In October 2000, the last wild Spix's macaw, a solitary male, disappeared from its patch of forest in Brazil. The species is not, technically, extinct: a few dozen individual birds survive in zoos and in the aviaries of private collectors, but it is now in the realm of the undead, where it will remain until either the last individual dies or - less likely - the species is resurrected in a successful reintroduction to the wild. In a hundred years' time, it will almost certainly join the entries in a much larger edition of Extinct Birds. Errol Fuller's book recounts the story of the eighty or so bird species known to have been extinguished during recorded history, in every case by human beings or their proxies - rats, cats, dogs, pigs and other introduced animals, plants and microbes. At current rates, the 2101 edition will run to 15 volumes - and what has happened to birds provides a good yardstick for estimating the chances of other organisms. Because they are conspicuous, their extinction is better documented than that of most other creatures. We can be reasonably confident that nearly all the bird species that have survived until the 21st century have been described and classified, something that can't be claimed for any other animal group (except perhaps mammals).
LRB 23 August 2001 | PDF Download