British Birds - 99:215-220; April 2006

British Birds
99:215-220; April 2006

HANDBOOK OF THE BIRDS OF THE WORLD. VOL. 10. CUCKOO-SHRIKES TO THRASHERS

By Josep del Hoyo, Andrew Elliott & David Christie (eds.).
Lynx Edicions, Barcelona, 2005.
896 pages; 81 colour plates;
427 photographs; distribution maps.
ISBN 84-87334-72-5. Hardback, £120.00.  

Well, here it is: the latest instalment of this monumental work from Lynx! Writing a review for Volume 10 in this amazing series is almost impossible. What do you compare it with? The series has redefined the gold standard for bird books, and all one can say is that it is every bit as good as we have come to expect.

Volume 10 covers a glorious group of birds which embraces some of the most spectacularly beautiful and charismatic families, including cuckoo-shrikes and minivets (Campephagidae), fairy-bluebirds (Irenidae), waxwings (Bombycillidae), and chats and forktails (Turdidae) - along with some of the most grindingly difficult; the bulbuls, brownbuls and greenbuls (Pycnonotidae) particularly spring to mind. Throughout, the text is authoritative, the plumage descriptions are accurate and concise, the maps and illustrations are up to the consistently high standard of previous volumes, and the photographs are simply stunning. And, I am sure that I am not the first to say that the inclusion of a section on Status and Conservation for every species is truly invaluable. As usual, there is an introductory section that does not relate directly to the species covered in the main body of the book. This time, it explores the ecology and impact of non-indigenous birds, and presents an interesting and comprehensive synthesis of our current views on alien introductions. A real attraction of HBW is that front-rank authors have been given the remit to write widely on each family, covering far more than the usual summaries of distribution, ecology, habitat, etc. As a result, I learnt something on almost every page (did you know that 49 subspecies of Island Thrush Turdus poliocephalus are currently recognised?). Male Robin Accentors Prunella rubeculoides peck their mate's cloaca (it's true, there's a photo!), stimulating the ejection of a drop of sperm from a previous mating. In species where a female has more than one male partner, this may convince each that he has fathered her brood, and so encourage him to help to feed the nestlings. While not wishing to appear to be obsessed with sex, it was interesting, in the introductory section on the thrushes Turdidae, to read a section on extra-pair fertilisation: Bluethroat Luscinia svecica wins, with up to 40% of progeny being extramarital! And as a complete change of scene, a few pages further on, there are extracts from poems, including the following lines from Tennyson: 

Summer is coming, summer is coming,

I know it, 1 know it, I know it.

Light again, leaf again, life

again, love again! 

Spot on! It could only be a Song Thrush Turdus philomelos

Turning to the species accounts, the taxonomy is a mix of the adventurous and the conservative. Although probably not intended as a concession to the lister, Red-throated T. ruficollis and Black-throated Thrushes T. atrogularis are split, as are Dusky T. eunomus and Naumann's Thrushes T. naumanni, despite extensive overlap and intergradation in both pairs. Conversely, the eastern and western forms of Black-eared Wheatears Oenanthe hispanica remain con-specific, with the added suggestion that Pied Wheatear Oe. pleschanka may also belong in this species. In addition, Common Stonechat Saxicola torquatus is retained as a single species, despite recent molecular evidence for differentiation into at least three species. These are all problems currently vexing the BOU's Taxonomic Subcommittee, and we are clearly not alone in struggling for uniformity. The authors are absolutely correct that further research is essential.This is a wonderful book, well up to the standard of earlier volumes. Although they are appearing with bank-balance-worrying regularity, the publishers are to be congratulated on keeping to their schedule. Volume 16 is due in 2011 - just in time for my 70th birthday! 

David T. Parkin