Endangered Birds and Strategies to Save Them

By , Mary S. Cowen, a freelance writer and birdwatcher, lives in Concord, Mass.

HE that hath an ear, let him hear what the bird saith unto the people. Remember the miner's canary that sang as long as the air was safe to breathe, but expired when it wasn't? What threatens birds also threatens people, namely, agricultural and climate changes, ozone depletion, acid rain, sea-level rise, and toxics, say the authors of "Birds in Jeopardy: The Imperiled and Extinct Birds of the United States and Canada, Including Hawaii and Puerto Rico," a comprehensive encyclopedia of endangered and thre atened species.

"Now birds are serving as miner's canaries for us once again, warning us that too many people, profligate consumption, and faulty technologies threaten not just birds but ourselves and all other living things as well," they state in the introduction.

What is being done about it? For one thing, efforts are being made to keep track of which birds are in trouble, where, and why. Then, attempts are being made to figure out how to protect these birds and ourselves, and that is where the big difficulties arise with political, jurisdictional, and financial disputes. Priorities can be very tough to sort out, the authors say.

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"Where the needs of people for food, fuel, shelter, and cash come into conflict with the needs of birds for a place to live, the birds inevitably lose out," seems to be an all too true observation from this book. And yet the authors express hope that people will listen and act.

The genesis of "Birds in Jeopardy" was David Wheye's bird portraits, which were later supplemented by textual information provided by the experts who wrote the well-known "The Birder's Handbook."

Their book discusses the problems and occasional solutions threatened birds are facing in the United States and Canada. For each bird highlighted, the authors include information on the following topics: nesting, food, range, winter habits, degree of jeopardy, hazard listing, and recovery plans.

A map and summary of endangered birds by region are at the end of the book, plus assorted commentaries on imperilment, a list of organizations working on the problems, an extensive bibliography, and an index.

Unofficial lists augment the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the Canadian Wildlife Service lists of imperiled birds, the National Audubon Society's "early warning" Blue List, auxiliary lists of special or local concern, and lists of birds that are already extinct. The authors offer a few caveats as to the political nature of official lists, the difference between species and subspecies, local versus national concerns, and so on.

Special sections on Hawaii and Puerto Rico are also included. Hawaii has had so many extinctions, beginning with the first Polynesian settlement, that it has become "a laboratory for the study of the impact of people on birds," the authors note.

Mexico and the Caribbean are not included, partly to limit the book's reach, and partly because more ecological information is available on the areas of focus. Also, more information is available on legislative influences for conserving imperiled species in these areas.

Embedded in the book's pages is an agenda for action. Specifically, the authors suggest that readers living in the United States write to their congressmen about why the US lags behind the rest of the world on human population problems and that Canadian readers write to their MPs about the decimation of northwestern forests. "Press those politicians," they urge.

In the information about individual birds - the bulk of the book - one finds other, perhaps less politically controversial suggestions for aiding these birds' survival. Plans are already afoot for many species, as detailed in subsections called "Recovery Plans."

Altogether, this is an extremely informative and useful book. But why didn't the lovely portraits show the whole bird and not just the head?

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