As alert readers of this blog may have noticed, I have a slight affinity for the alcids. So when I stumbled on Maria Mudd Ruth’s Rare Bird: Pursuing the Mystery of the Marbled Murrelet, I naturally had to have it. I was already vaguely aware of Marbled Murrelets, their peculiar nesting habits, and the fact that they were under threat; I couldn’t imagine a book about them being bad.

Sometimes high expectations like that lead to disappointment. But not this time!

Maria Mudd Ruth understands what it is to be crazy about an auk. In the course of writing this book, she moved her family across the continent, almost died while hiking up a mountain, and got up at four in the morning for experiences a lot like those that Laura recounts here. Yet she never veers into letting the account become more about her than her subject.

Her subject is, of course, the Marbled Murrelet; but it’s also the biologists, conservationists, and other folks who first struggled to understand Brachyramphus marmoratus and now struggle to save it in the face of threats on all sides; loss of their nest sites in old growth forests on the one hand, and oil slicks and gillnets at sea on the other. The Marbled Murrelet’s tale is one that centers in large part on the importance of citizen science; since the idea of a forest-nesting seabird is deeply weird, the Murrelet’s nests went undiscovered until people in the woods for unrelated reasons tripped over evidence, sometimes literally, in the form of fallen chicks and eggs. When an actual nest turned up, in 1974(!), it was a tree surgeon who was first to lay eyes on it.

The story ends on a wistful note, as it has to; in 2004, as this book was heading to the presses, the Bush administration attempted to delist the Marbled Murrelet at the behest of the timber industry. This decision has thus far been warded off by the courts. But even under political protection, Murrelet populations continue to decline, perhaps due to increased corvid predation at nests (associated with human disturbance and forest fragmentation) or the oil and gillnet threats from the sea, or both. Rudd does a good job of bringing across the concept that a species can be abundant and still endangered. That this is something that should still be lost on people after the Passenger Pigeon fiasco is mind-boggling, but true.

In short, this is a great book about a great bird, and highly recommended by yours truly.

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