The kakapo, a flightless parrot from New Zealand, is number four on the EDGE Birds List. Photo by: Shane Mcinnes.
The comic dodo, the stately great auk, the passenger pigeon blotting out the skies, the giant moas reigning over New Zealand: human kind has wiped out nearly 200 species of birds in the last five hundred years. Birds we’ll never get back. Now, if we don’t act soon we’ll add many new ones to the list: birds such as the giant ibis, the plains-wanderer, and the crow honeyeater. And these are just a few of the avians that appear today on the long-awaited EDGE list of the world’s 100 strangest and most endangered birds.
“The release of the EDGE Birds list enables us to prioritize our conservation efforts in the face of a mounting list of endangered species,” said Carly Waterman, EDGE Programme Manager. “These one-of-a-kind birds illustrate the incredible diversity that exists in our natural world.”
Conservation by science
The world’s most evolutionary distinct bird: the oilbird. This one was photographed in Humboldt’s Cave, Venezuela. Photo by: Walter Jetz.
Run by the Zoological Society of London, the highly-innovative EDGE program (which stands for Evolutionary Distinct and Globally Endangered) does conservation differently. Instead of focusing on so-called charismatic and well-known species, the EDGE program chooses its focal species based on two scientific data points: evolutionary distinctness and the risk of extinction according to the IUCN Red List. In other words, instead of making conservation a popularity contest, EDGE employs science to determine where limited conservation resources should be focused first.
“Many of the species we’re highlighting are less familiar and are receiving less conservation attention than typical bird conservation priorities,” Waterman told mongabay.com. In fact, about half of the birds on the list have seen little to no attention by conservationists. Like many other species worldwide, birds have been decimated by habitat loss and deforestation, overhunting and overfishing, pollution, and invasive species, while climate change remains a rising threat to the avian family.
The Juan Fernandez firecrown is number 56 on the EDGE Birds List. This brilliant hummingbird is found on a single island in the Juan Fernandez Archipelago. Photo by: Peter Hodum.
The new list is based on years of research by evolutionary biologists, headed by Walter Jetz with Yale University. Jetz and his team created a massive family tree for birds in 2012 and today released a new study in Current Biology outlining evolutionary distinctness within the family. Evolutionary distinctness refers to how far apart an animal lies on the family tree from its relatives, allowing scientists to see which bird species are arguably the more irreplaceable in evolutionary terms.
“To date, conservation has emphasized the number of species, treating all species as equal,” said Jetz. “But not all species are equal in their genetic or geographic rarity.”
The research went further than past studies of evolutionary distinctness by also mapping the geographic ranges of the world’s birds, allowing conservationists another way to look at how imperiled species may be. Employing the website, Map of Life, the researchers have also mapped the birds’ ranges for the public.
According to the new study, the most distinct bird on the planet is the oilbird (Steatornis caripensis). Separated from all other living birds by 80 million years, this South American bird is the only nocturnal, flying, fruit-eating bird on the planet.
“Oilbirds roost and breed in colonies in caves during the day and leave at night to fly to fruiting trees. They can navigate in the dark using echolocation and use smell to locate fruit,” explained Waterman.
The common name ‘oilbird’ comes from the fact that people used to boil baby oilbirds—which are fat and oily—for their oil. However, it’s not on the new EDGE list, because, despite being used as an oil source, it’s not currently endangered.
Meet the EDGE birds
Number one on the EDGE list: the giant ibis. Photo by: Omaliss Keo.
But the new EDGE Birds list—following similar lists for mammals in 2007, amphibians in 2008, and corals in 2011—includes a number of birds just as fascinating as the oilbird. For example there’s the top bird on the list: the giant ibis (Thaumatibis gigantea). Standing up to a meter in height, this strange cryptic bird forages amon Southeast Asia’s rapidly vanishing wetlands and forests.
“It is highly evolutionarily distinct—the only representative of the genus Thaumatibis, which diverged from the rest of the ibises and spoonbills around 50 million years ago,” Waterman said, adding that “only approximately 230 pairs are estimated to survive in northern Cambodia and extreme southern Laos.”
There is also number 34: the little dodo, or tooth-billed pigeon (Didunculus strigirostris), which is one of the world’s closest living relatives to the extinct, and much more famous, dodo. Found on the island of Samoa, this strange, prehistoric-looking bird is also perilously close to extinction.
“There may be fewer than 250 individuals left, although nobody really knows much about them at all,” said Waterman. “We need to determine their conservation status through surveys and potentially use Mataki tracking devices to find out more about their movements and behaviour so that we can better target conservation actions.”
The greater adjutant, number 73 on the list, is found in Central and Southeast Asia. Only 800-1,200 are left due to loss of nesting wetlands. Photo by: Ben Fitzgerald.
