Book Review. Rare Birds: The Extraordinary Tale of the Bermuda Petrel and the Man who brought it back from Extinction

Gehrman, Elizabeth 2012.  Rare Birds:  The Extraordinary Tale of the Bermuda Petrel and the Man who brought it back from Extinction.  Boston: Beacon Press.  ISBN 978-0-8070-1076-1.  240 pp.  Hard cover.  USD 26.95.

Thirty years ago in August 1982 I attended the XVIII World Conference of the International Council for Bird Preservation (now BirdLife International) in Cambridge, UK.  The conference included a symposium on island management where among many others I met David Wingate, who presented a paper on his efforts to save the Bermuda Petrel or Cahow Pterodroma cahow and to revegetate the denuded Bermudan island of Nonsuch.  Our paths have not crossed again over the last three decades and I have never visited Bermuda nor seen a Cahow, although I do well remember both a productive and a convivial conference held within King's College.

David and "his" bird are now the subject of a biography, written by Elizabeth Gerhman and published by Beacon Press.

The story of David's life intertwined chapter by chapter with that of the Cahow makes for compelling reading and one I can recommend to all who are involved with or just interested in the conservation of seabirds and their breeding islands.  Because of David's single-minded determination to not let the Cahow go extinct the species has over the years grown in numbers from a handful to a few hundred.  Now that David is in well-earned retirement it is good to know that others, notably Jeremy Madeiros with help and advice from Australians Nicholas Carlile and David Priddel, have taken up the work with a similar passion - so much so that Cahows are once more breeding on Nonsuch, the desert island that David Wingate's vision and years of toil saw revegetated as a living museum.

I have only a few minor quibbles of an otherwise well-written and edited account.  The term Procellariiformes (the scientific name for the tubenose order of birds) by convention is not italicized as it is in the book.  Only genus and species names are italicized (as in Pterodroma cahow).  Page 214 has "wing-cord" when it should of course be wing chord, defined as an "anatomical measurement of the wing, bent at a 90 degree angle, from the most prominent point of the wrist joint to the most prominent point of the longest primary feather"(click here).  I had to Google the unfamiliar (to me) "Whole Foods" to find out it is a chain of stores selling "natural and organic products" in three northern hemisphere countries.  Lastly, it is a pity there are no photographs in the book, so the reader has to be satisfied with the three pics on the paper cover of David Wingate, a Cahow downy chick and a view of Nonsuch Island.

Rare Birds brings to mind a somewhat similar book by Neville Peat, "Seabird Genius" - the biography of Lance Richdale who did so much to save the Northern Royal Albatrosses Diomedea sanfordi of Taiaroa Head in New Zealand (click here for a review).

So what other iconic heroes of seabird conservation deserve their own biography?  I am sure there are quite a few but one I would love to read would be the story of Hiroshi Hasegawa, who over a lifetime career (just like David Wingate) has worked so hard, and successfully, to bring the Short-tailed Albatross Phoebastria albatrus of Torishima back from the edge of extinction.  May I recommend the author of Rare Birds considers a trip to Japan for her next book?  Hasegewa-san deserves the sympathetic and sensitive biographer that Rare Birds shows Elizabeth Gehrman to be.


Carlile, N., Priddel, D. & Madeiros, J. 2012.  Establishment of a new,secure colony of Endangered Bermuda Petrel Pterodroma cahow by translocation of near-fledged nestlings. Bird Conservation International 22: 46-58.

Carlile, N., Priddel, D., Zino, F., Natividad, C. & Wingate, D.B. 2003.  A review of four successful recovery programmes for threatened, sub-tropical petrels.  Marine Ornithology 31: 185-192.

Madeiros, J., Carlile, N. & Priddel, D. 2012.  Breeding biology and population increase of the Endangered Bermuda Petrel Pterodroma cahow.  Bird Conservation International 22: 34-45.

Moors, P.J. (Ed.) 1985.  Conservation of island birds.  Case studies for the management of threatened island species.  International Council for Bird Preservation Technical Publication 3: 1-271.

Peat, N. 2011. Seabird Genius. The Story of L.E. Richdale, the Royal Albatross, and the Yellow-eyed Penguin.  Dunedin: Otago University Press.  288 pp.

Wingate, D. 1985.  The restoration of Nonsuch Island as a living museum of Bermuda's pre-colonial terrestrial biome.  International Council for Bird Preservation Technical Publication 3: 225-238.

With thanks to Cailin Donoghue, Beacon Press.

John Cooper, ACAP Information Officer, 6 December 2012

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