Life Among Endangered Birds

The Birds of Pandemonium: Life Among the Exotic and the Endangered, by Michele Raffin, (Algonquin Books), 240 pages

Michele Raffin’s The Birds of Pandemonium is an engaging read offering one model of avian conservation and raising questions about conservation efforts that deserve further examination. Raffin fell into the work of conservation gradually, beginning with an attempt to help an injured pigeon on the roadside. Her home and yard now house some 350 birds, representing 40 species, many of them threatened or endangered.

The threats facing exotic and endangered birds are being addressed on many fronts—though there’s always more that needs to be done. Conservation groups buy and protect key habitat; individual birds are moved among zoos to keep breeding populations diverse; and both avian veterinarians and rare bird dealers study and care for these birds, engaging simultaneously in research and husbandry. One of Raffin’s biggest concerns, addressed in the book and in her life, is the scattered, often carefully guarded knowledge among breeders.

Yes, what breeders do is one kind of conservation. When birds are bred for sale in captivity, they’re less apt to be removed from the wild for sale, leaving existing populations better off. It’s often breeders who have the patience and time to discover what’s necessary for successful nesting and raising of young. On the other hand, what breeders do is also a business. As Raffin tell us, there’s a hesitancy to share knowledge with potential competitors, which means that discoveries in husbandry rarely have the broad impact they might.

At the close of the book, Raffin lays out her large, long-term ambition: to create sanctuaries for exotic and endangered birds across the U.S., to purchase flocks from breeders that will remain with the breeders during their lifetime and will be moved to sanctuaries after breeders pass on, and to set up apprenticeships so that the breeders’ knowledge can be preserved for eventual broader use.

Raffin builds up to this proposal through some delightful story telling. We meet individual birds, learn their idiosyncrasies, and follow her thought process as she determines addresses their individual needs. There’s the parrot Amigo, a problematic biter, who steals the heart of one of Raffin’s sons. There’s a one-legged turaco with a particular sympathy for autistic boys.

Because Raffin gives her story a chronological structure, the reader has an opportunity to learn along with her. She begins by opening her home to “special needs” birds: those with behavioral problems or whose owners face a crisis that means giving up the bird. Without ever losing her love for these neediest birds, she comes to concentrate on breeding and raising highly threatened species. This allows her to provide zoos and other conservation groups with new birds to add to their colonies in order to maintain genetic diversity.

This book is well worth reading both for the information it contains and for the simple pleasure of coming to know some of the birds Raffin has met during her work in this area. And, if readers want to learn more about Raffin’s work and bird conservation in general, they can go on to visit the web site for Pandemonium Aviaries.

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