About the Handbook of the Birds of the World

Handbook of the Birds of the World: the major ornithological work of our time.


HBW complete collection
"We have a saying in Spain: you cannot love what you do not know. If a bird goes extinct before anyone has ever photographed it, or written about it, you do not really care. But once you have seen how beautiful and fascinating it is, you do care. We hope that now people have the facts, they will do something to save the species before it is too late."


        - Josep del Hoyo
          In an interview with BBC Wildlife Magazine




Introduction   History   General Objectives   Classification   Family Texts   Photographs  Species Accounts   Plates   References   Index



The Handbook of the Birds of the World is the first work ever to illustrate and deal in detail with all the living species of birds. When Volume 16 is published in 2011, it will be the first work to verbally and visually portray each member of an entire Class of the Animal Kingdom.
Material in each volume is grouped by families, with an introductory text on general aspects of the group, generously illustrated with colour photographs. This is followed by individual species accounts and their accompanying colour plates illustrating all species, including all significant sexual and subspecific differences, of all of the families covered. In addition, all volumes contain a foreword on a particular ornithological theme.
Volumes average 600 pages of full-colour content and deal with 500 to 800 species, with 60-plus plates, hundreds of photographs and distribution maps, and thousands of references. So far, 14 volumes have been produced. New volumes appear at roughly annual intervals, and are collected by scientific organizations, birdwatchers and wildlife enthusiasts in over 150 countries.


Before the first volume of HBW appeared in 1992 most people gave it little chance of success. The market was saturated with bird books, and the idea of an unknown, foreign publisher producing the definitive English-language work on birds seemed ridiculous. Indeed, the Handbook of the Birds of the World is arguably the most ambitious undertaking ever in the field of natural history publishing. The story of how it came to be is a tribute to the vision and persistence of a close-knit team.

A dream takes flight

In the early 1980s, Josep del Hoyo, a country doctor from Catalonia, shared with his friend Jordi Sargatal an idea: to produce a comprehensive work covering all the world's birds. After initially questioning his friend's sanity, Sargatal eventually agreed to take on the project. Since both men lacked the funds for such an endeavor, they approached Ramon Mascort, a lawyer and entrepreneur with a great interest in books and nature. Mascort promised them financial backing. With the recruitment of Scotsman Andy Elliott - not only an ornithologist but also an expert linguist - the epic project was underway.

International acclaim

When news of the project leaked out in the early 1990s, most birders were frankly sceptical, especially when finding out that the series would be produced by an unknown publishing house in Barcelona run by two Catalans and a Scotsman.

The cynicism, however, turned into amazement when the first volume was released in 1992. The ornithological world was stunned, and HBW received excellent reviews in almost all of the world's specialized journals. The success of the series has been ascribed to the authoritative and well-written texts, the pervasive academic rigour, the stunning photographs and the superb illustrations. Whatever factors may have been involved, the result was an international prestige that permitted the incorporation of renowned experts from all over the world as authors for future volumes, which in turn resulted in better and better reviews for each new volume. Thanks to the collaboration of expert writers and artists, HBW has become a truly international project, so far drawing contributions from 200 pre-eminent specialists, more than 30 illustrators and over 800 photographers from around the world.

Publication schedule

The production of HBW volumes involves the compilation of enormous amounts of information and scores of original illustrations. A project like this could not be done overnight. From the very beginning, the HBW editors understood that, for a series to be of greater use, the gap between each volume must be as short as possible. This could only be achieved by working on several volumes simultaneously. It took several years to get up to speed, but by Volume 7, each new volume of HBW appeared at regular yearly intervals, which means that this series is currently the fastest way of obtaining thorough and fully illustrated information on absolutely every one of the families in the Class Aves.

