Brooks, TM and Collar, NJ and Green, RE and Marsden, SJ and Pain, DJ, The science of bird conservation, Bird Conservation International, 18, (Supplement) pp. S2-S12. ISSN 0959-2709 (2008) [Refereed Article]
Colin Bibby (1948–2004) was the quintessential bird conservation biologist. Over his career, he
served as lead scientist at two of the world’s largest bird conservation organizations, the Royal
Society for the Protection of Birds, and BirdLife International. His contributions encompassed
detailed autecological studies of rare bird species such as the Dartford Warbler Sylvia undata
(e.g. Bibby 1978) and Fuerteventura Stonechat Saxicola dacotiae (e.g. Bibby and Hill 1987), a
sweeping synthesis of the techniques of bird conservation science (Bibby et al. 1992, 2000), and
pioneering contributions in conservation planning such as the Endemic Bird Areas concept (ICBP
This memorial volume of Bird Conservation International seeks to reflect the breadth of
Colin’s legacy by presenting papers illustrating the role of ornithological science in saving
threatened birds, reviews of novel field and analytical techniques, and syntheses of progress with
the development of bird conservation strategies. In the first category, we include studies of
albatrosses (Croxall et al.), South Asian vultures (Pain et al.), migratory species (Kirby et al.),
and the Northern Bald Ibis Geronticus eremita (Bowden et al.). In the second, we have reviews
of surveying bird abundance (Buckland et al.), bird-habitat associations (Lee and Marsden),
fluctuating asymmetry (Lens and Eggermont), camera trapping (O’Brien et al.), automated
sound recording (Brandes), stable isotopes (Hobson), and socio-economic surveys (MacMillan
and Leader-Williams). Finally, we document progress in three key tools for bird conservation
planning: atlases (Pomeroy et al.), population indices (Gregory et al.), and the IUCN Red List of
threatened bird species (Butchart). We hope that this span from the specifics to the generalities
of bird conservation science provides a fitting tribute to Colin’s life and work.
To set the context for this tribute, however, we take advantage of our editorial privilege to
reflect on the state of bird conservation science, and to assess its future potential. The urgency of
the task faced by bird conservation science should not be underestimated. No fewer than 1,226
species of birds, out of 9,856 extant species, are threatened with extinction, almost one eighth of
the total (BirdLife International 2008a). However, rates of endangerment for other vertebrate
classes are worse (Baillie et al. 2004). To what extent is conservation science delivering the
scientific knowledge necessary to save those 1,226 threatened birds—and indeed, biological
diversity more generally?
In this essay, we tackle five aspects of this question. First, we use information from the
Handbook of the birds of the world to assess the prevalence of threatened species studies.
Because the intensity of study varies greatly across threatened species, we then explore some
factors that correlate with and might help explain this variation. Third, we switch data source to
this very journal, specifically manuscripts published in Bird Conservation International over the
last five years, to ask where conservation ornithologists come from. We continue this line of
enquiry to examine the kinds of questions being pursued concerning threatened bird species.
Finally, we speculate on the importance of bird conservation science as a pioneer and model for
conservation science in general. We conclude with some suggestions for future priorities for bird
conservation science as a discipline.