The ghost with trembling wings


This week I finished reading “The ghost with trembling wings” by Scott Weidensaul. I had no idea what the book would be like before starting it, beyond that it dealt with issues in the rediscovery and recent extinction of birds. As I have at least four volumes on my bookshelf with the title “Extinct Birds” alone, this topic is one of my favourites in non-fiction.  It really is a wonderful read. The authors obvious enthusiasm and ornithological knowledge are always at the forefront and he takes you on a journey from the possibly extinct avifauna of the Lesser Antilles, to the history of the Thylacine (Thylacinus cynocephalus) via detours into ancient DNA, ivory-bill woodpeckers (Campephilus principalis) and other icons of extinction. Describing his search for the possibly extinct Semper’s Warbler (Leucopeza semperi), you get an insight into the mundanity of tropical fieldwork, along with the flashes of heart-stopping excitement that come from false starts and serendipitous moments. There are particularly interesting sections on the history of the Aurochsen (Bos primigenius), the wild ancestors of domestic cattle that died out only in 1627, and are known from descriptions by Julius Caesar and the caves of Lascaux and Chauvet. The interplay of science and  ideology that went into the breeding of the infamous Heck cattle by Nazi sympathising zoologists is discussed in detail, and the attempts to restore the Quagga (an extinct subspecies of Plains zebra, Equus quagga) by selective breeding is also covered. The only gripes I had were minor. The author repeatedly discusses the structure of DNA as made from amino acids- however, proteins are made from amino acids while DNA is made from bases, deoxyribose sugars and phosphate. There is also a repeated claim of Madagascar being colonised 2 million years ago (by who? Australopithecines?), rather than the generally accepted 2000 years. The final chapters focus on another search for a possibly extinct bird, the cone-billed tanager (Conothraupis mesoleuca) in the Amazon rainforest. The book ends on a high with the author and colleagues potentially spotting a female of this overlooked species. Happily, it seems that whatever Weidensaul saw, this particular bird is a survivor. The cone-billed tanager has been rediscovered since the book was first published! In 2003, and independently again, in 2004, males (and the never previously collected females) were observed by trained ornithologists and the sighting is currently being written up for scientific publication.

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