Australian Bird Watcher - Vol. 19(2) June 2001

Australian Bird Watcher
Vol. 19(2) June 2001

Handbook of the Birds of the World, Volume 5, Barn-owls to Hummingbirds
edited by Josep del Hoyo, Andy Elliott and Jordi Sargatal. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona, 1999. Hardcover, pp. 760, colour plates 76, colour photos 406, maps 758, figures and tables 10, 30x24 cm. RRP $A260.

Readers should by now be well aware of the Handbook of the Birds of the World, which is up to volume 6 and is running in tandem with our own Handbook of Australian, New Zealand and Antarctic Birds, itself now up to volume 5 (passerines). HBW 5 is another spectacular volume in a magnificent series, and a further example of the successful partnership between BirdLife International and Lynx Edicions. HBW complements HANZAB nicely, the former being a concise summary of, and offering a global perspective on, Australasian species and their respective families. HBW is highly authoritative on Australasian species, drawing as it does on HANZAB as one of its sources and, in many cases, having Australian authors contribute texts for Australasian families or species. Previous HBW volumes are: Ostrich to ducks (1), vultures to guineafowl (2), Hoatzin to auks (3), and sandgrouse to cuckoos (4), with the final non-passerine volume (mousebirds to hornbills) being volume 6. It will take a similar number of volumes to cover the passerines.

HBW is organised by avian orders and families, the species accounts being preceded by a general family account covering the species in the respective family. The contributing authors are world experts in their field of specialisation or particular group of birds. Volume 5 covers the Strigiformes (two families: barn-owls and typical owls), the Caprimulgiformes (five families: owlet-nightjars, frogmouths, nightjars and relatives), and the Apodiformes (three families: swifts, tree-swifts and hummingbirds). Of these, we have in Australia the Tytonidae and Strigidae, the Aegothelidae, Podargidae and Caprimulgidae, and the Apodidae, with the Hemiprocnidae (tree-swifts) reaching New Guinea.

The Foreword to volume 5 is concerned with conservation status, being an essay on risk indicators and assessment of status for birds. It gives the latest IUCN criteria of threat, defined and explained. It also explores the factors implicated, in terms of ecological or life-history traits, in the susceptibility of birds to extinction. An important piece in itself, in this age of declining biodiversity, it also gives the information necessary to interpret the labels Vulnerable, Endangered and so forth in the species accounts.

A brief general introduction to volume 5 then follows, being mostly an explanation of aspects of that volume. Of necessity, it refers readers back to the general introduction to the whole series in volume 1.

The family accounts are arranged in the following format.

Diagram of the order: showing its component suborders (as applicable) and families.

Summary box and map: global distribution of the family, its characteristics, size range, habitats occupied, number of genera, species and subspecies, and number of species threatened or extinct since 1600.

Systematics: an overview of the fossil record, relationships and taxonomic issues within the family, with an exposition of historical and current understanding of infra-familial relationships such as subfamilies and tribes.

Morphological Aspects: an overview of body structure and plumage, particularly in relation to feeding and other adaptations.

Habitat: an overview of the habitats used by, and comparative ecology of, representative species.

General Habits: an overview of the social organisation, routines and behaviour of the species.

Voice: a description of the species' vocalisations, and their contexts or uses. Food and Feeding: an overview of the diet and foraging methods of the species.

Breeding: an overview of the mating system and breeding biology of the species, including clutch-size and the duration of phases of the breeding cycle.

Movements: an account of whether the species are resident, migratory or nomadic, and discussion of breeding and wintering grounds and movement routes, as applicable.

Relationship with Man: an account of the species in human culture, such as myths, legends or literature, coexistence in human landscapes, and economic exploitation.

Status and Conservation: a discussion of the conservation status of, and threats to, the species, and any conservation programs in place.

General Bibliography: a list of pertinent references on the family.

The species accounts are arranged as summary information or notes in the following format.

Other names: French, German and Spanish common names, and alternative English names.

Taxonomy: relationships of the genus and component species; any debate, e.g. over generic allocation or species limits.

Subspecies and Distribution (with map showing breeding, year-round and/or wintering areas).

Descriptive Notes (including voice where applicable, e.g. nocturnal birds): sufficient to identify the species, and distinguish it from similar congeners.

Habitat.

Food and Feeding.

Breeding.

Movements.

Status and Conservation.

Bibliography.

The volume concludes with a list of references to taxonomic descriptions and bibliographic citations in the family and species texts, and an index of common and scientific names. The bibliography for families and individual species is very comprehensive, with the reference list running to 56 pages and about 8000 entries.

The family accounts are liberally illustrated with high-quality colour photos of representative species, often showing particular aspects of behaviour, with captions that are designed to summarise important points in the text. The species accounts are complemented by accurate colour paintings of adult birds, showing male and female if these differ, with examples of at least the well-differentiated subspecies or morphs.

The sections in the family accounts on Systematics and Morphological Aspects, with diagrams of infra-familial divisions, are particularly helpful for a global understanding of the family. It is pleasing to see the Tytonidae account written by Australia's Murray Bruce, as the genus Tyto is centred on Australasia, even though the Barn Owl has been studied exhaustively elsewhere in the world. The accuracy of the Australasian owl texts is assured by their having been written by Australia's Penny Olsen. The accuracy of the Australian caprimulgiform and swift species texts, written by global experts Nigel Cleere, David Holyoak and Philip Chantler, is enhanced by their having used the latest Australian references (including HANZAB). As in previous HBW volumes, the Australian species accounts (and family texts as applicable) are thorough, well researched and up to date.

We don't have hummingbirds in Australia, but a flick through that family account with its many photos, and the colour plates of the species accounts, is a visual feast and a wealth of fascinating information, not to mention a tantalising glimpse of the avian gems in other parts of the world. Some of their English group-names are evocative: topaz, sapphire, emerald, woodnymph, ruby, jewelfront, brilliant, Inca, firecrown, sunangel, comet, sylph, fairy, sungem.

As the publishers have proudly noted, reviewers are running out of superlatives to describe this awesome series. The price per volume or for the set will probably preclude its inclusion on the bookshelves of many amateur ornithologists, but for those interested in a global view of Australian bird families and species, and their overseas relatives, this monumental reference work is essential reading. It is also essential for an understanding of the bird families that we don't have in Australia. For brevity and conciseness of important biological information, it is more digestible than HANZAB and equivalent tomes on the birds of other continents. As the obvious starting point for anyone wanting to engage in literature research on the bird families or species of the world, HBW is highly recommended.

Stephen Debus