Extinct Birds, Second Edition.—Errol Fuller. 2001. First edition 1987. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, New York. 400 pp., 200 color illustrations, 104 black-and-white illustrations. ISBN 0-8014-3954-X. $49.95 (cloth).
This handsomely illustrated volume is a revision of a 1987 edition that provides historical and biological information about recent, extinct birds. Since 1987, more birds have come to be considered extinct, and, unexpectedly, a few species have been found and can be taken out of the extinct category (at least for now). Fuller's book provides a tremendous amount of detail about each of 85 bird species worldwide that have (apparently) gone extinct since 1600. Each account provides information about the history of discovery of a species; its distribution, description, measurements, and biology; and usually the grim facts of its demise. Fuller has done an excellent job of summarizing the earlier literature on each species, some via direct research on original sources, and some clearly obtained from excellent early authoritative works such as Rothschild (1907) or Hachisuka (1953). He has not been comprehensive at surveying or interpreting the more recent literature, especially the modern technological and paleontological advances in our understanding of the distributions, biology, and ecological consequences of the extinction of these birds.
The book begins with a short introduction, and is followed by the species accounts organized in taxonomic groupings (with ratites, doves, parrots, and songbirds having the lion's share of extinct species). Each section begins with a brief introduction that describes extinct subspecies, and rare and endangered forms within the group. Fuller quotes extensively from published and unpublished writings of ornithologists and other historical figures that observed, studied or described the taxa. Ratites are dealt with first, including the extinct elephant birds of Madagascar and moas of New Zealand. Fuller tells some wonderful stories about putative encounters between Westerners and moas long after they were presumed extinct. He speculates about the plumage of moas: perhaps they had colored wattles and fleshy combs like cassowaries, or perhaps were feathered more like emus? However, there is no mention in the section about the published DNA analyses of moa remains, or about the ecological consequences of moa extinctions detailed by paleoecologists. The series of DNA studies by Alan Cooper and Alan Baker (e.g., Cooper et al. 1992, Haddrath and Baker 2001) are either unknown to Fuller or ignored. Yet, these studies more clearly place the moas in a phylogenetic context than the works that Fuller cites, and they provide evidence about the evolutionary relationships and divergence among moa species.
This aspect of the book is a bit troubling—that much of the more recent, relevant literature is not included in the synopses. By my rough assessment, with regard to genetic studies alone, Fuller did not refer to recent (and not so recent) papers that contain DNA data and analyses for moas (Dinornithiformes), an elephant bird (Aepyornis), the Dodo (Raphus cucullatus), Solitaire (Pezophaps solitaria) and Passenger Pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius), the Great Auk (Alca impennis), Hawaiian and Laysan Rails (Porzana sandwichensis and P. palmeri), the Stephen's Island Wren (Xenicus lyalli), the PioPio (Turnagra capensis), and the Huia (Heteralocha acutirostris). These omissions are bothersome, but by no means do they detract from the overall worthiness and usefulness of the book.
Perhaps what makes this book so interesting and different is the ancillary historical information provided about each bird. In particular, I enjoyed reading the biographical accounts and detail about personal characteristics of the ornithologists who discovered or described these birds. Fuller appears to have his champions in the stories (e.g., he idolizes Sir Richard Owen for having identified moas as large ratite birds on the basis of a fragment of bone), and also his evildoers (e.g., the trio of missionaries in New Zealand that tried to wrest credit for the discovery of moas from Owen and a perhaps even more prescient Jewish merchant, Joel S. Polack). The historical detail is quite remarkable, with relevant quotes that bring alive the passionate and often quarrelsome natures of the personalities involved in the discovery and study of these extinct birds.
Because I am most familiar with the extinct Hawaiian birds, I paid especially close attention to the sections detailing the Hawaiian taxa. In general, the historical information is largely complete and accurate, but there are some serious errors of omission and fact. Perhaps the greatest error is that Fuller ignores or is unaware of the extensive fossil studies by Storrs Olson and Helen James (e.g., Olson and James 1991, James and Olson 1991), and their implications for our understanding of extinction and taxonomy of the Hawaiian avifauna. He somehow attributes recent fossil finds to H. Douglas Pratt rather than to the original sources. His listing and taxonomy of Hawaiian honeycreepers is out of date, based largely on a 1979 reference. I could add at least 10 species to his list of only seven historically extinct species. It would also have been valuable to mention that there are many additional species of extinct Hawaiian birds known only from fossils, and that for many of these there is evidence that they survived beyond 1600, even if they were not collected by Western naturalists after Cook's initial visit to the islands in 1778.
Other errors include stating (p. number) that the Hawai‘i ‘O‘o feeds “from the flowers of ochias [sic], lehuas, lobelias and other such plants.” “Lehua” is the Hawaiian name for the flower of the ‘ōhi‘a tree, Metrosideros polymorpha (often listed as ‘ōhi‘a lehua). However, more seriously, Fuller misleads by stating that Hawaiian birds are “horribly vulnerable to mosquitoes” and “the bite of these insects often proves fatal to delicate Hawaiian birds” (p. 331). As far as I know, there is no evidence that bites of mosquitoes directly cause mortality in Hawaiian birds, but there is a great deal of evidence that the diseases these mosquitoes carry (avian malaria [Plasmodium relictum] and pox [Poxvirus]) can cause mortality. Fuller never really makes it clear that these are the lethal factors rather than the mosquito's bite. Later (p. 350) he states that collectors in the 1890s noted that the feet and heads of ‘akialoas (Hemignathus spp.) were “covered with sores, tumours and swellings.” Again, he does not make the connection that these are diagnosed symptoms of infection by avian Poxvirus, and that native birds with these infections today have these same symptoms.
In spite of these errors of biology, Fuller does do very well in detailing the human historical aspects of Hawaiian ornithology. He correctly notes the important roles of Lord Walter Rothschild and Cambridge Professor Alfred Newton in facilitating the study of Hawaiian birds, pointing out that we would have very little information at all about these taxa had not Rothschild and Newton sent their collectors (Palmer, Wilson, and Perkins) to the islands. He also summarizes very nicely the records of collection of these species, and in which museum collections the specimens currently reside.
The book is wonderfully illustrated, with a mix of historical and contemporary paintings by an incredible array of artists. These range from a variety of Old Dutch masters and Audubon to late Victorian painters such as Keulemans and Frohawk, to paintings by living artists such as Julian Hume, Douglas Pratt and Elizabeth Butterworth. Fuller himself is a talented and highly artistic bird painter—his paintings of Great Auks, birds of paradise, and parakeets are particularly nice. In addition, the book is illustrated with often-whimsical photographs of the historical personalities and even of some of the extinct species themselves.
Extinct Birds is a well-written and nicely illustrated book that will be of great interest to ornithologists and conservation biologists, and would appropriately serve the interested amateur. It will colorfully and comprehensively serve as a reminder of the evanescence of nature and species, and of the factors that continue to threaten birds today. It is my likely unrealistic hope that future editions will not be significantly larger than this second edition.