British Birds - December 2002

British Birds
December 2002

HANDBOOK OF THE BIRDS OF THE WORLD. VOL. 7. JACAMARS TO WOODPECKERS Edited by Josep del Hoyo, Andrew Elliott & Jordi Sargatal. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona, 2002. 613 pages; 70 colour plates; 317 photographs; 408 distribution maps. ISBN 84-87334-37-7. Hardback, £110.00.

I have a little confession to make. The epic HBW series may have reached Volume 7 but this is the first tome I have clapped eyes on. Eyes are not enough. I clamped two arms around it and arched my back to relieve the postman of the heaviest single item that he has ever delivered to my house. Although I was immediately captivated by the content, artwork, retina-piercingly sharp photographs and glittering layout, my wife saw it in a different context: 'Take that thing off the kitchen table - the kids need room to eat their breakfast.' So it is big. Five other words sum it up better -colossal, lavish, definitive, meaty, beautiful. Volume 7 is a thudding portmanteau which devotes over 500 pages to just six species groups. These are all the planet's jacamars (Galbulidae), puffbirds (Bucconidae), barbets (Capitonidae), toucans (Ramphastidae), honeyguides (Indicatoridae) and woodpeckers (Picidae). Not, you might have guessed, the stuff that a parochial Irish reviewer would have a lot of familiarity with. In truth, I have seen virtually none of the birds in the book, but I enjoyed the wonderfully lucid text about them all, which grabbed and held my attention throughout, especially when Woody Woodpecker was mentioned on page 392.

I found browsing the book exhilarating. It was like driving a fast car with lots of oomph under the bonnet. The depth of good, jargon-free coverage was amazing. I could immerse myself in species after species and discover pretty much the A to Z of everything that is known about each. I guess, like most readers, I was more keen to read about the likes of Black Woodpeckers Dryocopus martius rather than Black-girdled Barbets Capito dayi but, no matter how obscure the species, I finished up drawn to the worrying 'Status and Conservation' paragraph at the end of every account. Sometimes this made depressing reading. You cross your fingers and hope that quality books such as this will serve as a wake-up call to decision-makers in smoke-filled rooms scattered across foreign (and domestic) lands.

As a reminder of what has been lost, Volume 7 contains a quite brilliant 53 pages devoted, as a foreword by Errol Fuller, to extinct birds, each illustrated in splendid new paintings in glorious 'living' colour. Like a moth to a flame, I was dazzled by the case histories and read the whole lot in one sitting. Tales of extinction exert a strange pull. The fact that a species is gone for ever is a horrific concept, yet this makes permanent loss doubly fascinating. I suppose, in a morbid sort of way, that this section of the book was one of my favourites and several accounts read like 'whodunnits'. The best saga involves Stephens Wren Xenicus lyalli - but read the book to find out what happened.

Lynx, the Barcelona-based publishers, have bravely conducted a readership poll to test customer satisfaction with HBW so far. Not surprisingly, responses have been very favourable, but Lynx are still listening for feedback. Well, here is mine. Please add English names to the photograph captions. My knowledge of Latin isn't that bad, but while I can handle Jynx torquilla, I go to pieces over Stactolaema olivacea woodwardi. Naturally, Latin names appear in italics but they are also enclosed in brackets - why? The key for each plate contains only a partial list of the birds depicted. Those species written about on the page directly opposite the plate are not included in the plate's key. I found this not so much confusing as simply annoying. I want to look at a key and see every bird in its accompanying plate listed there. And another thing, when you look up a species in the index, say Ivory-billed Woodpecker Campephilus principalis, you are directed to the species account and other text mentions for that species. The index does not list photographs of the same species found elsewhere in the book. Hence, I was initially bitterly disappointed not to see any photographs of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers (since I knew good photographs existed) until I stumbled upon them on page 418! This 'problem' affects numerous species.

What about the paintings? In the main, absolutely great. The artists' styles are different but the best are really good. Some plates are fiddly, for example small look-alike woodpeckers positioned on the page in identical poses resembling a company of tin soldiers. Other plates, also featuring woodpeckers, are a joy. My personal favourite was plate 48 with Buff-rumped Woodpecker Meiglyptes tristis looking stunning - and it is common in its range across south-east Asia (where it occurs in the wintering range of Yellow-browed Warbler Phylloscopus inornatus, so watch out Flamborough Head!).

When I finally shut the last page I felt a warm glow of satisfaction - as even I could have done a better job on the back-cover artwork. One final word of warning: if ordering a copy for Christmas, be sure to check your chimney's diameter first - Santa might have a job getting this one down the hole!

by Anthony McGeehan