Relative risk of extinction of passerine birds on continents and islands


Greater numbers and higher proportions of recent species extinctions have been on islands rather than on continents. In contrast, predictions of massive future extinctions stem from the current clearing of continental, tropical forests1. For instance, since 1600, 97 out of 108 bird extinctions have been on islands2. However, 452 of the total 1,111 species currently considered to be threatened are continental3. Island flora and fauna are uniquely vulnerable to the human introduction of previously absent predators, diseases and other menaces4, whereas species on continents are not so ecologically naive. So could predictions of future continental extinctions based on island histories be exaggerated1? Most threatened species have small geographic ranges5, and the ranges of island species are inevitably smaller than those of continental species. For a given range size, how do the proportions of threatened island and continental species compare? Here we compile the ranges of thepasserine (perching) birds of the Americas. Corrected for range size, continental species are more—not less—likely to be threatened. We use this unexpected vulnerability of continental species with small ranges to produce a map showing where species losses might occur in the long term.

Access options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.

Figure 1: The fraction of threatened lowland, montane and island passerines in each range-size division.
Figure 2: Distributions of passerines with small ranges and of threatened passerines, and differences between them.


  1. 1

    Pimm, S. L. et al. The future of biodiversity. Science 269 , 347–350 (1995).

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  2. 2

    Johnson, T. H. & Stattersfield, A. J. Aglobal review of island endemic birds. Ibis 132, 167– 180 (1990).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. 3

    Collar, N. J., Crosby, M. J. & Stattersfield, A. J. Birds to Watch 2 (Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, D.C., (1994).

    Google Scholar 

  4. 4

    Pimm, S. L. The Balance of Nature? (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, ( 1991).

    Google Scholar 

  5. 5

    Stattersfield, A. J. et al. Endemic Bird Areas of the World (Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, DC, (1998).

    Google Scholar 

  6. 6

    Milberg, P. & Tyrberg, T. Naı ¨ve birds and noble savages—a review of man-caused prehistoric extinctions of island birds. Ecography 16, 229–250 (1993).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. 7

    Pimm, S. L., Moulton, M. P. & Justice, L. J. in Extinction Rates (eds Lawton, J. H. & May, R.) 75–87 (Oxford University Press, New York, (1995).

    Google Scholar 

  8. 8

    Goode's World Atlas18th edn (ed. Espenshade E. Jr) (Rand McNally, Chicago, (1990).

  9. 9

    Lack, D. Island Biology Illustrated by the Land Birds of Jamaica (Blackwell, London, (1976).

    Google Scholar 

  10. 10

    Castro, I. & Phillips, A. A Guide to the Birds of the Galapagos Islands (Princeton University Press, Princeton, (1996 ).

    Google Scholar 

  11. 11

    Stotz, D. F. et al. Neotropical Birds, Ecology and Conservation (Univ. of Chicago Press, Chicago, (1996).

    Google Scholar 

  12. 12

    MacArthur, R. H., Diamond, J. M. & Karr, J. Density compensation in island faunas. Ecology 53, 330–342 ( 1972).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. 13

    Green, R. E. & Hirons, G. J. M. in Bird Population Studies (eds Perrins, C., Lebreton, J.-D. & Hirons, G.) 683 (Oxford University Press, Oxford, (1991).

    Google Scholar 

  14. 14

    Gaston, K. J., Blackburn, T. M. & Lawton, J. H. Interspecific abundance-range size relationships: an appraisal of mechanisms. J. Anim. Ecol. 66, 579–601 (1997).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. 15

    Collar, N. J., Wedge, D. C. & Long, A. J. in Ornithological Monographs, 48, Studies in Neotropical Ornithology Honoring Ted Parker (ed. Remsen, J. V. J.) 237– 260 (American Ornithologists Union, Winfield, KS, ( 1997).

    Google Scholar 

  16. 16

    Brooks, T. M. & Balmford, A. Atlantic forest extinctions. Nature 380, 115 (1996).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  17. 17

    Bucher, E. & Nores, M. in ICBP Technical Publications, 7, Ecology and Conservation of Grassland Birds (ed. Goirup, P.) 71 –79 (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, ( 1998).

    Google Scholar 

  18. 18

    Ridgely, R. S. & Tudor, G. The Birds of South America Vol. 1 (Univ. of Texas, Austin, TX, (1989).

    Google Scholar 

  19. 19

    Ridgely, R. S. & Tudor, G. The Birds of South America Vol. 2 (Univ. of Texas, Austin, TX, (1994).

    Google Scholar 

  20. 20

    Raffaele, H. et al. A Guide to the Birds of the West Indies (Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, (1998).

    Google Scholar 

  21. 21

    Howell, S. N. G. & Webb, S. A Guide to the Birds of Mexico and Northern Central America (Oxford University Press, New York, (1995).

    Google Scholar 

  22. 22

    Stiles, F. G., Skutch, A. F. & Gardner, D. A Guide to the Birds of Costa Rica (Cornell University Press, Ithaca, (1989).

    Google Scholar 

  23. 23

    Godfrey, W. E. The Birds of Canada (National Museum of Canada, Ottawa, ( 1986).

    Google Scholar 

  24. 24

    Price, J., Droege, S. & Price, A. The Summer Atlas of North American Birds (Academic, New York, (1995).

    Google Scholar 

  25. 25

    Ridgely, R. S. & Gwynne, J. A. A Guide to the Birds of Panama (Princeton University Press, Princeton, ( 1989).

    Google Scholar 

  26. 26

    Sibley, C. G. & Monroe, B. L. J. Distribution and Taxonomy of Birds of the World (Yale University Press, New Haven, ( 1990).

    Google Scholar 

  27. 27

    Sibley, C. G. & Monroe, B. L. J. A Supplement to Distribution and Taxonomy of Birds of the World (Yale University Press, New Haven, (1993).

    Google Scholar 

Download references


We thank C. G. Anderson, K. Balent, N. Collar, J. Gittleman, R. Green, A. Mayer, M.P. Nott, B. Powell, G. Russell, W. Simms, J. Smith, A. Stattersfield and C. Wilder. This work was supported by a fellowship to S.L.P. from the Pew Foundation for Conservation and the Environment and by the Center for Conservation, Stanford University.

Author information



Corresponding author

Correspondence to Stuart L. Pimm.

Supplementary information

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Manne, L., Brooks, T. & Pimm, S. Relative risk of extinction of passerine birds on continents and islands . Nature 399, 258–261 (1999).

Download citation

Further reading


By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing