Emu - 2007, 107, 245-251

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Emu, 2007, 107, 245-251

Royal australian ornithologists union

Handbook of the Birds of the World. Volume 11. Old World Flycatchers to Old World Warblers

  • Edited by Josep del Hoyo, Andrew Elliott and David A. Christie 2006.
  • Published by Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.
  • 798 pp., 55 colour plates, 723 maps, >300 colour photographs. Hardback, €205, $A395, ISBN 84-96553-06-X.

Volume 11 in the stunning series Handbook of the Birds of the World (HBW) continues the superb quality that makes every volume a pleasure to review, peruse, read, and enjoy for just knowing that it exists.

Moving deeper into the oscine passerines, Volume 11 covers families predominantly of southern continents as well as more northern ones: Muscicapidae (Old World Flycatchers), Platy-steiridae (Batises and Wattle-Eyes), Rhipiduridae (Fantails), Monarchidae (Monarch-Flycatchers), Regulidae (Kinglets and Firecrests), Polioptilidae (Gnatcatchers), Cisticolidae (Cistic-olas and allies), and Sylviidae (Old World Warblers). Remarkably, the magpie-larks Grallina are not included, whether in or close to the monarch-flycatchers - more of this later.Volume 11 retains HBW's now familiar, winning structure. The Foreword on a key aspect of avian biology this time covers Ecological Significance of Bird Populations. This wide-ranging essay by Çagan Hakki Sekercioglu of Stanford University covers Conceptual Issues (Diversity and Ecosystem Function, Equivalence/Redundancy, Body Size), Birds as Mobile Links, Seed Dispersal, Pollination (with a paragraph specifically on Australia), Predation and Pest Control (Insectivores, Raptors, Scavenging including special reference to the tragic declines of Asian vultures), Nutrient Deposition, Ecosystem Engineers and Other Ecological Actors and, finally, Beyond Ecosystems. Remarks on some philosophical, moral and ethical issues conclude the essay. These will strike a note with all who see birds as enriching our world and who view their declines as cause for a 'profound sense of loss' to humans.  

The book's core accounts of families then follow and these have two sections. First, a thorough introductory review to the family's systematics and biology is illustrated with stunning photographs that are one of HBW's great gems. These reviews will likely long stand as key references for each family. In Volume 11 they run to as much as 80 pages (Sylviidae). Bach review has opening notes on systematics. These explain how HBW has circumscribed, i.e. defined or set, the limits to each family and thus why certain species and genera were included or excluded from a given family. Thorny problems of this kind surround many passerine families so these notes are all important. Next are sections on biology under headings Morphology, Habitat, Habits, Voice, Food and Feeding, Breeding, Movements, Relationships with Man, Status and Conservation. Page by page, photographs are perfectly matched with subject matter of the accompanying text. That so many appropriate, superb photographs exist never ceases to amaze me with each new volume of HBW. This is a credit to the army of wildlife photographers out there taking the photos. The thrill of opening a new volume of HBW to behold the beauty of these introductory reviews let alone their scientific value is something I hope many more people will experience.

Following each family's introductory review are its species' accounts. Here each species is illustrated, usually with more than one age, sex or subspecies. Accompanying texts concisely but thoroughly review what is known of each species. Literature citations conclude the volume. They begin with the original citations for where each species in the volume was described, a remarkably useful feature.

One might argue that HBW has had enough time to accommodate more of the recent advances in passerine systematics and so alter its planned, conservative sequence of oscine families. I refer to C. Sibley and J. Ahlquist's (1990, Phylogeny and Classification of Birds, New Haven Press) revolutionary understanding of the subject and clarifications to it that are found in later papers (e.g. Barker et at 2004, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 101, 11040-11045; Ericson et at. 2002, Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B 269, 235-241, and references therein). Use of an at times conservative sequence is understandable, however, both because of the work's timing and scope and because it is wise to let major new changes settle. Further, I suspect that preparation of species-accounts was already well advanced by the time more recent molecular work appeared.

Not so conservative, however, are the families themselves that are recognised. Here we do see reflections of the revolution that Sibley and Ahlquist started. Breaking up the Sylviidae and recognising Cisticolidae, the members of which were formerly treated in Sylviidae, is a case in point (see Alstrom et al. 2006, Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 38, 381-397). Thus the families covered here and in the preceding two volumes are a phylogenetically heterogeneous mix. This can obscure the duality of oscine passerines into either the various 'corvoid', endemic Australo-Papuan and Pacific families or the passeridan families that occur mostly elsewhere. At worst, this makes it difficult to track down which volume of HBW covers which passerines. HBW's website has seen this coming and provides a useful index. 

These issues may seem remote at best and irrelevant at worst to some. Recall, however, that a little more then twenty years ago, we still thought most Australo-Papuan passerines were closely related to their boreal ecological counterparts. Understanding the similarities to be a result of convergence on a massive scale, not close relationship, has allowed a far better understanding of the birds' biology, not to mention building better classifications. Understanding the evolution of co-operative breeding is a prime example. This is why it is important to establish which birds belong in which family and how the composition and sequence of families can best reflect their evolution. 

