Bird Observer: The Birding Journal for New England

Bird Observer

The Birding Journal for New England

October 2017

Vol. 45, No. 5

About Books: A Wing and a Prayer

Mark Lynch

The Rarest Bird in the World: The Search for the Nechisar Nightjar. Vernon R. L. Head. 2015. New York: Pegasus Books LLC.

The Wonder of Birds: What They Tell Us About Ourselves, the World, and a Better Future. Jim Robbins. 2017. New York: Spiegel & Grau.


What is it about the prospect of seeing a rare bird that makes birders’ blood pressure rise and their bodies tremble with excitement? More to the point, why look at birds at all? Why not butterflies or any other creature? What makes birds unique? The following two books offer some answers to these questions.

“The wing was unique” (p. 27, The Rarest Bird in the World)

In July of 1990, an expedition of scientists from Cambridge University conducted some bio-surveys of the isolated and seldom visited Nechisar Plains in Ethiopia. They found:

38 large mammal species including 9 leopard sightings and an important population of Swayne’s hartebeest under threat of extinction; 23 small mammal species including a rodent and a bat species new to Ethiopia; 315 species of birds; 69 butterfly species; 20 dragonfly and damselfly species; 17 reptile species, 3 frog species, and numerous plants. (p. 19)

The expedition also found a solitary bird wing and promptly bagged that specimen, leaving it to be identified later back in Britain. Unfortunately, the examination was delayed because all the specimens were impounded at Addis Ababa due to government bureaucracy. That unique wing and the other specimens didn’t reach the scientists at the British Natural History Museum in Tring until over a year later. It turned out that the solitary wing was from a nightjar species. After considerable consultation with world nightjar experts, it was determined that this was a new species, not previously described. It was named the Nechisar Nightjar, Caprimulgus solala (solus = “only” and ala = “wing”). Of course, no one had yet seen an entire bird, let alone a living one. At that moment, that nightjar entered the “Most Wanted” list of many hard-core listers.

Flash forward to 2009. A live Nechisar Nightjar had still to be tallied on any birder’s list. In that year, renowned African birder Ian Sinclair organized a small expedition to search for this nighthawk and see a live bird. Sinclair invited Vernon R. L. Head, the author of The Rarest Bird in the World, to join him. Head lives in South Africa where he is a conservationist as well as a dedicated birder. He had previously joined Sinclair on other hard-core trips to search for other African rarities. The Rarest Bird in the World is Head’s account of this memorable trip. This book belongs to that beloved category of “ripping great yarns.”

Nonspoiler Alert: There will be no spoilers in this review, and I will not reveal whether Head and Sinclair eventually see the Nechisar Nightjar. That’s the point of the book.

Just getting to the Nechisar Plains is a major undertaking, a nightmare of driving through and up rivers, over frightening rocky hills and valleys, and dealing with potentially violent guards. Despite all this, Head, like many birders, had a grand time ticking off new species along the way. He delighted in finally seeing a Rüppell’s Starling, Head’s thirty-first African starling species. He searched for the fabled Red Sea Cliff Swallow, another species that has been sighted a very few times. Along the way he muses considerably about the nature of birding.

“Birdwatching is always about the land; it’s a holistic endeavor” (p. 47)

“To see a bird we must enter its habitat completely; we must connect emotionally” (p. 42)

Unlike the writing of Ernest Hemingway, whose prose was spare and to the point, Head’s writing is prone to poetic descriptions, digressions, and flights of fancy.

The descent from Addis was subtle; my ears popped as we entered East Africa’s Great Rift Valley, and then there was a slow leveling of the road. Birds—the watching of birds—always connects me with ancient things: the ancient land, the pristine past of living things, the past of people, our origins, the meaning of sentience and sapience. As we descended into the valley, a black and white Pied Crow glided ahead of us, following the road. Against a white cloud its white breast disappeared, detaching the wings and head from the body to drift independently like bits and pieces, like evolutionary parts, reminders of the bones and fossils scattered along the Rift Valley, memories of us, links in our story of dinosaurs and birds, and reminders of constant onward change. (p. 36–7)

