Kukila - 10 February 1999

Kukila
10, February 1999

Handbook of the Birds of the World. Vol. 4. Sandgrouse to Cuckoos.
Del Hoyo, J., A.E. Elliott & J. Sargatal, eds.1997.
Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.

The arrival of this magnificent tome on the Kukila desk was a sheer pleasure. Having heard so much about this series, the temptation was irresistible to purchase the first two volumes (before getting too worried about the expense to go for the lot). But it is only when one studies a volume in the depth required for a review that one realizes just why so much lavish praise has been heaped on the series. Almost without exception, the colour plates are of a very high standard, and the world has obvioussly been scoured to find the often supreme colour photographs that illustrate almost every page of text. The illustration are a joy to behold, and there is no doubt that this is a very attractive production indeed.

Having said that, one is forced to question, in this age of mass information, just who has the time to handle a book such as this, let alone all 12 volumes. One might wish to possess it as an art collector seeks a famous painting, but scarcely anyone would have the opportunity to appreciate it before his or her retirement, and with a weight of 3 kg (I had to use the bathroom scales), someone in their later years would only be able to handle it sitting at a table. However, it is worth purchasing with just that aim in view, to await one’s future pleasure!

This does not attempt, or claim, to be a mammoth field guide (in contrast to some of the recent regional series such as BWP or HANZAB), and as such , it dispenses with the need to illustrate juvenile and subadult plumages. It does illustrate female plumage, where appropiate, and, usefully, variant plumages (such as female koels in plate 62, and rufous morphs of the Cuculus cuckoos in plate 59). Nor does it attempt to provide a definitive taxonomy, but it provides a full range of illustrations of subspecies where these differ to a significant degree. This serves to emphasize the main purpose, to focus on status and conservation, which is why it has received such strong support from BirdLife International (whose logo is on the front cover).

Most impressive of all is the sheer volume of industry that has gone into the work. For a book of this magnitude, published in 1997, to carry reference to no less than five papers in Kukila 8, nominally published in August 1996 but in practice not readily available until some time after this, calls for quite incredible feats of coordination. For example, it notes that there are not recent records of Columba argentina from Batam and Bintan islands, a fact that must have been derived from Rajathurai’s paper in Kukila 8. It goes further - even Coates and Bishop (1997) is listed repeatedly in the species texts. In view of the fact that there are some 52 pages of references, and 13 pages of index, this verges on the miraculous. The mind wilts at the prospect of proof-reading, indexing and cross-referencing.

Quite apart from the daunting administrative logistics of such production, one must admire the standard of scholarship that has gone into the texts for each family. These are no mere introduccions, but a comprehensive coverage of the family’s systematics, morphology, habitats, habits, voice, feeding, breeding, movements, relationship with man, and status and conservation. These show a considerable depth of professional understanding and lucidity in exposition. The text for the parrots alone is no less than 60 pages (hence the comment that full enjoyment must await a more leisured future!), but written in a very easy style, even to the extent of parrots making snowballs and Keas sliding down the nylon tents of campers. The literature has been thoroughly combed, down to such details as awareness of the nocturnal habits of Buru’s Black-lored Parrot Tanygnathus gramineus, theories on why parrots are so noisy in flight when pigeons are silent, and the reasons for the Long-tailed Parakeet Psittacula longicauda maintaining its population while the Blue-rumped Parrot Psittinus cyanurus is not. There are some elegant turns of phrase, such as (in respect of the parrot trade): "the path from forest to front porch is littered with the corpses of the less fortunate, and is darkened by an untold history of suffering that no animal-lover would normally countenance", or of the Red-and-blue Lory Eos histrio of Sangihe-Talaud being "vacuumed out of existence by a demand led covertly from Singapore". The text somehow succeeds in providing just the right depth of coverage to satisfy a professional ornithologist and yet to mantain a fascinated interest on the part of the general reader.

