State-of-the-Art Conservation Literature


Conserving Bird Biodiversity: General Principles and their Application. Norris, K., and D. J. Pain , editors . 2002 . Cambridge University Press , New York . Conservation Biology Series 7. 350 pp. $100.000. (hardcover) ISBN 0-521-78340-2 . $38.00 (paperback). ISBN 0-521-78949-4.

Conserving Bird Biodiversity is the seventh volume in Cambridge University Press's series on conservation biology. Most of the previous volumes in the series have addressed general themes such as the genetics, demography, and viability of fragmented populations, behavior and conservation, or the conservation of exploited species. Because conservation biology is intrinsically such a broad and interdisciplinary field, the challenge is to narrow the scope to highlight specific concepts and applications in sufficient depth. This book achieves that by concentrating on a single taxon, birds. Birds are a particularly effective focus because, compared with other groups of animals and plants, so much is already known about their phylogenetic relationships, distribution, abundance, and ecology, and because of the role they can play as flagship and umbrella species.

Edited by Ken Norris ( University of Reading ) and Deborah J. Pain ( Royal Society for the Protection of Birds ), the book consists of 12 chapters on carefully selected topics authored by specialists. The topics follow the general organization of a conservation biology textbook, with introductory chapters defining biodiversity, marshaling the arguments for protecting species, and discussing biological and political strategies for safeguarding critical habitats. However, this is not merely a rehash of familiar material. Several features make this book especially valuable for students in applied ecology, for professional ornithologists, and for managers and decision-makers concerned with protecting bird populations.

The book's main aim is to draw explicit connections between general principles and specific problems of avian conservation. The editors set out to determine what sort of research and monitoring skills are needed and how these can be transferred to the people who need them. A repeated theme is the importance of learning how to pose appropriate questions and design projects that will result in effective conservation action. Given that there are more than 9000 species of birds occupying virtually every habitat on Earth and that their conservation problems must be addressed in the context of distinct ecological, political, and economic situations, this book makes no attempt to propose one-size-fits-all solutions. Yet it also does not stop at vague generalities. Decision-makers and wildlife biologists will find conceptual tools and diverse examples of how they have been and might be applied in the real world.

The editors have done an excellent job of minimizing overlap between chapters. The book proceeds logically and smoothly as it builds a thorough picture of avian conservation biology. There are relatively few figures and tables, but the clear writing and systematic organization of the text make the information easily accessible. The literature citations are exceptionally rich and recent—there are nearly 1000 references, about one-third of which were published after 1998. Most of the book's 19 authors hail from the United Kingdom ( 11 ) or its former Old World colonies ( 5 ); only two are from west of the Atlantic, two are from the Netherlands, and none are from Asia. As a result, readers from North America and Latin America will find their perspectives expanded by the emphasis on case studies from Africa, Australia, and New Zealand. A shortcoming of the Old World emphasis is that insufficient attention is paid to conservation issues of Central and South America, the regions with the greatest avian species richness in the world. Voices of ornithologists from developing countries are also largely unrepresented. The sole exception is Bennun's plea from Kenya to build capacity by involving local students in research projects ( “The Interface Between Research, Education and Training” ), although he missed an opportunity to make that plea more convincing by including an African student as co-author.

Most of the chapters summarize in detail what is known about particular aspects of avian conservation without attempting to present novel empirical or theoretical research. Overviews of such topics as “Mapping and Monitoring Bird Populations” ( Underhill & Gibbons ) and “Avian Conservation Policies and Programmes” ( Boere & Rubec ) pull together information from disparate literature sources, including unpublished governmental private reports, which would otherwise be difficult to access. They also remind us of the debt we owe to nongovernmental organizations, such as Partners in Flight, BirdLife International, and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, for their tireless and creative work to save bird populations and their habitats. Mace and Collar ( “Priority-Setting in Species Conservation” ) discuss how hard decisions are made in the real world and make a plea for establishing consensus among conservation organizations and agencies about criteria and rules for establishing priorities for protecting species and habitats. Balmford (“Selecting Sites for Conservation”) presents an effective illustration of the benefits of using rarity-based complementarity algorithms in choosing sites to protect and cautions against assuming that the geographical distribution of biodiversity is congruent between birds and other taxa. Pain and Donald ( “Outside the Reserve: Pandemic Threats to Bird Biodiversity” ) make the point that although conservation action is most effective at local scales, the global context and long-term perspectives are also critical. Norris and Stillman ( “Predicting the Impact of Environmental Change” ) and Green ( “Diagnosing Causes of Population Declines and Selecting Remedial Action” ) explore the value and shortcomings of demographic and behavior-based models and population viability analysis in the face of uncertainty and incomplete biological information.

This book covers so much ground that it would be ideal as the centerpiece for a semester-long course in conservation biology for graduate students or advanced undergraduates, supplemented by selected readings from the primary literature. Bell and Merton's chapter, “Critically Endangered Bird Populations and Their Management,” could by itself provide the structure for a seminar on managing endangered birds. Case histories of six distinct species are summarized in boxes that describe causes of declines, local and global population trends, management approaches, and future threats.

One of Bell and Merton's case histories illustrates why New Zealand conservation biologists are leaders in the close-order management of endangered birds. The Kakapo ( Strigops habroptilus ), a flightless parrot, has been inching its way toward extinction because of introduced mammalian predators ( chiefly cats, stoats, and rats ), competing herbivores, habitat loss, and commercial collecting. After the last remaining natural population of Kakapos was translocated to three cat-free islands, adult mortality declined to <2% per year. The population appeared to stabilize once breeding females were provided supplementary food, individual nests were protected from rats, and nests and birds were intensely monitored with radiotransmitters, automatic scales, predator alarm systems, and infrared video cameras. Alarmingly, however, none of the aging females laid eggs between 1998 and 2001. Speculating that breeding was triggered by mast-fruiting of rimu ( Dacrydium cypressinum), wildlife biologists transferred all adult females to an island where the trees were in fruit and a massive campaign had eradicated rats and possums. The gamble paid off: as of 2002, the 21 surviving females had laid 47 eggs.

The editors, authors, and publishers of Conserving Bird Biodiversity are to be commended for their synthesis of the state of the art of avian conservation biology. I hope this book will serve as a model for future taxon-specific works on the conservation of amphibians, fishes, insects, and other animals and plants.