What really sets The Rarest Bird in the World apart from other birding books is its last quarter, which is really a separate essay on what Head thinks makes a bird rare, and why we care so much about seeing those rara avis. He recounts the stories of the discovery and ultimate fate of species like the Madagascar Pochard, the Kinglet Cotinga, and the tragic story of the last Po’ouli. Some species, like the Mauritius Parakeet, have been brought back from the very edge of extinction. Other species, like the Ivory-billed Woodpecker and the Pink-headed Duck, are now widely thought to be extinct, but many birders hold a dim hope that they still exist somewhere. Birds like the Bulo Burti Boubou of Somalia appear out of nowhere as if they were a mirage, only to disappear again. Head uses these species’ life histories to think about what the rarest bird in the world might be and also what rarities tell us about our place in the natural world. Does the act of seeing a rarity make it then less rare in the birder’s mind? Do we just tick it, list it, and move on to the next rarity? What does seeing a rarity mean to us?

When we consider a “rarity” in the natural world, we describe life that is interesting and valued because it is uncommon and often tremendously challenging to find and see. The rarity has become of the elite (and of the few). The rarity embodies all that is threatened, and reminds us of a shrinking world. (p. 179)

When we look upon the rare, diversity is confirmed; and we value the common more (hopefully with sensitivity and care). Ours is the gaze of the polymath. It must be a compassionate wise look, a glance in awe, a view in hope, a thorough sighting of the last of a kind–the honestly, delicately, significantly rare. (p. 181)

This year I had the pleasure of interviewing Vernon R. L. Head about this book. I found him a hard-core birder who thinks a lot about what birding means and what birding tells us about our relationship to the natural world. The Rarest Bird in the World is a unique book, part classic gripping birding quest, part meditation on what this quest means. I hope Head continues to write and add his unique voice to the birding literature.


I am in awe of birds. I knew something about them going into this project, yet after more than two years of reading scientific studies, talking with scientists and laymen, and visiting winemakers, zoo-keepers, bird-watchers, falconers, artists, costume designers, Native Americans, and animal activists, I discovered that these feathered creatures play an almost unfathomably wide range of roles in the human enterprise. (p. xvi, The Wonder of Birds)

Jim Robbins is a writer and journalist whose pieces have appeared in magazines including Audubon, Smithsonian, and Scientific American. He is not a hard-core birder by any stretch, and he hunts birds occasionally, something he discusses in this book. His real interest is ethno-ornithology, or how birds and human societies interact and what this tells us about how we think about nature.

The Wonder of Birds covers a lot of ground and at times can seem somewhat scattershot in its focus. There are chapters about the evolution of flight, bird intelligence, and the social structure of certain species, as well as the material uses humans have found for birds. This includes eating birds and their eggs, using their feathers for decoration, and mining cormorant guano as fertilizer. Any one of these chapters could be expanded into an entire book. Although Robbins focuses often on historical accounts and the findings of well-known ornithologists and other scientists, some sections also “push the boundaries of science.” (p. xvii)

One such example appears in a fascinating chapter on the dynamics of dense bird flocks. Here Robbins mentions an idea of “quantum biologists” that certain quantum effects aid birds in navigation:

More recently, though, some researchers have come to believe that quantum effects may lie behind birds’ ability to make their way across the globe. Quantum phenomena are so weird that Albert Einstein called one type “spooky action a distance.” (p. 208)

This is not the place to give the reader a crash course in quantum physics. All I can say is that over the decades I have interviewed a number of theoretical physicists who know quantum theory much better than I do. One thing that raises their ire is non-physicists, artists, and writers using terms from quantum theory without having a deep understanding of the actual science. Applying “quantum theory” to bird migration is a fun idea to consider but really is pretty “fringe-y” thinking.

