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TRULY rare birds

Andy McGann|

California Condor stretching its wing and showing off its number and transmitter

What is the rarest bird you’ve seen? We here at Nemesis Bird would like to know.

But first, what do we mean by “rare”?

If you pay attention to the news, you probably heard that the global human population recently surpassed seven billion. NPR followed up with a story about how many other species are in the “club”, with populations at 7 billion or greater. That story is here.

But it got me thinking about numbers. Most of the time we “bird people” think of rareness in terms of a species’ risk of extinction. This is obviously a crucial step in the conservation process, because it gets at the heart of where our priorities should be. The worldwide body charged with determining risks of extinction is the IUCN, who publishes the Red List. For more about the IUCN Red List, go here.

California Condor - global breeding population is only 44 mature birds (photo © Alex Lamoreaux)

Think of some species that you know are at significant risk of extinction. For good reason, the ones with the most hype are the ones who’s population is trending downward most steeply. But there are a LOT of species in the world who have very small populations that are relatively stable. Obviously, having a small population increases the risk of extinction, but the big thing that makes conservationists’ sweat is any change to the environment in areas with these vulnerable populations. This gets back to the burgeoning human population issue. Development activities to support our ever-growing population are threatening many other species on the planet. We can go ad nauseum about species at risk of extinction, but the point of this post is to talk about those species that are simply small in number. Most species that are small in number are concentrated in a small area, and if they occur nowhere else, we say that they are “endemic” to that geographic area. Something that these species typically have in common is geographic isolation. It’s more unusual for species to be small in number and spread out across a vast area.

Globalization is a force that works against isolation and regionalism. This is as true ecologically as it is culturally. Think about how every interstate interchange looks the same. It’s so much harder to find an independent mom-and-pop restaurant these days!

I think the best way to combat the homogenization of our planet is by appreciating and celebrating the “gems” that are endemic to specific regions. (Whether they are businesses or species!) So in this spirit, please share with us the species you have seen that are small in number, both in the U.S. and abroad!

I’ll take the lead. Please use the Comment section below, and take a minute to educate all of us about the truly rare birds that are special to you.


The leading organization for compiling information and keeping track of global bird populations is BirdLife International. The links below connect to their accounts for the following species.

I was lucky enough to see Sumichrasts’s Wren (Hylorchilus sumichrasti) in October of 2006 in the piedmont of the state of Veracruz, Mexico, after the North American Ornithological Conference that year! It somewhat resembles an overgrown Canyon Wren. BirdLife International says-

Distribution and population-  Hylorchilus sumichrasti is restricted to c.12 sites in west-central Veracruz, north Oaxaca and extreme east Puebla, south Mexico, where it is fairly common but local. It occupies a limited area of suitable habitat within an extent of occurrence c.6,000 km


Florida Scrub-Jay (photo © Alex Lamoreaux)

Within the U.S., I think Florida Scrub-Jay (Aphelocoma coerulescens) is the rarest species I have ever seen. However, despite their small population, they are still easy to find if you look in the right spot. I visited the epicenter of research on the Florida Scrub-Jay, Archbold Biological Station, which every birder should add to their Florida trip itinerary, especially to drop off a donation! Again, BirdLife International says-

The breeding population was 4,000 pairs in 1993. As the average group size is three, total numbers were probably c.10,000, a c.25% decline since 1983. Declines are believed to have continued and the current best estimate places the global population at c.6,500 individuals.

Of the two species, Florida Scrub-Jay is more at risk of extinction, possibly within my lifetime.

About the Author

Andy McGann

Birding since the young age of 10, Andy has an M.S. in biology from the College of William and Mary. His graduate work included a thesis on the winter ecology of Rusty Blackbirds and projects on the movement of toxic mercury pollution through a riparian food web in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. Prior to that, he earned a B.S. in biology and an environmental studies concentration from Villanova University, with undergraduate research projects on Black-capped and Carolina Chickadee hybridization and the conservation of the potentially-extinct Cozumel Thrasher in Mexico. In the past 12 years, Andy has worked on many projects in several states, including the Second Pennsylvania Breeding Bird Atlas project, Northern Goshawk surveys in Idaho, Canada Warblers nesting in Vermont, and environmental consulting in Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Nebraska. Andy was also the first recipient of the Ned Smith Center's saw-whet owl banding internship.

A top-notch birder, he once placed second in the World Series of Birding with Drew Weber, Mike Lanzone, and other members of the PA Breeding Bird Atlas point count survey crew. He has enjoyed leading birding tours for the Road Scholar (formerly Elderhostel) organization, in Cape Charles, Virginia and the Great Dismal Swamp. He serves on the board of the Pennsylvania Society for Ornithology and is an active committee member with his local land conservancy.

