Neotropical Birding, Nº 18, 2016

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Bird families of the world: an invitation tithe spectacular diversity of birds by David W. Winkler, Shawn M. Billerman & Irby J. Lovette.2015. Barcelona, Spain: Lynx Edicions. 600 pp. c.750 colour photos; 243 distribution maps; 2,336figures. Hardback. ISBN-13: 978-84-941892-0-3.€87.00 (c.$98 / UK£68).

Let’s get the headline review clear, upfront. Bird families of the world is a great book. It is informative and enjoyable, well illustrated and pleasure to dip into. Of these attributes, I am certain. What I am less clear about, however, is whom this book is for.

More of that equivocality later. Let’s start by walking through the book. It is a fair assumption that readers of this magazine are acquainted with (and probably owners of) Lynx Edicions‘ Handbook of birds of the world (‘HBW’) and the HBW and BirdLife International Illustrated checklist of the birds of the world (‘Illustrated checklist’). If that is correct, this new book—by trio of authors led by ornithologist David Winkler—will feel familiar. I use ‘feel’ in both its literal and figurative sense. Bird families of the world is roughly the dimensions and weight of a volume of HBW; it is a hefty tome.

The cover imparts the sense that this is equality product: a greyscale topographic map brigading segments of several continents, superimposed with ‘crippling’ colour photographs of seven bird species, including four from the Neotropical region. Open the book, and the ‘look’—clean white pages with double columns of text plus largely mouthwatering photographs and artwork—leaves you in no doubt that this is clearly quality Lynx Edicions’ product.

Bird families of the world is a single-volume synopsis of the diversity of birdlife, describing and illustrating each of 243 families of extant birds across 36 orders. For Lynx junkies, the book’s publication follows completion of the epic 17-volume HBW series and conveniently splices the two volumes of the Illustrated checklist (the first of which was reviewed in Neotropical Birding16: 68–69).

An introduction describes the scope of the taxonomic classification followed and offers suggestions for how to get the most from the book. The latter is useful; the former, unfortunately, is packed full of taxonomic ‘jargon’. The publishers claim that “technical terminology is much reduced” in this book (presumably in comparison to the Illustrated checklist). That may be so, but its nevertheless hard going, even for an editor of a birding magazine; for a birding layman, eyes will assuredly glaze over.

There is better stuff elsewhere in the preambular sections, notably a fascinating comparison of the distribution of regionally endemic bird families. This provides a useful reminder of the pre-eminence of the Neotropics in avian terms. The region covered by the Neotropical Bird Club hosts 42 endemic families(20 non-passerine, 22 passerine), which is four more than the nearest contender (Australasia). A glorious map of the Neotropics, reproduced on page 58, is superimposed with representatives of every ‘endemic’ family. I couldn’t resist totting up the number I have seen... or musing on how I can ‘clean up’ the remainder.

And thus to the core of the book. More than 500 lavishly illustrated pages house an overview of each order (one or two pages) that prefaces accounts of the world’s bird families. Each family receives between one and seven pages of coverage. A map consolidates the distribution of family members. Text comprises rote summaries of appearance, habitat, food, breeding, conservation, and taxonomic relationships. Descriptions are succinct and insightful, although inevitably focus on highlights and commonalities; for a dive into the detail, you need HBW or HBW Alive (http://www.hbw.com). A couple of (very largely high-quality) photographs are complemented by artwork illustrating each genus (reproduced from other Lynx publications) and indicating the number of species it contains (according to Illustrated checklist taxonomy).

The paintings of each genus were one of three elements in this book that really stood out for me. In 6.5 pages of glorious colour, 104genera of hummingbirds are illustrated side by side: I drooled over each spread. The images both teleported me back to treasured birding moments (Fiery-throated Hummingbird Panterpe insignis beside a Costa Rican volcano; Marvelous Spatuletail Loddigesia mirabilis on a Peruvian hill side before it was routinely twitchable) and fuelled desires for future travels (why haven’t I yet seen any helmet crests Oxypogon?!).

I was similarly smitten with the little boxed pen-portrait provided for each family. A useful complement to otherwise dry text, it fairly brought each family to life. Take hummingbirds, again, as an example: “In the sugar-charged lives of the world’s smallest birds, sexual selection has takeover, with males vying for mates by competing in leks or defending rich nectar resources.” The third neat touch was vignettes that compare the size of species in a family with parts of a human body: hummingbirds range from the size of our hand to smaller than our little finger.

These latter two features, in particular, seem designed to appeal to a wider audience than the claimed target market of ornithology students and serious birders. If that is the case, I hope such readers are not deterred by the jargon-rich introduction, and persevere into the meat of the book. What a shame it would be if they did not! Each time I open a book, I look out for what is new, for what has not been done before. A single tome treating the world’s birds is clearly in itself not an innovative concept; it is only a few years, for example, since National Geographic Books published Complete birds of the world (Harris2009). Aside from a (particularly impenetrable)essay by Jon Fjeldsa and colleagues that proposes three entirely novel (non-Neotropical) families, I cannot discern anything here that breaks new ground.

But novelty, I have come to realise, is not the point of this book. Bird families of the world is primarily—arguably, exclusively—a celebration of Earth’s bounteous avian diversity. The book’s subtitle makes explicit this laudable aim. The joy of this book—its greatness—lies in showcasing avian beauty, and conveying, in simple terms, how its constituent elements fit together.

In that sense, Bird families of the world is not just for undergraduates and professional ornithologists. It is for anyone with an interest in birds. Each segment of the readership should take from the book what they wish. If you describe yourself as an ornithologist, this book will contextualise avian diversity. If you’re a world lister, inspire your future travels by reading up on the families that you have hitherto not encountered. And if taxonomic niceties are not for you, skip the first part of the introduction and take lucky dips into the family accounts. This glorious lyrich book deserves a place on all our bookshelves.

James Lowen

REFERENCES

Harris, T., ed. (2009) Complete birds of the world. National Geographic Books: Washington DC.