Ibis (British Ornithologists' Union) - 2009, 151

Ibis (British Ornithologists' Union) - October 2009, 151

Del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. & Christie, D.A. (eds)
Handbook of the Birds of the World. Volume 13.
Penduline-tits to Shrikes. 880 pages, 60 colour
plates, 536 colour photographs, 611 distribution maps.
Barcelona: Lynx Edicions, 2008. Hardback, £150.00
(now €212.00), ISBN 978-84-96553-45-3.

Such is the astonishingly consistent high standard, speed and regularity of publication of volumes of HBW that not only is it now impossible to write a review of one without recourse to the cliché of hyperbole, it has also become a cliché for reviews to make this very point — this one is therefore no exception.

The content and layout of volume 13 follow the by-now familiar pattern. There is an introductory essay (the Foreword), in this case on bird migration by lan Newton, which topic is admirably and valuably summarized in 32 pages. Sixteen family chapters follow,compiled by up to three experts on each group (an exception is the Laniidae, which is partly the work of a committee: the International Shrike Working Group). The largest of these chapters cover the white-eyes (Zosteropidae) with 98 species, the sunbirds (Nectarinidae) — 132 species, and the honeyeaters (Meliphagidae) with 175. Between them, therefore, they account for more than two thirds of the 600 or so included species. Expansive accounts of the family as a whole, liberally peppered with photographs of the choicest quality (either because of the images themselves, or because of their subject matter or, often, both), and usefully spread across a range of 10 standard headings, starting with ‘Systematics’ and working through to ‘Status and conservation’, provide readable, state-of-knowledge digests for each. The individual species accounts then follow, all adhering to the formula established back in volume 1 (albeit these days signiflcantly expanded in length), which intersperse the plates. These, although the work of eight different artists, and therefore showing some variety of style, are all extremely pleasing to the eye and, at least for those groups that I know best, almost equally convincing in their accuracy. The work is concluded with a very extensive reference list, over 6000 according to the jacket: I take their word for it...

Lest this be thought unremitting hagiography, one can find a few things to criticize. Thus, the enigmatic Tit-hylia Fholidornis rushiae is said, and shown on the plate, to have chrome-yellow legs concolorous with the belly, whereas in fact, as the photograph of it on page 56 makes clear, these have distinctly orange overtones and hence contrast with the underparts. Rather more signiflcantly, species entries in the main text of the family accounts are not indexed (or at least usually are not; puzzlingly, there are a few exceptions). This means, for example, that (unless included in another family treated in the same volume, and hence indexed) one has to scan the text of the section on systematics to discover which species of doubtful or contentious affinities have been excluded from the adopted treatment.

One of many praiseworthy aspects of the work (as a whole, not just this volume) is the way in which what elsewhere is the generally pedestrian matter of captions to photographs has here been taken to new levels; running in some cases to a couple of hundred words or more, these are often little masterpieces of erudition, concisely tailored to complement and enhance the image by highlighting pertinent, interesting and sometimes downright quirky features or details.

Volume 13 of a 16-volume work is, I suspect, unlikely to attract many purchasers new to the series (and they would need deep pockets if they wished to catch up!. By the same token, I am sure that the overwhelming majority of those who decided to invest early on will neither be giving up now, nor ruing their original decision. The series has developed into an immense and an immensely valuable resource, as well as one that has a unique aesthetic. The first volume of HBW was published in 1992; performance over the past decade or so suggests there is every chance that the current remarkable, perhaps unparalleled, rate of progress for a work of this magnitude will be maintained, such that the entire work will have been published in under 20 years. Wow.

Lincoln Fishpool