Birds on the brink

Birds on the brink

Australia has long been regarded as the ‘Land of Parrots’, so readers of Remember The Wild will no doubt have an affinity with this group of birds. Whether parrots are a valued part of your life for their colour and often playful behaviour, or they represent pesky nibblers of your backyard fruit trees, few could argue the status of parrots as icons of our landscapes and livelihoods. So it is with great sadness I must report that Vanished and Vanishing Parrots: Profiling Extinct and Endangered Species includes accounts of 10 species from Australia (plus another four sub-species that are treated as species in their own right by many ornithologists e.g. the Western Ground Parrot and the Norfolk Parakeet) in the pages of this comprehensive book.

Although this number is high, in part due to the sheer diversity of species that inhabit our continent, it is also a testament to the many diverse threats parrot populations are experiencing. As you will discover in the pages of Vanished and Vanishing Parrots, Australia is not alone in having the survival of many species of parrot poised on a tenuous knife edge. Other regions, notably Central and South America, have comparable or even higher proportions of their parrot fauna threatened with extinction. In the introduction to this book, author Joseph Forshaw provides an overarching summary of the major threats to parrots around the globe. All of the usual suspects are there – habitat loss, poaching for food and the pet trade, and climate change – and it is fascinating to learn how these threats are more acute in some parts of the world than others.

Image: CSIRO Publishing

If you’re anything like me, the first thing you do when you get your hands on a new natural history book is excitedly flip through all the pictures, looking with wonder at the beauty portrayed in form and colour palette. The plates in Vanished and Vanishing Parrots could have come straight out of Neville Cayley’s seminal work of ornithology, What Bird is That?, exquisitely depicting each species in its natural habitat. What a challenge this must have been for the artist, Frank Knight, because bringing an endangered species to life on the page is no easy feat. You can’t simply go down to the local patch of bush and make sketches of the birds in front of you until you’re happy, as you would with a common species. Endangered species, by virtue of their small population sizes, are usually very difficult to observe in the wild. To make Knight’s work all the more remarkable, this book contains stunning portraits of extinct species that had to be recreated from museum skins and interpretation of the work of other artists. For example, there are only two specimens of the Mascarene Parrot in museums around the world and there is conjecture over the true colour of the plumage of this species. Nevertheless, Knight has used all the available information to create a beautiful impression of what this species might have looked like.

Although bird and nature lovers alike will enjoy leafing through the pages to admire the beautiful, full-page, colour plates, this book is not a coffee table book. The wealth of information presented to document the ecology and threats of the species covered will be too in-depth for perusal by the casual reader. At every stage of this book, readers will discover a detailed and thoroughly referenced scientific account that showcases the author’s knowledge and passion for parrots and their conservation. The text is laced with personal observations from a lifetime of observing parrots across the globe, and this is particularly so for species from Australia, Forshaw’s country of residence. These complement well the findings of the scientific research being cited. Readers will find almost everything they could want to know about the parrots covered by this book, from features of identification and habitat requirements, to details of breeding biology and information on current population status and trajectory. Although the length of individual species accounts may differ, this reflects the limited knowledge available for some species relative to others, rather than reflecting a lack of detail in the text.

Author Joseph Forshaw uses his wealth of personal observations to liven the text, and this is particularly so in the case of Australian species such as the Swift Parrot. Image: Rowan Mott

Forshaw and the production team have made some very good decisions about the presentation of this book. For instance, closely related species that share similar ecological attributes are treated separately in the text, with the shared information detailed in both accounts rather than the more concise option of amalgamating the two species into a single text. Each species account is broken down into the same set of helpful sub-headings. Layout decisions such as these save the reader a lot of flipping backwards and forwards through the pages searching for the relevant information. The distribution maps, too, allow for maximum information to be rapidly gleaned. They feature colour-coded range maps with the colours spanning from yellows through to dark reds dependent on the level of extinction threat experienced by that species (with dark red indicating that the species is extinct and depicting the former range). For species that live in multiple locations, such as many of the parrots of South Pacific islands, these maps are informative for determining which islands the species can still be found on and from which it has been lost.

The one and only time I have seen Orange-bellied Parrots in the wild, my hands were shaking with excitement (hence the blurriness in this image), but once the initial excitement had lessened somewhat, a strange melancholy hit me that this might be the first species I have seen to go from vanishing to vanished. A similar sense of gloom struck me while reading Forshaw and Knight’s work because the outlook for many of the species covered is fairly bleak. Image: Rowan Mott

This book represents a huge and dedicated body of work by both Forshaw and Knight that catalogues the plight of the world’s threatened and extinct parrots. It will find a home on the bookshelf of many a parrot-lover and ornithologist. Although the scientific quality of this book is to be celebrated, the melancholy subject matter should not be forgotten. The title, Vanished and Vanishing Parrots, hints at a certain pessimism for the prospects of some, if not all, of the species included in this book. Yet the wealth of information contained in its pages makes it clear our understanding of the ecology of parrots and the pressures they are facing is improving. This book’s legacy will be in making our current knowledge easily accessible to a wide audience, thereby bettering our chances of saving some of the species it details from extinction. In so doing, perhaps the next edition of this book will be titled Vanished and Formerly Threatened Parrots.

Purchase your copy of Vanished and Vanishing Parrots from CSIRO Publishing.

Banner image courtesy of Rowan Mott.

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