Birding World - August 2002

Birding World
August 2002

Handbook of the Birds of the World Volume 7, Jacamars to Woodpeckers, edited by Josep del Hoyo, Andrew Elliott and Jordi Sargatal. 2002. Lynx Edicions. 613 pages, 49 colour plates and numerous colour photographs. Hardback, £110.00.

The latest sumptuous volume of the remarkable Handbook of the Birds of the World (or HBW as it is now generally called) carries on the high standard of previous volumes, and simply oozes quality in the way that we have come to expect from this series. Volume 7 covers two orders: Galbuliformes (jacamars and puffbirds) and Piciformes (barbets, toucans, honeyguides and woodpeckers).

As with previous volumes, the book starts with an essay on a chosen topic, and this time it is extinct birds, written by Errol Fuller. After a three-page introduction to the subject, the author deals with some 72 species that have become extinct in recent centuries - mostly, directly or indirectly, due to the activities of man. These accounts make salutary reading with all too many references to habitat destruction, the detrimental effect of introducing alien species, and especially the disastrous results of taking domestic cats onto small islands. Most of the species described are portrayed brilliantly to the highest of modern bird illustration standards, and it was perhaps these illustrations that most brought home to me what we have recently and tragically lost from the avian world. I would challenge any birder to look at these paintings and not be mortified by the demise of such species as Labrador Duck, Tahiti Rail, White-winged Sandpiper, Broad-billed Parrot, and the various species of Hawaiian 'O'os. Oh, for a time machine!

Next comes the introduction to Volume 7, in which the editors inform us that in their poll of some 3,000 subscribers to HBW, 90% supported the move to longer species accounts which will result in 16 volumes being required to complete the project rather than the original 12. So we can all look forward to another 9 wonderful volumes, although at current price levels it may be somewhat daunting for future birders to have to shell out in excess of £1,750 to buy the whole series in retrospect!

Each family is introduced by a lengthy chapter covering such topics as Systematics, Morphological Aspects, Habitat, General Habits, Voice, Food and Feeding, Breeding, Movements, Relationship with Man, and Status and Conservation. These family introductions vary in length from 14 pages for honey-guides to a remarkable 124 pages for woodpeckers. They are illustrated by a superb selection of well-researched photographs, which not only delve back into the archives for photographs of Ivory-billed Woodpecker, but also include recently obtained images such as those of the newly described Scarlet-banded Barbet, and the poorly-known and seldom studied White-faced Nunbird. I have two suggestions to make regarding the photographs in future volumes. Firstly, while the extended captions to each photograph include the English name of the species, this is often hard to pick out quickly (and this complaint has been made before). It would be useful to add the English name to the text given in square brackets that currently only includes the scientific name of the bird, the name of the photographer, and the location. There is ample space to do this in the margin where these lie and it would make it much easier to quickly identify the photographs. It might also be worth including the date when the photograph was taken, if this is known. Secondly, it would be very useful to include a page reference to the photographs within the main index. At present there is no way to find out of which species there are photographs in the book without laboriously turning through every page of the family introductions.

These family introductions often contain significant amounts of text about particular species, for example a whole column of text on each of Imperial and Ivory-billed Woodpeckers. This is not cross-referenced in any way either, and could usefully be included in the index, or referred to in the species accounts.

Following the family introductions are the individual species accounts, which are accompanied by colour plates of every species and many races. As referred to in the introduction, these accounts are generally longer than in the earlier volumes of the series and in some cases are now quite lengthy - for example Northern Flicker, which fills a full page with small print. As before, they are succinctly written and contain a wealth of information. Expanding these texts certainly makes them even more useful and one can easily appreciate why so many subscribers supported this move. The information in HBW always seems to be right up-to-date at the time of publication, and the editors clearly have their fingers well on the pulse of recent discoveries. I was impressed, for example, that they quote extensively from an as yet unpublished manuscript by Nicholas Athanas and Judy Davis summarising the observations they made at the first nest ever to be discovered of White-faced Nunbird in the spring of 2000.

As always, the plates are by a variety of artists -16 in all in this volume. Without exception, they are to a high modern standard, although the styles inevitably vary, as do the layout of the plates. I was struck by the variation in size in the images of the woodpeckers, for example, with the smaller species of Dendrocopus on Plate 32 looking rather tiny and spread out on the plate, with lots of space in between, while the piculets on Plate 25 look larger and more substantial. I wonder if artists of future plates could somehow be instructed to try to bring these design aspects into a more consistent series style?

As always with HBW, the taxonomic approach is bang up-to-date and, in some cases, ahead of its time, with splits being included that are not widely accepted as yet. I spotted a number of splits that I was not aware of, such as Buff-bellied Puffbird being split from White-necked Puffbird, Two-banded Puffbird being split from Rufous-throated Puffbird, and the African Grey Woodpecker, being split into Grey and Grey-headed (the latter being the form which occurs in Ethiopia and Kenya). It seems unfortunate to have chosen this English name for the new species, given that it has a red crown and nape, and that Grey-headed Woodpecker is the name that is commonly used for Picus canus in the Western Palearctic; the latter species is renamed Grey-faced Woodpecker in HBW.

Perhaps one of the delights of HBW is that it provides the reader with an overview of all the species in a family or genus to see how they fit together. This occasionally throws up some surprises. I had not previously realised that all 27 species of piculet in the genus Picumnus occur in the New World, except for the Speckled Piculet of southern Asia. Similarly, all 11 species of woodpecker in the genus Celeus occur in the Neotropics, except for the Rufous Woodpecker of southern Asia. One cannot help but wonder whether these two outlying species really belong in those genera. This is alluded to in the text as well, but no firm conclusions reached. Would DNA studies allow us to check the validity of this?

Volume 7 comes with a laminated card showing all the non-passerine families covered by Volumes 1-7 on one side, and an index to the species groups on the other. This is certainly useful, and also reveals changes to the order and family level taxonomy since Volume 1 was published. For example, Hoatzin is now a separate order, gulls and terns are separate families, sandgrouse and pigeons are now separate orders, lories are no longer a separate family, and jacamars and puffbirds now form a separate order. The Plains Wanderer has moved from the Gruiformes to the Charadriiformes and is allocated its own family.

It almost goes without saying that this is a superb book, containing fine illustrations and a masterly text. The editors, authors and artists are all to be congratulated on producing another fine volume. HBW continues to go from strength to strength -long may it thrive!

by David Fisher