Vultures of the World: Essential Ecology and Conservation. Keith Bildstein. 2022. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, NY, USA. 244 pages. ISBN 9781501761614. Hardcover ($34.95).
This book provides a very thorough and up-to-date scientific review of all aspects of the biology of a globally imperiled group of birds that arguably have a disproportionately large ecological role everywhere that they occur in the world. Not since the pesticide DDT drove a suite of apex predators to the brink of extinction in the middle decades of the twentieth century, has the survival of an entire group of birds been threatened by human use of a single chemical. In this case, not a chemical pesticide broadcast widely over the environment, but rather a drug administered to livestock. Diclofenac, an anti-inflammatory drug designed to treat cattle and sheep, causes lethal kidney failure in vultures that consume the carcass of any dead animal that had received the drug. Unfortunately, this unintended consequence of the widespread use of a common veterinary medicine went unnoticed and unstudied until populations of several vulture species had already declined by 90% or more.
The book’s Introduction briefly covers the origin and evolution of vultures. Chapter 1, “Essential Ecology of Scavengers,” details the importance of decomposers and scavengers to the maintenance of essential ecosystem functions. Chapter 2, which comprises the bulk of the book, is 77 pages of descriptions and life histories of 16 Old World and 7 New World vulture species. Within this chapter, each species account gives the English and scientific species name; the Spanish, German, French and any “aka” alternative English names; Taxonomy (i.e., taxonomic family affiliation), basic morphometric (i.e., Size) data, Estimated World Population size, Movements (i.e., sedentary, migratory, nomadic), and Social Ecology (i.e., categorized nesting, roosting, and foraging behaviors). Subsequent text has subheadings for Subspecies, Breeding Biology, Diet and Feeding Behavior, Flight Behavior, Movements, and Conservation Status. The individual species accounts range from fewer than two pages for Red-headed Vulture to eight pages for Turkey Vulture.
The next five chapters cover Pair Formation and Reproduction; Food Finding and Feeding Behavior (the second longest chapter at 29 pages); Movement Behavior; Social Behavior; and, lastly, Vultures and People. Each chapter ends with a numbered list under the heading “Synthesis and Conclusions.” Within most of the chapters there are sequentially numbered shaded “boxes” containing detailed supplementary information, for example, about the “Tagging and Migration of Turkey Vultures.” The publisher, I think, missed an opportunity to make the information contained in the book’s ten boxed entries more accessible by including them separately in the Table of Contents.
Illustrations of the vulture species are on glossy plates inserted as a block of eight pages in the middle of the book. Included are just one or two photos each of 18 out of the world’s 23 vulture species. I found the omission of any photo of the very distinctive and arguably most beautiful vulture, the King Vulture, particularly disappointing. With the exception of the striking cover headshot photo of a Cape Vulture, the quality of the images is somewhat disappointing, too, given the wealth of photographic images generally available today. Not only are they not especially excellent representations of their subject matter, but also, most are dimensionally very small (ca. 1.5 X 2.5 in.) and surrounded by an unusually large amount of negative space.
Different from many popular review treatments of avian groups, this work does not contain any range maps and has no drawn figures. It has just a single table covering the conservation status of the world’s vultures and condors, and only one appendix listing all of the common and scientific names of the vultures and other species mentioned in the text. On the other hand, an extensive Glossary and very thorough and up-to-date “References and Recommended Readings by Chapter” will be welcomed resources by all students and aficionados of vultures. In summary, notwithstanding a few shortcomings, this book is a very fine and scholarly work that certainly belongs in every academic, professional and serious personal ornithology library.
Robert S. Mulvihill
Pittsburg, PA, USA
Header photo: Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura), USFWS
Mulvihill, R. S. 2023. Review of the book Vultures of the World: Essential Ecology and Conservation by Kenneth L. Bildstein. Association of Field Ornithologists Book Review, https://afonet.org/2023/03/vultures-of-the-world-essential-ecology-and-conservation/.
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