The Extraordinary Tale of the Bermuda Petrel and the Man Who Brought It Back from Extinction
By Elizabeth Gehrman
(Beacon Press, Hardcover, 9780807010761, 256pp.)
Publication Date: October 9, 2012
Other Editions of This Title: Paperback
The inspiring story of David Wingate, a living legend among birders, who brought the Bermuda petrel back from presumed extinction
Rare Birds is a tale of obsession, of hope, of fighting for redemption against incredible odds. It is the story of how Bermuda’s David Wingate changed the world—or at least a little slice of it—despite the many voices telling him he was crazy to try.
This tiny island in the middle of the North Atlantic was once the breeding ground for millions of Bermuda petrels. Also known as cahows, the graceful and acrobatic birds fly almost nonstop most of their lives, drinking seawater and sleeping on the wing. But shortly after humans arrived here, more than three centuries ago, the cahows had vanished, eaten into extinction by the country’s first settlers.
Then, in the early 1900s, tantalizing hints of the cahows’ continued existence began to emerge. In 1951, an American ornithologist and a Bermudian naturalist mounted a last-ditch effort to find the birds that had come to seem little more than a legend, bringing a teenage Wingate—already a noted birder—along for the ride. When the stunned scientists pulled a blinking, docile cahow from deep within a rocky cliffside, it made headlines around the world—and told Wingate what he was put on this earth to do.
Starting with just seven nesting pairs of the birds, Wingate would devote his life to giving the cahows the chance they needed in their centuries-long struggle for survival — battling hurricanes, invasive species, DDT, the American military, and personal tragedy along the way.
It took six decades of obsessive dedication, but the cahow, still among the rarest of seabirds, has reached the hundred-pair mark and continues its nail-biting climb to repopulation. And Wingate has seen his dream fulfilled as the birds returned to Nonsuch, an island habitat he hand-restored for them plant-by-plant in anticipation of this day. His passion for resuscitating this “Lazarus species” has made him an icon among birders, and his story is an inspiring celebration of the resilience of nature, the power of persistence, and the value of going your own way.
Elizabeth Gehrman is a frequent contributor to the Boston Globe Magazine and has written for the New York Times, Archaeology, More, and This Old House. She lives in Boston and upstate New York.
“There's nothing more exciting than a comeback story, and this is one for the ages. You will quickly find yourself rooting for cahows, or Bermuda petrels, a bird you likely didn't even know existed before opening these pages. And you'll be swept along by Elizabeth Gehrman’s clean, racing prose as you learn about the threats the petrels face--including Snowy owls, DDT and the American military--as the species fights its way back to life. Finally, you'll meet the rarest bird of all, David Wingate, the gentle, stubborn, charming quixotic bird-man, who has staked his whole life on playing midwife to the bird's return.”
— David Gessner, author of Return of the Osprey
“Read Elizabeth’s book if you care about nature and despair whether man can harmonize with it. Read Rare Birds if you need a human hero, for David Wingate surely is one, and love animals, for you will surely love his Bermuda petrels. Read this extraordinary tale of a seemingly-extinct breed of bird and the man who rescued it if you are heading to Bermuda, or anywhere, and want to bring a book you will relish, remember, and want to give as a gift.”—Larry Tye, author of Superman and Satchel
“There are few success stories in the efforts to stop the relentless assault on the species we share the planet with, and Rare Birds is a lovely chronicle of one of them. The story of Wingate’s heroic efforts to bring the docile cahow back from the brink of extinction is unassumingly but beautifully told, and chockfull of fascinating natural history. It captures the particular fragility and intensity of the life on islands, including that of the protagonist himself.”—Alex Shoumatoff, Vanity Fair contributing editor
"Vanishing species these days are a dime a dozen. The truly rarer bird is the human being whose life stands between a creature and its permanent oblivion. David Wingate is a truly pivotal person on whom the fate of a whole species turned. It's a remarkable seabird whose existence depended on this rare man. And this book, rendered with style and grace, is his story." —Carl Safina, author of Song for the Blue Ocean and The View From Lazy Point; A Natural Year in an Unnatural World
“Gerhman’s detailed account of Wingate’s life demonstrates what amazing feats can be accomplished given sufficient time and determination. Environmentalists and bird lovers alike will enjoy this look at the restoration of an endangered bird.”—Kirkus
“Wingate’s single-minded passion and his ability to foster the birds, habitat, and Bermudans’ environmental awareness should make readers wish for more ‘rare birds.’” —Publishers Weekly
“The fascinating tale of one man's fight to save the cahow, a bird believed extinct since the early 1600s.’” —Kirkus Reviews