Neotropical Birding 16, pp.68-69, Spring 2015

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HBW and BirdLife International Illustrated Checklist of the Birds of the World. Volume 1 by Josep del Hoyo & Nigel J. Collar, with David A. Christie, Andrew Elliott, Lincoln D. C. Fishpool, 2014. Barcelona, Spain: Lynx Edicions. 904 pp, 8,290 bird illustrations, 4,428 distribution maps and 34 full-page reference maps. Hardback. ISBN 978-84-96553-94-1. €185.00 (approx. $210 / UK£138).

This book is unique. It is evolutionarily distinct, it fills its own bibliographical niche and has no competitors. And like any species that is radically different from its nearest relatives, it is original and captivating. I am not perhaps a typical checklist user, since I do not maintain a life list and do not feel particularly compelled to keep on top of the latest taxonomic arrangements, yet I have already spent entire days browsing the contents, and have the book placed for easy reference right next to my desk so that I can consult it as I work. If I have enjoyed it so much, those who want to anticipate the next split will find the book impossible to resist. So why the fascination?

The juxtaposition of illustrations, maps and taxonomic information is the key. More than a traditional checklist, this is a one-stop overview of avian diversity: all species are illustrated (4,372 non-passerines in this volume), together with very distinctive subspecies, and the information is very clearly laid out across one double spread. Open a page and you instantly find the most important information about the bird—name, appearance, distribution, and conservation status. The large format allows closely-related taxa, often the entire genus, to be arranged on the same spread, making it easy to compare similar species in a way that has not been possible up until now. The relative sizes of the illustrations have been carefully adjusted to reflect real dimensions, and subtle demarcation lines help group congenerics on plates. Colour highlighting is used to indicate possible future splits. The book could easily win prizes for clarity of design. But it is much more than a coffeetable picture book. Once the easily-assimilated information is absorbed, there is still plenty more to enjoy. The research has clearly been painstaking, so you really can use this is a reference for bird names, taxonomy, original descriptions, distribution and so on. It could be thought of as a condensed and updated version of the 17-volume HBW, with about the same size, shape and weight as a single HBW volume.

Of course, it can be used like any other, traditional checklist, in which case comparisons will be made with those well-established sources for bird taxonomy: Howard & Moore, AOU (NACC, SACC), Clements and IOC. The new Checklist is on the opposite end of the ‘splitting-spectrum’ to the first and certainly less conservative than, say, SACC, which is probably fitting considering that it was designed primarily as the taxonomic basis for the assessment of the conservation status of the world’s birds. It broadly follows the Biological Species Concept, applying a modified version of the scoring system proposed by Tobias et al. (2010) to evaluate differences between similar taxa for all the world’s birds. A range of characters—biometrics, plumage, voice, ecology, distribution and molecular (genetic) data —are examined and ranked in an attempt to arrive at a more objective and standardised conclusion as to which taxa are good species. We have seen the results of previous multi-character analyses in our region for various tricky antbird complexes (the work of the Islers and their collaborators). This time the scope is the entire class of birds. Questions will be raised over the validity of applying one single system to diverse groups— something I will not go into here. Naturally, the application of new criteria throws up lots of unexpected and counterintuitive decisions and provides endless scope for discussion. For the non-passerines, the process has resulted in 21 lumps, and 462 splits compared with the taxonomy used in the HBW series. This produces, for example, 36 ‘new’ hummingbirds. With a near ten per cent increase in the number of recognised species compared with previous or more conservative taxonomies, everyone will be able to find something with which to take issue. In the end, that is not the main point of the book. Taxonomy is ever-changing and a checklist can never attempt to be anything but a provisional arrangement.

This new analysis does change conservation the conservation status of quite a few birds, splitting for example Bearded Helmetcrest Oxypogon guerinii, which was not previously of conservation concern, into four species, two of which are threatened. It also elevates the importance of some areas of endemism, such as Pantepui and Brazil’s Belém region. At a global scale it probably identifies priority areas for conservation more clearly, before more detailed information can be gathered to evaluate taxonomic decisions exhaustively. The Checklist is already the de facto taxonomic basis of global bird conservation, since it has been adopted by IUCN as the basis of global Redlists, and by the United Nations Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals.

To buy or not to buy? I typically avert my eyes from a book that costs in the triple figures, but this is one set that I will be completing. There is no question as to whether it is worth the price tag. The amount of information incorporated, the level of scholarship and the quality of production more than justify the price. This is a Compact Oxford English Dictionary for people who love birds. And like a dictionary, this kind of list will never really go out of date. An astonishing resource, the second volume, covering the passerines, is due in 2016.

Christopher J. Sharpe

 

REFERENCES

Tobias, J. A., Seddon, N., Spottiswoode, C. N., Pilgrim, J. P., Fishpool, L. D. C. & Collar, N. J. (2010) Quantitative criteria for species delimitation. Ibis 152: 724–746.