Andy currently works for Cellular Tracking Technologies, a communications technology company founded to serve the needs of wildlife researchers and conservationists. CTT specializes in machine-to-machine communications hardware and software solutions for low-cost worldwide data delivery via global cellular networks. Lightweight, solar-powered, energy-thrifty, and rugged, these devices are attached to wild animals and high-value assets for long-term remote GPS tracking. At CTT, Andy applies his ornithological expertise, love of technology, and appreciation for geography to help wildlife researchers and organizations around the world obtain the GPS tracking information they need.

  • Hi,

    I live in Hawaii where many of the native birds are rare (or have already gone extinct). I often see the stunning scarlet i’iwi, apanane, akohekohe, and amakihi in Waikamoi rain forest. Probably the rarest bird I’ve ever seen is the Maui Parrotbill, with only 500 individuals in the wild. I only caught a small glimpse of the yellowish green puffball, then it was gone–off to dig more grubs out of dead bark with its powerful bill.

  • The rarest species I have seen in the wild is a Whooping Crane at Necedah NWR. 

    IUCN lists them as Endangered but increasing. 

    “The total population in the wild numbers 382 individuals (T. Stehn in litt. 2007). However, the only self-sustaining population breeding in Northwest Territories/Alberta, Canada and wintering in Texas, USA numbers 266 individuals, fewer than 250 of which are mature. Hence we retain a precautionary estimate of <250 mature individuals. "

    • Anna Fasoli

      We think alike Drew! Didn’t see your comment until I posted mine :o)

  • Anna Fasoli

    My favorite rare bird is the Whooping Crane (even though it sounds cliche!). I was fortunate enough to work with them for 14 months in 2007 and 2008.  There is only one wild remaining flock, and this flock migrates from Canada to Texas; there are less than 400 individuals in it.  They winter in an around Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas, which in the big picture, is a very small area to have the last remaining individuals of a species at a given time. In the first half of the century, Whooping Cranes were hunted to near extinction for their feathers. I worked with the Eastern migratory population, which numbers just under 100 (this flock summers in Wisconsin, and winters in the south eastern United States).  All of the reintroduced birds have come from captivity, and are facing a number of problems, including nest abdonment and questionable management practices, to name a very few.  One storm, disease or food scarcity event could wipe out the entire wild flock, leaving only the reintroduced flock (that has failed to be successful in a time period of over 10 years).  Needless to say, I am very worried about the future of Whooping Cranes, despite the success of the wild flock in the past 50 years. I think we should all enjoy Whooping Cranes as much as we can, while we still have the chance.  Everyday, we add more obstacles to their migration path, including wind turbines and powerlines, and as always, habitat loss seems never ending. 

  • Chadkauffman

    I was going to say Ivory Gull, but now that I see the info for Florida Scrub Jay, I have to say that.

  • I think the rarest bird I’ve seen is Red Knot, or more specifically, the rufa subspecies of Red Knot. I haven’t traveled in search of the rarer U.S. birds.

    • I hope rufa Red Knots are never the rarest bird on my list, but things are going to have to change quickly. http://blog.aba.org/2011/07/red-knot-up-for-endangered-species-protection.html

  • Ali Iyoob

    My rarest is the Akikiki, on Kauai, HI, probably going to be extinct in the next few decades unfortunately.

    • Those island endemics are really having it rough, with their limited ranges all the predators we introduce.

  • Rhys Marsh

    One of my favorite birds is the Galapagos Penguin (~1,500 individuals), a beautiful and unique bird as it is the only penguin that can be found in the northern hemisphere.  The rarest bird that I have seen is probably the Lava Gull, with 600 to 800 mature individuals.  I took the picture below of an immature lava gull on San Cristobal island. 

    • Thanks for sharing the photo. That is a wild looking gull.

  • Alex Lamoreaux

    Not to sound redundant, but Whooping Crane is probably the ‘rarest’ species I have ever seen, as well. 

    Other ABA species I have seen that are rapidly declining include the Florida Scrub-Jay, ‘California’ Clapper Rail, California Condor, and Red-cockaded Woodpecker.I have also been fortunate enough to see Bank Cormorants in South Africa, where there are around 2,000 breeding pairs remaining.Black Rhino is probably my number one rarest mammal that I have ever seen.

  • Gardnie07

    Rarest bird I’ve ever seen . . . I’ve seen several Galapagos species including Waved Albatross (also from Galapagos), Piping Plover, California Condor, Florida Scrub-Jay (all US representatives), but I think the rarest bird I’ve ever seen is the Medium Tree Finch (http://www.birdlife.org/datazone/speciesfactsheet.php?id=9609).  While the numbers are higher than the others listed, these finches are only found on one island in the Galapagos archipelago and are declining as I type.  I also narrowly missed seeing the Mangrove Finch (http://www.birdlife.org/datazone/speciesfactsheet.php?id=9612) on Isla Isabela which would have easily been the rarest bird I’ve ever seen since it’s extinction is imminent (within decades).

  • Corey Husic

    Like a few others on here, the rarest bird I’ve seen is probably a Whooping Crane. I have also seen Kirtland’s Warblers, another species with an unfortunately small range.