Australian Birding - March 2000

Australian Birding
March 2000

Josep del Hoyo, Andrew Elliott and Jordi Sargatal, editors: Handbook of the Birds of the World, Volume 5: Barn-owls to Hummingbirds. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona, 1999.
Hardcover, 759 pp., 75 colour plates, more than 600 colour photographs. $185

This is the fifth in the proposed twelve volume series and covers the Owls, Oilbird, Owlet-nightjars, Frogmouths and Potoos, Nightjars, Swifts, Tree-Swifts and Hummingbirds.

In his foreword, Dr Nigel Collar writes that it is an astonishing achievement and that reviewers of earlier volumes have found their critical rapture mixed with a sense of awe. It took only a short time to realise that Dr Collar’s words were, if anything, conservative. This is an astonishing book whose design and content lift the concept of handbooks to a new level. The text is extraordinarily comprehensive, totally up to date, highly readable and, in places, disturbingly thought-provoking. The illustrations are of an equally high standard and are in two parts, a large selection of excellent photographs and a series of field guide style plates depicting all species. The title page enumerates 38 authors and 19 artists yet there is a uniformity of style, content and painting which could all have come from one pen and one brush.

Dr Collar’s foreword, "Risk Indicators and Status Assessment in Birds" is a very disturbing treatise on the state of the world environment and the effect that it is having on bird populations. He comes to the rather dismal conclusion that there is little that we can do to prevent the continuing degradation of the environment and the inevitable loss of many species. "The year 2000 is a ridge top from which the planet’s lovers of wild places can look back at a rich landscape haunted by wasted opportunities, and peer forward at a dustbowl signed by wasted words, ‘biodiversity’ prime among them." His evidence is compelling but he does, at least, point out that there is still a vast amount that can be done to slow the decline.

The species accounts are preceded for each family by a lengthy and fascinating chapter with sections on Systematics, Morphological Aspects, Habitat, General Habits, Voice, Food and Feeding, Breeding, Movements, Relationships with Man and Status and Conservation. The authors have drawn very widely on the latest information and melded it into highly readable prose which is very hard to put down. In an innovative touch, at the start of each chapter silhouettes of the largest and smallest member of the family are compared with either a human hand or half a human form. The 40 gram Elf Owl is only one hundredth the weight of the European Eagle Owl but even this seems huge against the thumbsized Bee Hummingbird, only five centimetres long and weighing less than two grams.

For Australian readers, the Owls, Frogmouths, Nightjars and Swifts clearly have the most relevance and there has been an explosion of knowledge here. In 1992, the second edition of Burton’s Owls of the World was published and listed 143 species. Now HBW recognises no fewer than 205, one or two of them newly discovered in the wild but most resulting from DNA work which demonstrates relationships with an accuracy never previously possible. It is through this that the Christmas Island Hawk-owl has come to be recognised as a full species.

I tried hard to think of published information on Australian owls that is not included. The disastrous introduction of Masked Owls to Lord Howe Island is there. The recent problem in Queensland where owls have been killed by rodenticides is mentioned, as are the surveys of forest owls in south-eastern Australia. Pavey and Smyth’s study on mobbing of Powerful Owls is cited while in a section on owls in folklore I found the Aboriginal dreamtime myth of "Dumbi the owl".

With so many modern bird books concentrating heavily on identification, it is a delight to find so much here on function and behaviour. There is a fascinating chapter on the strange Oilbird and an equally interesting section on the Potoos, the upright-perching relatives of the frogmouths and nightjars.

In Australia, swifts are mainly thought of as passing birds of the sky, racing through in front of a southerly wind change to disappear with it. This book shows them in all their variety with photographs and descriptions of the Great Dusky Swifts which twist their way between the cascades of the huge South American waterfalls to nest on the cliffs behind. On the black side, the trade in the nests of the Edible-nest Swiftler has reached the stage where populations of swiftlets have fallen by over 90% yet, with the export income to Indonesia alone amounting to over a billion US dollars per annum, there is little incentive for governments to control the trade.

The 328 species of hummingbird make up the world’s second biggest bird family. For me, new information abounds here. There is a complex description of their adaptations for hovering which has brought about great changes in bone and muscle structure and requires a daily fluid intake of 1.5 times the bird’s body weight. Some of them can briefly reach a speed of 150 km/hr in chasing flight, a speed which a Peregrine would find hard to match. Here too, there have been many recent discoveries with 23 new species recognised since 1945.

The photographs make the book a work of art as well as of reference. Many are of species very rarely recorded on film. In a display where there is not one bad picture, it is hard to single out favourites but I was particularly taken with the strange-looking Crested Owl, the Barred Eagle Owl in its dark rainforest setting, the Burrowing Owl perched on a mound of red earth in the late afternoon sun, and the two little Sokoke Scops Owls, sitting together on a vine in a Kenyan forest. Among the hummingbirds, there is a host of brilliant flight pictures with a number of outstanding shots by Michael and Patricia Fogden, Luis Mazariegos and Gunter Ziegler.

The species accounts are well set out, concise yet comprehensive and, as far as I can tell from the species that I know, thoroughly accurate. They are accompanied by well-drawn maps.

The coloured plates are clear and simple and, as far as possible, appear opposite the relevant species account. Generally the birds are depicted at rest, apart from the swifts which are shown in flight and the nightjars which appear both flying and sitting. Numerous sub-species are shown but no juveniles. In a work of this breadth, that was probably asking the impossible.

There is an exhaustive 55 page bibliography, and an individual bibliography with each species account.

HBW is produced on finest heavy paper and this choice is amply justified by the high standard of reproduction of both pictures and text. It is a big book, weighing nearly four kilograms and, at $185 for one twelfth part of the series, is not going to appear in many personal collections. That is a pity for this is a monumental work of great importance and equal beauty. Sadly, for some species, it may also be an epitaph.

David Hollands