identification. Nonetheless, we are reminded that some of these accounts might just provide authentic evidence of a genuine lost species. No fewer than 113 parrots are listed here, together with 90 hummingbirds (Trochilidae). Another bird which appears is Cox’s Sandpiper Calidris paramelanotos, which intrigued many of us back in the 1980s until its hybrid identity was established. I was also intrigued by the mysterious European White Eagle Aquila alba, reputedly seen in the Alps and the Rhine area in the eighteenth century; and slightly disappointed that the wonderfully named Bastard King Parrot Aprosmictus insignissimus is a ‘doubtful taxon’. It would have been even better to have been able to tick The Conure That Never Was Pyrrhura beryllina.
The remarkable scope of this comprehensive account ends at Appendix 3, which deals with rediscovered taxa, listing 35 found prior to 1990 and giving details for 62 found subsequently. There is hope, perhaps, for some of the birds in this final section, as we have to continue to believe that there must be for a great many more which are surely candidates for future revisions of this book. It remains very sad, however, that so much of Extinct Birds is about what has been irretrievably lost and, as the authors point out strongly and with deep feeling, that so much has been down to the mistakes of Homo sapiens – some accidental or unintentional, but others quite the reverse. The well-known histories of island endemics alone show how catastrophic some of these mistakes have been. I hope that this very fine book will not only stand as a major work of reference, but also serve to remind us that a great deal remains to be done, not least in filling the many gaps in our present knowledge."
- Mike Everett, http://www.britishbirds.co.uk
Julian Hume is an author and artist at the Natural History Museum in Tring, UK, with a long record of describing species new to science. An expert on the extinct birds of the Indian Ocean, he has dug for Dodos on Mauritius, searched for flightless pigeons on the Comoros, and undertaken many other research expeditions around the world.
Now retired, Michael Walters is the former curator of the egg collections at Tring.
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