Some of the motley crew of 100 avians are already well-known to the global public—like number three, the California condor (Gymnogyps californianus)—while others are barely known—such as number 58, the Uluguru bush-shrike (Malaconotus alius) which is found on a single mountain range in Tanzania.
Of the 100 birds, 12 may already be extinct, says Waterman. This includes number two on the list, the New Caledonian owlet-nightjar (Aegotheles savesi).
“It was first discovered after a bird flew into someone’s bedroom in 1880,” she said. “The species was not seen again for over 100 years until its rediscovery in 1998. Sadly it hasn’t been seen since, and it’s possible that it is now extinct.”
And even these examples barely scratch the surface of the fascinating creatures on the EDGE list. There is number four: the adorable, plump, fruit-eating, flightless kakapo (Strigops habroptilus), famous for attempting to mate with zoologist Mark Carwardine’s head during a wildlife documentary. Then there is number eight: the Philippine eagle, one of the biggest raptors on the planet, that preys on everything from monkeys to monitors. In fact, the Philippines is home to six EDGE birds. This isn’t a coincidence.
“Half of the top 100 EDGE birds occur in the Asia-Pacific region, and about two-thirds of those are island species,” Waterman explained. “This is partly because a large number of ancient evolutionary lineages are represented in this region, but also because it has been the focus of massive human impacts to the environment. Many of the Asia-Pacific island species are ground-dwelling and hence are particularly susceptible to hunting and introduced mammalian predators such as rats and cats, which predate eggs and chicks…Mainland Southeast Asia in particular is an urgent priority for conservation because of its massive human population and associated impacts on biodiversity.”
Jetz says that the list also points conservationists to long-neglected parts of the world.
“These highly distinct and endangered birds often occur far away from places that are species-rich or are already on conservation’s radar,” he noted. “By identifying these top 100 species, we can now focus our efforts on targeted conservation action and better monitoring to help ensure that they are still here for future generations to come.”
Conservation on the ground and in the air
Spoon-billed sandpiper chick. The spoon-billed sandpiper is number 11 on the list having been decimated by hunting and coastal development. Less than 200 pairs survive today. Photo by: Simon Buckell.
Not all the birds are found on land. For example, number 90, Beck’s petrel (Pseudobulweria becki) is one of nine seabirds on the list. Of all the bird families, seabirds are the most imperiled. Beck’s petrel was only rediscovered seven years ago and has yet to be targeted by any conservation program. Waterman says that the 50 or so birds on list, like Beck’s petrel, that have received little to no attention “are the immediate conservation priorities.”
“We aim to initiate conservation action for all of them—this may be through an expedition to find out the status of a poorly-known or possibly extinct species, through setting up a new ZSL project where we have a presence in-country, or through supporting local conservationists,” Waterman told mongabay.com.
Despite its name the crow honeyeater is not a crow. This bizarre species is one of 22 species found only on the island of New Caledonia. It’s number 85 on the EDGE list. Photo by: Richard Fuller/Creative Commons 3.0.
For example, this year the EDGE program plans to support a community reforestation project in the Philippines to help a number of EDGE species, including the Philippine eagle.
“Each pair needs to maintain a territory of 25-50 square miles of forest in order to successfully feed and rear their chick, but much of the forest outside of protected areas has been converted to agriculture or has been destroyed by extreme weather events such as last year’s Typhoon Haiyan,” explained Waterman. “We urgently need to locate key sites for the eagle, and protect and restore the surrounding forest.”
EDGE also plans to train and support young, local conservationists who want to work with EDGE Birds through its Fellowship program.
“We’re also announcing a call for Fellowship applications focusing on poorly-known birds from the top 100,” explained Waterman. “EDGE Fellowships provide funding, training and support over a two-year period for in-country conservationists to set up a project focusing on EDGE species.”
Birds have been around some 160 million years—or 800 times longer than Homo sapiens. They survived the comet that killed off their direct ancestors, the dinosaurs, and a series of ice ages. With nearly 10,000 species today—including a few new species discovered every year—they are the most diverse of the tetrapods (four-legged vertebrates), which includes mammals, amphibians, and reptiles. Birds play major roles in many ecosystems, including seed dispersers, rodent control, and prey for other species. But the ongoing biodiversity crisis could leave many of our most remarkable feathery friends gone for good.
The impressive Philippine eagle is number eight on the list. Photo by: Alain Pascua.
Number 28, the secretarybird is found across sub-Saharan Africa and kills venomous snakes by repeatedly stepping on their heads. Despite being an iconic species and in decline, there are no conservation efforts working specifically to save the species. Photo by: Dries Nys.
The yellow-visaged Egyptian vulture is number 30 on the list. Despite a massive range, from northern Africa to India, this species is listed as Endangered. Photo by: Rajiv Lather.
