Vanishing birds

Today, species that are at risk of extinction are typically referred to as endangered species. But this hasn’t always been the case. Based on my informal survey of published works about or including birds, the preferred terms until the mid-20th century were vanishing rather than endangered and birds or wildlife rather than species.

In this post I note examples of the use of vanishing (along with some digressions) and argue that endangered is the better term.

Charles Dixon’s Lost and Vanishing Birds was published in 1898. This nearly 300-page account, subtitled Being a Record of some Remarkable Extinct Species and a Plea for some Threatened Forms, was focused on the British Isles. However, the table of contents lists 5 North American species among the vanishing: Carolina paroquet (parakeet), passenger pigeon, California vulture (condor), heath hen, and American (wild) turkey:

01 Dixon 1898

Of these 5 species, the wild turkey is now thriving as a result of reintroductions, the California condor is in the early stages of recovery, and 3 species are extinct. There’s something chilling about holding a book that refers to species as vanishing when those species have, in fact, long been extinct.

At the Fourth International Ornithological Congress, held in London in 1905, Walter Rothschild gave a lecture that was subsequently published:

02 Rothschild 1907

This essay includes several pages listing species as “Quite Extinct”, “On the Verge of Extinction”, or “Threatened with Extinction”. The California condor is assigned to the middle category. The text is pessimistic:

In North America we find the wild Turkey, Meleagris americana, on the verge of extinction, and the Carolina Parakeet, Conurus carolinensis, and Californian Condor, Pseudogryphus californianus, are well on their way to disappear for ever from this world.

Rothschild’s use of “disappear” goes hand in hand with the notion of vanishing. Disappear and vanishing imply something that is “just happening”. But in a footnote, the author indicates that the California condor is among those birds that

have been or in all probability will be directly exterminated by man or owe their scarcity to him.

From 1913, Our Vanishing Wild Life: Its Extermination and Preservation, by the American conservationist William Hornaday, is all but a call to arms on behalf of wildlife around the world. Chapter titles include “The Next Candidates for Oblivion” and “The Savage Viewpoint of the Gunner”. The chapter “How to Make a New Game Law” is followed by 4 more chapters explaining what laws are needed. While modern readers will cringe at “Destruction of Song-Birds by Italians”, other chapters seem right up to date: “Bringing Back the Vanished Birds and Game” and “Introduced Species that Have Become Pests”.

Hornaday devotes several pages to the California condor and includes a photograph:

03 Hornaday 1913
It is clear that Hornaday is pained by the condor’s situation:

Regarding the present status and the future of this bird, I have been greatly disturbed in mind.

Later he writes:

As a matter of national pride, and a duty to posterity, the people of the United States can far better afford to lose a million dollars from the national treasury than to allow [the California condor] to become extinct.

At the Sixth International Ornithological Congress, held in Copenhagen in 1926, John Phillips updated Rothschild’s earlier presentation:

04 Phillips 1929

Phillips analyzed 148 species. Regarding the California condor, Phillips believes that:

They are probably not increasing anywhere, although perhaps holding their own  under better protection in the State of California [in contrast to those thought to be living in Baja California].

Even as the term endangered species came to be used in the mid-20th century, the descriptor vanishing survived. Published in 1964, California Condor: Vanishing American is one of the key books concerning the species:

05 Smith & Easton 1964

The magazine of the Boy Scouts of America published an article titled The Vanishing Condor in 1979. A book for young children titled Vanishing from the Skies was published in 2007 and included a California condor on its cover:

06 Radley 2001

In recent years, scientists concerned with preserving species have had to become concerned with preserving the wild behaviors and cultures of animals as well. Tim Caro and Paul Sherman’s recent article “Vanishing Behaviors” specifically addresses the need to preserve the diversity of behaviors within a population of wild animals. The California condor is noted as an example.

The distinction between the words vanishing and endangered is clear. Vanishing suggests an unexplainable disappearance. Endangered identifies a cause – danger – and points to a response – reducing danger. While we know that extinction is a process that occurred long before humans walked the Earth, we also know that humans have drastically increased the rate of extinction, especially in recent decades. Our activities directly or indirectly account for most of the danger and so we can modify our activities to reduce, if not eliminate, the danger.

As the examples above show, those who were concerned about vanishing birds even a century ago knew why species were going extinct and were eager to take action to prevent extinctions. But not everyone has this level of concern. For this reason, we are fortunate that endangered has largely, though not completely, replaced vanishing. The general use of endangered species broadly conveys both the need for and the possibility of effective actions to prevent extinctions.


Dixon, Charles. Lost and vanishing birds. Macqueen. 1898.

Rothschild, Walter. On extinct and vanishing birds. Pages 191-217 in the Proceedings of the Fourth International Ornithological Congress, London, June 1905.

Hornaday, William T. Our vanishing wild life. Scribner’s. 1913.

Phillips, John C. An attempt to list the extinct and vanishing birds of the Western Hemisphere with some notes on recent status, location of specimens, etc. In Verhandlungen des 6 Internationalen Ornithologen-Kongresses in Kopenhagen 1926.

Smith, Dick, and Robert Easton. California condor: vanishing American. McNally and Loftin. 1964.

Laycock, George. 1979. The vanishing condor. Boys’ Life. November 1979.

Radley, Gail. Vanishing from the skies. Carolrhoda. 2001.

Caro, Tim, and Paul W Sherman. Vanishing behaviors. Conservation Letters. June 2012.