Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

Birder’s Conservation Handbook

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When I was leading bird watching excursions on the west coast and we were looking at a species that was declining in the wild or was endangered, I made a point to mention this fact to my students. It was important, I thought, to impress upon them that the birds around them might not always be there to enjoy, that these birds were in need of protection.

“How do you know they’re declining in the wild?” my students would invariably ask.

I learned such things after years of reading about birds, and by discussing conservation issues on birding email lists and with my ornithological colleagues. Unfortunately, this conservation information is not easily accessible to relocated birders nor to casual or beginning birders. But for the first time ever, conservation information for American birds has been collected into a single volume where it is accessible to everyone. This book, the Birder’s Conservation Handbook: 100 North American Birds At Risk, by Jeffrey Wells (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press; 2007) is exhaustively researched and well-written. This valuable reference is designed to help conservation biologists, ornithologists and birders to understand threats to the continued existence of the rarest and most vulnerable bird species in North America.

This affordable and well-organized paperback is 452 pages long. The introductory sections describe the scope and purpose of the book, the state of avian populations and the state of bird conservation throughout North America, and it details what people can do to protect these species. Because there are more than 500 species of birds in North America that are deemed to be in need of conservation attention by various organizations, Wells had to choose his 100 bird species carefully. To do this, he decided that the birds had to fulfill several criteria: first, they must show a clear population decline of at least 50% during the last 50 years; additionally, they must have a small population size, a small total range, or they must to be facing significant threats to their continued survival.

The “meat” of this book are the 100 species accounts. Each account is between 2-4 pages long, has a lovely pen-and-ink drawing of the bird by one of several excellent avian artists and a map that depicts the species’ year-round, breeding and wintering ranges. Each account begins with a one sentence introduction that briefly summarizes an unusual conservation characteristic for that species, and then the account is divided into several sections; status and distribution, ecology, threats, conservation actions and a bulleted list of conservation needs, and last, each account has a list of relevant references for the interested reader to explore.

This book includes several appendices that define various conservation categories as defined by the top conservation organizations, a list for Hawai’ian and Mexican birds of conservation concern, provide contact information for agencies involved in bird conservation, and has an extensive and easy-to-use index.

My only complaint is this book needs a more robust binding because it will no doubt be subjected to a lot of use! However, this problem is easily addressed by adding this binding yourself (the staff at a good stationary store can help you with this).

Wells’ carefully documented book is a valuable contribution to conservation literature and is a must-have for conservationists, ornithologists and birders.

Many thanks to a reader who wishes to remain anonymous for purchasing this important book for me.

Jeffrey V. Wells is a senior scientist at the Boreal Songbird Initiative, a visiting fellow at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and the former director of bird conservation for the National Audubon Society. A nationally acclaimed bird expert and conservation biologist, he is widely published in both academic and popular settings and is the author of Important Bird Areas in New York State.


  1. #1 Markk
    November 9, 2007

    A new book to look for! Another resource that may be available locally that would help someone answer why they know a particular species is decreasing (or increasing) would be the States breeding bird Atlas (more and more states have one). Obviously the bird has to breed in the state, but often those are the birds where some local action is occurring anyway. Breeding bird atlases have been a recently reinvigorated activity. I have to plug my home state’s – Wisconsin’s atlas is fabulous.

  2. #2 Tabor
    November 10, 2007

    Looks like a good stocking stuffer for the holidays.

  3. #3 The Birdfreak Team
    November 15, 2007

    This truly is a wonderful book to own and share!

    You can listen to a radio interview with the author at the below link that I found quite interesting:

  4. #4 Melissa Gold
    February 20, 2008

    Someday! =(
    Not easy for me to get books yet, but hopefully soon! =)

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