General Objectives

HBW aims to become an extensive reference work to what is probably the best known of all the classes in the Animal Kingdom. The work displays the extraordinary diversity of birds, covering aspects such as taxonomic relationships, evolutionary history, ecology, general habits, breeding strategies and the current status of populations on a global level. One of the main aims is to give comprehensive worldwide coverage from a genuinely international point of view, enhancing an appreciation of their diversity on a global rather than a regional scale
In accord with the close link with BirdLife International, the work also seeks to emphasize status and conservation and thus contribute towards the protection of birds and their habitats. There are many books dealing with the subject of conservation, but HBW goes a step further by analysing the status and conservation of all species, not just those that are known or thought to be threatened.


Given the major developments in the field of classification in recent years, including DNA testing, the task of deciding the taxonomic treatment at family level has not been easy. Generally, HBW editors have opted for more traditional classifications, although the most significant alternatives always receive consideration in the HBW text.

Family Texts

The family accounts are useful, reliable, and readable essays accompanied by a generous use of colour photographs. It is accessible to the lay reader without shirking the obligations to science. The depth of information on each family, written by well-qualified experts, is comparable to the information provided in many family monographs, and the result is a rare combination of rigorous scholarship with an infectious enthusiasm for the subject.

This information, separated from the texts of the species accounts, helps the reader to emphasize the similarities between related birds and also to show the range of variation. The family text includes numerous illustrative examples that give a general idea of the members of the family, including those species about which very little is known.

The family text is organized in different sections that cover the main biological aspects of birds. These are Systematics, Morphological Aspects, Habitat, General Habits, Voice, Food and Feeding, Breeding, Movements, Relationship with Man, and Status and Conservation. The family text closes with a General Bibliography.


The family texts are amply illustrated with stunning full-colour photos which depict a great number of the species covered, including many that have rarely been photographed. No stone has been left unturned to carefully select from the best work of over close to 1000 professionals, and the result is an array of visual imagery, informative and artistic in equal measure. The photographs have been selected primarily with the object of illustrating aspects of biology or ecology that are mentioned or explained in the text, such as methods of thermoregulation, feeding techniques or breeding behaviour. Pictures are accompanied by extensive and informative captions.

Species Accounts

The species accounts offer a detailed description in a condensed form of the topics covered in the family text, although they are exclusively dedicated to each of the species forming part of the family in question. They open with a heading covering the nomenclature of the species. Names are also given in French, German and Spanish. The remaining sections are Taxonomy, Subspecies and Distribution, Descriptive notes, Habitat, Food and Feeding, Breeding, Movements and Status and Conservation. A Bibliography section is included at the end of each species account.
Without exception, each species account is accompanied by a distribution map, whose main function is to give a rough idea of the range of the species.


The Species Accounts section is appropriately illustrated with plates showing all species, including all significant sexual and subspecific differences, of all of the families covered. Since HBW does not intend to function as a field guide, illustration of plumage variation has been limited to the principally known types (male and female, and important geographical variations) without including immature and non-breeding plumages.
All the birds appearing in a plate have been painted to the same scale, and they have been placed strategically to correspond with the systematic order of species in the species accounts to facilitate direct comparison.
It is inevitable that a team of artists would be necessary for a project of this magnitude, but, although slight differences in style are apparent, none has fallen below a very acceptable standard, especially considering that many of the species illustrated in the HBW have never been illustrated before. The over 1000 plates, with about 20,000 figures, in 16 Volumes will be a living, working monument to all the world's birds.


The section of References at the end of each volume consists of two parts. The first, titled References of Scientific Descriptions, contains the bibliographical details of the original descriptions of every genus, species and subspecies accepted in HBW. The other part, the General List of References, includes the full reference for all the citations appearing in the book.



Each volume concludes with an index which lists English and scientific names with easy-to-find page numbers for all orders, families, genera, species and subspecies treated in the volume. Also, the page numbers of the photographs are included in this index.

Some bird books are designed to give practical advice, while others serve as works of reference or are simply a source of sheer pleasure. In one way or another, HBW exceeds expectations at every level. It continues to hold its place as the definitive published work on the world's birdlife.