International Zoo News - July 2002

International Zoo News
July 2002

HANDBOOK OF THE BIRDS OF THE WORLD: Volume 7 - JACAMARS TO WOODPECKERS edited by Josep del Hoyo, Andrew Elliott and Jordi Sargatal. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona, 2002. 613 pp., 70 colour plates, over 300 colour photos, hardback. ISBN 84-87334-37-7. £110.00 from specialist bookshops or directly from the publishers, Lynx Edicions, Montseny, 8, 08193 Bellaterra, Barcelona, Spain (Tel: +34-93-594-7710; Fax: +34-93-592-0969; E-mail: lynx@hbw.com; Internet: www.hbw.com). (For prices in other currencies please check with the publishers.)

A friend of mine, a lifelong zoo enthusiast who was always a self-proclaimed 'mammal man', recently told me that he had signed on to Lynx Edicions' instalment plan to buy the first seven volumes of the Handbook of the Birds of the World (HBW). On my expressing surprise at this uncharacteristic behaviour, he explained that the barrage of praise from reviewers (myself included) had finally convinced him that this was something too good to miss. He has not been disappointed - having received his first two volumes, he commented in tones of mild astonishment that birds were 'just as interesting as mammals.' To those of us who hailed the first volume as marking a new epoch in ornithological publishing, and have greeted each of its successors with growing wonder and delight, this may look like stating the obvious. But we were the Handbook's natural fan-club: the fact that it can bring about a road-to-Damascus conversion of people not initially predisposed in its favour is, in a way, an even more convincing proof of its excellence.

Volume 7 covers six families, Jacamars, Puffbirds, Barbets, Toucans, Honeyguides and Woodpeckers, with respectively 18,35,82,34,17 and 216 species. As always, I find that much of the pleasure of HBW comes from finding out how much I didn't know. In the case of the jacamars and puffbirds, this means almost everything about them - perhaps to some extent understandably, since these exclusively neotropical families are very seldom found in zoos. (Jacamars, it appears, are fairly conspicuous in their native regions, but I find some consolation for my ignorance in the fact that puffbirds are described as 'relatively little known'!) With toucans, barbets and woodpeckers, of course, the regular zoo-goer is on more familiar territory, though the diversity and wide distribution of the latter two families mean that few collections can claim to exhibit a representative sample of species. As for honeyguides, well, I previously knew only one fact about them - that some of them lead ratels to bees' nests - and this, I was disappointed to learn, isn't necessarily so. The species concerned, the greater honeyguide (Indicator indicator), may do this, but 'there appears to be little real evidence to support such claims.' It really does, though -and apparently deliberately - guide human beings to nests, and is traditionally rewarded with a chunk of the honeycomb. (Surprisingly, wax rather than honey or larvae is the bee product which features largely in the bird's diet.)

Honeyguides are interesting in plenty of other ways - for example, all species so far studied in detail are 'brood parasites', i.e. their eggs are laid and their chicks reared in the nests of other species (typically but not exclusively barbets). But I must avoid the temptation to fill this review with information I've acquired from the book before me. Even the most expert professional ornithologist couldn't fail to learn something new from any page of any volume of the Handbook. And as the series has continued, the information provided has become ever more comprehensive. I mentioned in my review of the previous volume (I.Z.N. 48 (4), 248-9) that the editors were consulting their readers before deciding between two options -to restrict coverage in order to keep the complete Handbook to the previously projected 12 volumes, or to continue the recent trend towards fuller treatment and so extend the series to 16. The fact that, of almost 3,000 replies, 93% favoured the latter option renders my individual praise virtually redundant - when your readers are that supportive, who needs reviewers?

Each of the last few volumes of HBW has included as a Foreword an extended essay on some general topic of ornithological relevance. This useful custom continues in Volume 7, for which Errol Fuller has contributed an authoritative 58-page account of Extinct Birds (extinct, that is, since the traditional cut-off date of 1600). These are big pages, remember, so this is practically a book in itself, full of the melancholy fascination the topic always evokes. There is, of course, a grey area - Fuller mentions several species which re-appeared after being officially 'extinct' for 50 or 100 years, and the jury is still out on a number of the birds he includes. (In the case of the imperial and ivory-billed woodpeckers, he refers readers to their entries in the main body of the book, though both he and the authors of the species accounts admit that both birds are probably extinct.) A final section on 'Hypothetical Species and Mystery Birds' ventures briefly into the territory of the cryptozoologists.

Enthusiasts for modern information technology have been predicting the 'death of the book' for many years, without being able to point to any real evidence that this death is imminent. The Handbook offers a convincing argument to the contrary. A CD or website could conceivably contain as much information as HBW - though no currently available CD or website does - but no computer technology that I'm aware of can yet offer the convenience, pleasure in use and ease of access of a well-designed book. Books, I suspect, are here to stay; and none more so than the Handbook of the Birds of the World, for not merely are the individual volumes built to last, with bindings, paper and print quality to match the finest collectors' editions of the past, but the publishers plan to keep the Handbook up to date in a way seldom attempted before in any work of reference. After Volume 16 is published - in, at a guess, 2010 or thereabouts - they intend to issue a series of supplements including all relevant information published, and any species or subspecies discovered, too recently to have appeared in the original volumes. There seems to be no good reason why this updating process should not continue indefinitely. It's something of a reviewer's cliche to say that some book 'must not be missed'; but for anyone with a serious interest in birds, or in zoology in general, HBW is as near to being an essential purchase as can be imagined. When I reviewed the first volume, back in 1993, urged readers to start saving to buy the complete series. If you've missed out so far, it isn't too late - the publishers offer a number of ways of spreading the cost. Like the friend I mentioned at the start of this review, you won't regret your decision.

by Nicholas Gould