Birdwatch - March 2008

Birdwatch
March 2008

TOOLS OF THE TRADE 

FROM FOSSIL BIRDS TO THE LATEST SPLITS 

  • Handbook of the Birds of the World Volume 12, edited by Josep del Hoyo, Andrew Elliott and   David Christie (Lynx Edicions, Barcelona, 2007).
  • 816 pages, 56 colour plates, 436 photographs, 638 distribution maps.
  • ISBN 9788496553422. Hbk, £145. 

AND SO WE'VE arrived at volume 12 of HBW, the reference guide par excellence to the world's birdlife. As might be expected, it cuts the proverbial mustard in no uncertain terms. With 12 authors, eight artists and three editors, each eagerly awaited tome in this benchmark series represents an enormous undertaking for all involved. Volume 12, covering picathartes to tits and chickadees, opens with a foreword that summarises the avian fossil record as we know and understand it today, and a truly fascinating 32 pages of reading it makes. There is much to be amazed at in this fossil round-up and the story holds many surprises. Did you realise that approximately 1,600,000 species of bird have been estimated to have existed in the 150 million years that birds have been evolving (compare that to the sum of 9,800 or so species alive today and do the math). This engrossing chapter is followed by a fulsome glossary and almost 11 pages of references. We are then given an introduction to the volume before getting straight into the main body of the book.

The first birds given coverage, the two enigmatic Picatharts species (or 'rockfowl'), are treated eruditely and generously in eight pages that cover systematics, morphological aspects, habitat, general habits, voice, food and feeding, breeding, movements, relationship with man, status and conservation, and a general bibliography.

The species accounts discuss the same information, except to a species as opposed to a family level - in other words, comprehensively.

We are then guided through the babblers, parrotbills, Australasian babblers, logrunners, jewel-babblers and allies, whistlers, Australasian robins, fairy-wrens, bristlebirds, thornbills, Australian chats, sittellas, Australasian treecreepers and tits and chickadees.

All are covered similarly and meticulously and are illustrated with high-quality photographs and excellent paintings by bird artists Norman Ariott, Hilary Burn, John Cox, Ren Hathway, Ian Lewington, Chris Rose, Jan Wilczur and Tim Worfoik.

Taxonomic developments are always of interest to the avid birder, and HBW is rightly regarded as a reliable indicator of current thinking. Showing its up-to-the-minute credentials, Bugun Liocichla - described as recently as 2006 - is included in a major handbook for the first time. Of interest to the Western Palearctic birder, Canary Blue Tit Cyanistes teneriffae is split from 'Common' Blue Tit C caeruleus, though mainland African forms are retained in the latter rather than the former (with which previous authors have treated them as 'African Blue Tit'). Sombre Tit, however, remains undivided.

Overall, this volume is a joy to hold and pore over, and although the asking price may seem a little weighty it is, for me, nothing short of miraculous that a work of this quality and depth can be retailed for anything under a couple of hundred pounds.

If you own the preceding 11 volumes, buying volume 12 will be a no-brainer. But if you haven't yet invested in HBW, take a good look at what's on offer, consider saving your pennies, and then buy the 12 published volumes.Thoroughly recommended.

Des McKenzie