Some of the research Robbins describes is very controversial. Stephen Emlen of Cornell University has studied the extended family structures of White-fronted Bee-eaters in Kenya. In this species there can be extended stepfamilies, sometimes referred to as “helpers at the nest,” that assist in raising the young. From his research Emlen has derived fifteen evolutionary principles about stepfamilies “which he believes should apply to all families.” (p. 198) One of these principles, which has “engendered the most controversy” (p. 198) is that stepparents are less invested in their stepchildren than in their biological children—the so-called “Cinderella effect.” (p. 198)

“Perhaps the most controversial finding is that bee-eater stepparents are more likely to have sexual relations with their stepchildren.” (p. 198)

In fairness to Emlen, I haven’t personally read his research, only Robbins’ account of it. But applying observations of one group of animals to human behavior is certainly entering very murky waters.

When he revealed his findings, “I got hate mail from people that said things like ‘I grew up with a stepfather and I wasn’t abused,’” Emlen says. “And that’s not what I am saying. I am saying abuse is predicted to happen more often, but the vast, vast, vast majority of stepfathers form close bonds with their stepchildren and do fine.” (p.198–9)

Most of The Wonder of Birds remains on more solid footing. There is a wonderful account of Rodney Stotts, a former drug dealer who did time. He lives in a low-income area outside Washington D.C. and was what is sometimes labeled an “at risk youth.” But he discovered falconry, and flying those birds of prey brought him peace and gave him a real purpose. Now he teaches other young adults in the area about conservation and falconry.

What really interests Robbins is turning around what writer Daniel Quinn calls “The Great Forgetting.” Many humans have forgotten their intricate and meaningful relationship with the natural world and live in societies that recklessly abuse the environment and ultimately lead to global climate change.

One small section of The Wonder of Birds will really catch the attention of any birder who professes to care about the fate of the planet yet drives far and wide to chase rarities for a personal list, burning much fossil fuel en route.

When I put the question of why birds compel us to watch them to Janis Dickinson, an ornithologist at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology who has studied the issue, I got a whopper of an existential answer that I didn’t expect. It had to do with fear. Dickinson’s lab researches various bird-related topics, from cooperative breeding among the feathered set to the role of citizen scientists in ornithology. She has also looked into the role birds play in the human dimensions of climate change and in 2009 published a paper on the subject. She believes that the denial of climate change in the face of such overwhelming scientific evidence is driven by a deeply rooted fear of our own personal annihilation. Faced with the possibility of a massive global catastrophe, people’s own fear of death begins to surface and causes extreme discomfort. By denying the reality of catastrophic climate change, they keep their personal fears at bay. I was taken aback when I realized Dickinson’s argument, but as I did more research I realized that the idea lies at the very heart of who we are as a species, and moreover, might provide answers not only to why we love birds but to other fundamental questions about the natural world and why we seem hell-bent on destroying it. (p. 251)

When I asked Robbins about this small section of The Wonder of Birds, he responded that it was at the heart of what the book is really about. How do we look at birds and nature in general? What do we get from that relationship, and how can we begin a “Great Remembering.” The Wonder of Birds is a loose compendium of stories, histories, and scientific findings about birds and humans. There are many digressions, most of them interesting, though others are definitely “earthy-crunchy.” It’s an entertaining contribution to the body of literature that looks at our intimate and conflicted relationship with the natural world.

Links to my interviews to both the authors from the WICN website:

Date: Thursday, March 2, 2017
URL: http://www.wicn.org/podcasts/audio/vernon-r-l-head-rarest-bird-world
Tonight’s guest on Inquiry is VERNON R.L.HEAD. He is an award-winning architect  and Chairman of BirdLife South Africa, one of Africa’s biggest and most influential conservation organization. His new book is THE RAREST BIRD IN THE WORLD: THE SEARCH FOR THE NECHISAR NIGHTJAR. It is a ripping yard of his search in Ethiopia for  a bird that was only previously known by a wing found by scientists in 1990.

Date: Wednesday, July 19, 2017
URL: http://www.wicn.org/podcasts/audio/jim-robbins-wonder-birds
Birds are all around us. Cultures around the world have eaten them and used their feathers as decorations, but can birds teach us something important about ourselves?  Tonight on Inquiry we speak with writer JIM ROBBINS about his new book THE WONDER OF BIRDS: WHAT THEY TELL US ABOUT OURSELVES, THE WORLD, AND A BETTER FUTURE. Tune in and learn about what birds can tell us about the health of our planet and what birds can show us about family and endurance.

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