At number 12 on the list, the northern bald ibis almost went extinct before heavily-managed conservation efforts have brought it back from the brink. Today a few hundred animals survive. Photo by: Heather Burgess.
- Jetz, W., G. H. Thomas, J. B. Joy, K. Hartmann, D. Redding, and A. O. Mooers. 2014. Distribution and conservation of global evolutionary distinctness in birds. Current Biology 24, 1–12, May 5, 2014 http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2014.03.011
(04/01/2014) This year the Hanta virus has already caused 15 deaths in Chile, according to reports in The Santiago Times. It isn’t always fatal—the 15 deaths were of a total of 36 cases over six months—but the symptoms are severe. Those affected experience flu-like symptoms, as well as nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea and trouble breathing. But now Chile is using a novel method to fight the disease: owls.
(03/25/2014) When Europeans first arrived in North America, they exterminated three to five billion passenger pigeons (Ectopistes migratorius) in the short span of a century through a combination of habitat destruction and hunting. In 1914, the last living passenger pigeon perished at the Cincinnati Zoo. Despite the staggering scale of this extinction event, three species of vulture from Southeastern Asia retain the dubious distinction of having had the most rapid population crash of any avian fauna. They might not have begun with numbers as large as the passenger pigeon, but within the space of a single decade, their populations were reduced by 96 to 99 percent.
(03/24/2014) The turkey-sized, noisy, fruit-feasting guans are arguably one of the strangest wildlife sightings in the tropical forests of Central and South America. Ancient animals, these birds are members of the Cracidae family—which also include equally-odd currasows and chachalacas—and are actually distantly related to megapode, or mound-building, birds of Australiasia. A new study in mongabay.com’s open-access journal Tropical Conservation Science looks at a particularly endangered guan: the Cauca gaun (Penelope perspicax).
(03/17/2014) Moas were a diverse group of flightless birds that ruled over New Zealand up to the arrival of humans, the biggest of these mega-birds stood around 3.5 meters (12 feet) with outstretched neck. While the whole moa family—comprised of nine species—vanished shortly after the arrival of people on New Zealand in the 13th Century, scientists have long debated why the big birds went extinct. Some theories contend that the birds were already in decline due to environmental changes or volcanic activity before humans first stepped on New Zealand’s beaches. But a study released today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) finds no evidence of said decline, instead pointing the finger squarely at us.
(03/13/2014) Human-caused climate change is altering the habitat of Adélie penguins (Pygoscelis adeliae). In an article recently published in PLOS ONE, a team of researchers led by Amélie Lescroël from the Centre d’Ecologie Fonctionnelle et Evolutive (CNRS) in France, found that changes in sea-ice content and newly formed icebergs significantly impacted Adélie penguin communities in the Ross Sea.
(02/17/2014) Bilal Habib is closely tracking the flight of a bird. Six times a day he gets its location, within a few hundred feet, through a GPS monitoring device attached to its body. One of the last members of its species, this Great Indian Bustard is part of the latest effort to save its kind from joining the ranks of other extinct birds like the dodo and the passenger pigeon.
(02/10/2014) Cambodia has set aside an area of forest just slightly smaller than Singapore to protect the country’s national bird: the giant ibis (Thaumatibis gigantea). Listed as Critically Endangered by the IUCN Red List, the giant ibis is down to just a few hundred birds.
(02/10/2014) Almost nothing is known about the little dodo, a large, archaic, pigeon-like bird found only on the islands of Samoa. Worse still, this truly bizarre bird is on the verge of extinction, following the fate of its much more famous relative, the dodo bird. Recently, conservationists estimated that fewer than 200 survived on the island and maybe far fewer; frustratingly, sightings of the bird have been almost non-existent in recent years. But conservation efforts were buoyed this December when researchers stumbled on a juvenile little dodo hanging out in a tree. Not only was this an important sighting of a nearly-extinct species, but even more so it proved the species is still successfully breeding. In other words: there is still time to save the species from extinction so long as conservationists are able to raise the funds needed.
(02/10/2014) 365-988 million birds are killed in the U.S. each year in collisions with buildings, estimates a review published last month in the journal The Condor: Ornithological Applications.
(02/04/2014) Surprising clatter cuts through the silence in the snowy forest shortly before sunrise. The powerful clicking sounds like a dropping Ping-Pong ball before culminating in a loud pop resembling the opening of a champagne bottle. This sound is heard clearly and far. Propped on a thick pine tree branch, with a peacock-fanned tale, relaxed wings and head pointing skyward, a western capercaillie is singing. The song terminates with a low-frequency sound similar to scraping a fork to the bottom of a frying pan. It’s exactly during those last few moments of singing that something unusual happens: the male bird goes temporarily deaf. Hence the species’ common name in Bulgarian—deaf bird.