Sparing this subject and the birds themselves a few moments' thought is therefore rewarding. Passerine birds are one of the world's great evolutionary radiations of vertebrates. DNA sequences are helping to clarify many of its details with some problems easier to crack than others. That DNA sequences don't always shed as much light on the details of some question of relationships as quickly as one would like shows how daunting some of these problems are. The task of unravelling how ecological and behavioural convergences have sidetracked and twisted our understanding of the birds' evolutionary history can read like a good detective story if given a chance. Seen that way, one's appreciation of the birds themselves only increases. HBW enlivens these problems. With HBW, one is quickly introduced to the problems and can see the sometimes staggering similarity between bird families that one is and isn't familiar with in the field. This is not to be confused with the sometimes harder-to-see evidence of true, close evolutionary relationship. All of this recalls Sekercioglu's final point in his opening essay - birds bring value to us in many ways. 

First and last families in Volume 11 are the Muscicapidae (Old World Flycatchers) and Sylviidae (Old World Warblers), respectively, and they comprise about half of the book. The tasks of pinning down which species and genera should be placed in these families to see them as natural evolutionary groupings are surely two of the most trenchant and typical trouble spots in passerine systematics. For example, the saxicoline chats are excluded from Volume 11's Muscicapidae having been treated within Volume 10's Turdidae (thrushes). Recent molecular studies (e.g. Voelker and Spellman 2004, Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 30, 386-394) found them to have closer affinity with the muscicapids here in Volume 11. HBW itself hinted at this when treating them in Volume 10. A similar problem is placement of the two peculiar species of south-east Asian Culicicapa, here treated in Muscicapidae. 

Second family in this book is the gorgeous Platysteiridae (Batises and Wattle-eyes) of Africa; the White-tailed Shrike Lanioturdus torquatas, sometimes included in this group, is to be treated in the Malaconotidae in a later volume. Next is the Rhipiduridae (fantails) reviewed here by W Boles of the Australian Museum, Sydney. Boles notes fantails' affinities with drongos and monarch-flycatchers, cautioning that details are unclear. Conservatively, then, the fantails are here treated as single, well-defined group with monarch-flycatchers following. Drongos await treatment later. Problematic south-east Asian Culicicapa crops up again. Earlier mention of its two species in the introductory review to Muscicapidae noted relevant work to 1993. Boles, however, mentions Pasquet et a/.'s 2002, Comptes Rendus Biologies 325, 107-118) work and stresses that their relationships are still obscure. Editing could have been a little tighter here to better cross-reference Culicicapa in the introductory accounts of Old World Flycatchers, where they are treated, and the fantails. 

A similar issue of more direct interest to many readers of Emu is the only substantial negative comment I'd make of Volume 11. It is the exclusion of the magpie-larks from Monarchidae and indeed the whole volume. A robust combination of molecules and morphology has shown that the Australian Magpie-Lark (Grallina cyanoleuca) and New Guinean Torrent Lark (G bruijnii) share a close common ancestor with monarch-flycatchers and that they have adapted to terrestrial life e.g. Barker et al. 2004, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 101, 11040-11045). Despite acknowledgement of this in the introductory review of Monarchidae, a decision was made to exclude them. That's a shame as they are not due to appear for some while yet! 

Of the remaining families, I am familiar with Australian genera Cisticola (cisticolas), Megalurus (grassbirds), Cincloramphus (songlarks), Eremiornis (spinifexbird), and Acrocephalus (reed-warblers), and I have had the good fortune to see some gnatcatchers and kinglets in my travels. The broader comments made earlier about the fascinating debates surrounding the limits of passerine families apply to all the remaining families in Volume 11 especially, I reiterate, the Sylviidae. Some of these debates are old and some are new, the latter owing to molecular data highlighting new questions. As more research into these questions surfaces, their resolution through integrating molecular and the all-important more traditional datasets that anatomy and morphology offer should make for interesting times ahead.

Inevitably in a work like HBW, authors and illustrators have to deal with species they don't know too well. In Volume 11, the painting of the Willy Wagtail looks like the artist had never seen one or a photo of one. Recent range extensions of the Spinifexbird (Eremiornis carteri) to far north-western South Australia were missed, though published for some time; more radical extensions to the Flinders Ranges were published too recently to be mentioned (see review in Carpenter et al. 2006, South Australian Ornithologist 54, 280-283). 

Handbook of the Birds of the World is a superbly stimulating work. I always find that on looking at an HBW plate of birds unfamiliar to me, plumage patterns with which I am familiar constantly appear in birds unrelated to those I know. In Volume 11, for example, the African apalises in Plate 36 have patterns resembling birds as diverse as Banded Honeyeaters (Certhionyx pectoralis), Fairy Gerygones (Gerygone palpebrosa) and Golden Whistlers (Pachycephala pectoralis). Presumably, few genetic systems of control on plumage pattern have been repeatedly turned on and off in evolution. Asking whether a Black-capped Apalis (Apalis nigriceps) is patterned like a Golden Whistler because the same or different genetic switches have been independently activated, or a combination of both, is a question to which we inch closer to answering daily. First glimmerings of this sort of work are evident in work on the MC1R gene controlling melanin deposition in feathers (Theron et al. 2001, Current Biology 11, 50-557) and the role of calmodulin proteins in determining bill shape (Abzhanov et al. 2006, Nature 442, 563-567).

Readers of Emu, especially those in Australia, should get themselves comfortable and be ready to enjoy the ride that is coming their way as HBW in its next volumes moves into the realm of what we all know are right up there among the best birds in the world: the endemic Australo-Papuan corvoid passerines (except parrots, of course). If you aren't subscribing to HBW then the Lynx Edicions website is ready to entice you in all manner of imaginative ways. Failing that, make sure a reference library near you has it! 

Leo Joseph
Australian National Wildlife Collection, Canberra