Following this text for each family, there come the superb colour plates and numbered species descriptions. The numbering is in a simple sequence,and the reader knows that the text always follows the plate. For an ornithologist who has by necessity become somewhat isolated to his own avifauna, it is useful to take a wider regional view. Somehow I had never envisioned how Nicobar Pigeons Caloenas nicobarica, so much birds of the forest floor, fly across the sea. The idea that Jambu Fruit-dove Ptilinopus jambu in Indonesia favours small islands could be somewhat misleading as to its real distribution. Of course, a global work cannot pick up every record, and thus the statement that Barred Cuckoo-dove Macropgya unchall is known from Flores from only two records overlooks the report of Butchart et al (1993-unpublished report of the Cambridge Flores/Sumbawa Project: 42), although this report is listed in the references. Verhoeye & Holmes (in press) will show that it is actually common, but this point is mentioned only in support of the role of a national journal like Kukila in collating such information.

It is surprising that both Coates & Bishop and HBW have acknowledged the somewhat unusual observation of Rozendaal and Dekker in Kukila 4:96, of a juvenil Fiery-billed Malkoha Phaenicophaeus calyorhynchus being fed by a Crimson Sunbird Aethopyga siparaja, without a discussion of the possible implications other than that brood parasitism is not known among the malkohas. Was this merely a chance altruistic action on the part of the sunbird?

HBW does not attempt to be a definitive taxonomy, but inevitably in the current mood of species re-evaluation (to the extent of Vol 4 providing a 12-page forward by Jürgen Haffer on species concepts) some comment is appropiate. The important issue is that distinctive taxa are recognized, and this has been done throughout. It is correctly stated that the Rainbow Lorikeet Trichoglossus haematodus requires re-evaluation (p.282), but one might ask why the allopatric Ornate Lorikeet T. ornatus should not be included, as at least superficially the difference between the two supposed species is less than those between the sub-species groups of haematodus! HBW has taken up the step (as recommended en Coates & Bishop) of separating the Moluccan and Sula Hanging-parrots Loriculus amabilis and L. sclateri, but a perusal of the plates will suggest other instances of speciation in the parrots. Strangely there is no particular mention of the distinctiveness of the Sumba race (citrinocristata) of the Yellow-crested Cockatoo Cacatua sulphurea.

One surprising feature of HBW is that a deliberate decision seems to have been taken to omit descriptions of voice at species level. Admittedly the subject is treated in the introductory texts, but surely most of the pigeons, for example, have sufficiently distinct vocalisations to warrant more specific treatment. Indeed, fruit-doves Ptilinopus sp. might go largely unobserved but for their calls. Fortunately the editors have realized the key importance of voice in describing the cuckoos, and it remains to be seen how this will be treated in subsequent volumes. Indeed, HBW has gone further in that it has acknoledged voice as a character in splitting at least two of the cuckoo taxa: Horsfield’s Cuckoo Cuculus horsfieldi (from C. saturatus) and Philippine Drongo-cuckoo Surniculus velutinus (from S. lugubris). No doubt there is an authority for this, althought I am not aware of any of the regional literature (including the Oriental Bird Club Checklist) having made this split. I cannot help but comment that the call of the Drongo-cuckoo in Sulawesi would appear to be intermediate between the Sundanese lugubris and Philippine velutinus (although I have never heard the latter, nor indeed the bird on Halmahera where the call reportedly resembles the latter). Incidentally, something is surely wrong in the nominate form being distributed in Sri Lanka and Java, separated by two other races over the SE Asian mainland!

In view of these splits having been made, it is all the more surprising that the regionally accepted (including by OBC) separations of Rusty-breasted and Brush Cuckoo Cacomantis sepulcralis and C. variolosus, Little and Gould’s Bronze-cuckoo Chrysococcyx minutillus and C. russatus, and at least the Black - billed and Common Koel Eudynamis scolopacea and E. melanorhyncha have been denied, especially when voice appears to be a criterion. Admittedly the bronze-cukoo systematics remain unresolved, and voice will surely provide a key, but this interesting field of research awaits further attention. While on the subject of cukoo vocalisations, it was slightly disappointing to see the hoary old ‘gee-whizz’ Description for Hodgon’s Hawk-cuckoo Cuculus fugax being regurgitated yet again!

This edition of Kukila has reviewed two exceptional books. There is no doubt that in terms of extreme urgency and practical utility, the ‘workhorse’ Wallacean guide must take pride of place. For Indonesia, it is much the most important publication of the two. But, for those whose pecuniary comforts are assured, it is a pity to deny the sheer luxury of the second. Indonesian ornithologists may like to know that a set is held in the BirdLife Indonesia office in Bogor.