International Zoo News - Volume 48/4, No. 309; June 2001

International Zoo News
Volume 48/4, No. 309, June 2001

HANDBOOK OF THE BIRDS OF THE WORLD: Volume 6 - MOUSEBIRDS TO HORNBILLS edited by Josep del Hoyo, Andrew Elliott and Jordi Sargatal. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona, 2001. 589 pp., 45 colour plates, 385 colour photos, hardback. ISBN 84-87334-30X. £110.00 from specialist bookshops or directly from the publishers, Lynx Edicions, Passeig de Gracia 12, 08007 Barcelona, Spain (Tel: +34-93-301-0777; Fax: +34-93-302-1475; E-mail: lynx@hbw.com; Internet: http://www.hbw.com). (For prices in other currencies please check with the publishers.)

THREATENED BIRDS OF THE WORLD edited by Alison J. Stattersfield, David R. Capper et al. Lynx Edicions and BirdLife International, 2000. xii + 852 pp., hardback. ISBN 0-946888-39-6. £70.00.

There is something inspiring about the concept of a multi-volume work of reference whose publication spans years or decades. Those who undertake such a project have something in common with the cathedral builders of medieval Europe - inspired by a dream, they are willing to devote the rest of their lives, if necessary, to the task of turning it into reality. With six volumes completed, the editors of the Handbook of the Birds of the World must long have lost any doubts they may once have had about the viability of their project; it has been a triumph almost without equal in the history of natural history publishing. But - like many medieval cathedrals - the Handbook has taken on a momentum of its own and outgrown the original plans of its founders. The initial intention, announced in Vol. 1 (1992), was that the complete set would consist of ten volumes; by the time of Vol. 2 (1994) the projected total had risen to 12, where it seemed likely to remain. Volume 6 was then expected to include 18 families (Mousebirds to Woodpeckers), but the amount of material assembled, especially in the family texts and accompanying photos, meant that the number of pages needed eventually approached 1,200 - a size which would practically have restricted the book's users to professional weight-lifters! (It would also, of course, have greatly increased the price.) At this point the sensible decision was made to cut Vol. 6 short at the hornbills, leaving six families (Jacamars to Woodpeckers) for Vol. 7. The editors carefully explain all this in their introduction, but are deferring a decision on how the length of the series as a whole may be affected until they have tested the reaction of readers. Personally, I hope they will feel free to use as much space as their material demands, even if this increases the total number of volumes to 15 and delays the completion of the series by five years. There will never - it is safe to say - be another work like this, so it would be short-sighted to take any decisions which compromised its superb quality and comprehensive coverage.

Reviewers long ago used up all the superlatives in praising earlier Handbook volumes, so it's hardly necessary to say more about Vol. 6 than that it maintains - and in some ways perhaps excels - the standard set by its predecessors. The 258 species covered include some splendidly showy and colourful birds - trogons, kingfishers, bee-eaters, rollers - which ensure that the full-page plates are as magnificent as ever. Each of the introductory family accounts is a monograph in itself, with photos which - as readers have come to expect - are beautiful and informative in equal measure. A long-standing ambition of the editors has been realised for the first time, with the publication of some specially-commissioned photos of species for which nothing suitable was already in existence. A bonus in this volume is the Foreword by Donald Kroodsma and the late Luis Baptista, a lengthy essay (about 20,000 words by my rough reckoning) presenting what must be the most up-to-date and authoritative discussion yet published on the subject of avian bioacoustics.

At £110 a volume, the Handbook of the Birds of the World is, admittedly, expensive; relatively, though, in terms of the number of words and illustrations you get per pound of the price, it is probably cheaper than most bird books. I doubt whether anyone who has bought each volume as it appeared has any regrets. Spread out over nine years, the total cost so far amounts to about 20 pence a day, or even less for anyone who has taken advantage of the various pre-publication offers. (Special deals are still available for those who wish to buy all six volumes en bloc.) Taking the long view, I believe that in a century or so these books will be ranked in the same league as the classics of Audubon and John Gould; so when you buy them you aren't just providing yourself with a lifetime's ornithological reading - you're making an investment your children and grandchildren will thank you for.

Of course, whether your children and grandchildren will find the Handbook of more than historical interest is another matter. No one can look at the future of the world's wildlife with anything but profound foreboding. As far as birds are concerned, Threatened Birds of the World shows what we are in danger of losing, presenting detailed accounts of the 1,186 species - 12% of the total - currently regarded as threatened (the IUCN Red List categories Vulnerable, Endangered and Critically Endangered). This should make for a gloomy read, but BirdLife International isn't that sort of organisation - Threatened Birds of the World is an inspiration and a call to action. Like the same organisation's Endemic Bird Areas of the World (1998), it is an indispensable tool for conservationists, a clear, comprehensive and superbly organised presentation of the facts without which concern is ineffectual.

Each species receives the same coverage, a (large) half-page including an illustration of the bird and an identification guide, a distribution map, and notes on range and population, ecology, threats, conservation, and finally - and most importantly - targets, i.e. proposals for action to promote its survival. All this for each of those 1,186 species, but that's not all: the book also includes lists, with notes, of 727 species classified as Near Threatened, 20 Lower Risk, 78 Data Deficient, and even 128 species known to have become extinct since A.D. 1500. A final, very useful, section lists the world's nations and dependent territories, with the threatened bird species found in each.

Reviewing this book in a zoo-oriented publication, I feel there is one criticism I must make. Captive breeding, a crucial factor in the survival of a number of bird species, is given very little prominence. On the northern bald ibis (waldrapp), for example, the words 'Explore the possibility of reintroducing captive-bred birds into previously occupied sites' are the only indication that there are any captive-bred birds; yet this is a species whose prolific zoo population is probably five times as great as its wild one. (It is possible - though I suggest this very tentatively - that the Red List criteria should in future give some weight to captive status: is it really sensible that, say, the Bali mynah should be classified as Critically Endangered on the basis of its tiny wild population, when its captive numbers are around 1,000 and growing?) But this is a small defect in a book which will be seen as a landmark in the history of bird conservation, a reference source which will be of value for many years to come, and a spur to practical action which may prove crucial in saving many species from extinction.

Nicholas Gould