Wingspan - June 1999

Wingspan
June 1999

MOTHER OF ALL HANDBOOKS

Book Review by Peter Higgins

Handbook of the Birds of the World
Edited by Josep del Hoyo, Andy Elliott & Jordi Sargatal,
Lynx Edicions, Barcelona, Spain.

Vol. 2: New World Vultures to Guineafowl,
pub. 1994, 640 pages, 60 colour plates, 302 photos, 599 distribution maps, more than 7.000 bibliographical references.
Vol. 3: Hoatzin to Auks,
pub. 1996, 824 pages, 60 colour plates, 384 photos, 577 distribution maps, about 10,000 bibliographical references.
Vol. 4: Sandgrouse to Cuckoos,
pub. 1997, 674 pages, 70 colour plates, 236 photos, 837 distribution maps, 13 figures & tables, about 7.000 bibliographical references. (Available from the Bird Shop, National Office, for $260 & $15 p&p per volume)

AT THE OUTSET, it is worth making it quite clear that I think these books are superb. The aim of the team producing the 10-volume Handbook of the Birds of the World (HBW) is a daunting one: to prepare a handbook that not only provides a summary of the biology of every extant bird species in the world (and many that are almost certainly extinct), but also illustrates all of them, and presents a gallery of high-quality photos, and provides a select bibliography for each family and species. That they have now produced four volumes of consistently high quality is a credit to all involved in their production.

It is interesting to compare the approach adopted in HBW with that of Birds Australia´s Handbook of Australian, New Zealand and Antarctic Birds (HANZAB). In HBW, the emphasis is on the family, with only brief species accounts, whereas in HANZAB, the emphasis is on the species accounts, and our order and family introductions are fairly brief.

There is much to be said for HBW´s approach, as many aspects of the biology of groups of species are similar, and can be concisely dealt with in the essays on the families. This approach also allows easy highlighting of the exceptional, without having this swamp the discussion of common patterns within a family.

Family accounts
The family accounts in HBW are broken into sections: Systematics, Morphological Aspects, Habitat, General Habits, Voice, Food and Feeding, Breeding, Movements, Relationship with Man, and Status and Conservation. The account is then followed by a select bibliography.

This standardised format does not hinder the presentation of well-written and eloquent essays on the natural history of the respective families, and the editors are aware of the need for flexibility for some groups. The standard is uniformly high, and all are enjoyable to read.

The family accounts are also generously illustrated with what are often breathtaking photographs. The quality of the photos amazes me and kept drawing me back to the books when I had an idle moment. But beyond their aesthetic value, the photos are chosen to show aspects of behaviour, birds in their natural environments, and to illustrate structure, appearance and stance, in flight and on the ground. The captions are fascinating in their own right.

Species accounts
The family accounts are followed by the brief species accounts, which are accompanied by paintings of each species. The species accounts are in a smaller font than the family accounts but are still easily read. For each species, following the English and scientific names, are French, German and Spanish names, a list of subspecies and their distributions, brief identification notes, and brief descriptions of habitat, food and feeding, breeding, movements, and status and conservation. There is also a select bibliography for each species.

Usually there are between two and four species accounts to a page, but they can run to a page or so. Distribution maps are provided, identifying breeding and non-breeding ranges where these are known and readily shown.

Illustrations
The illustrations, like the photos, are consistently good; most are excellent. Where they differ, males and females are illustrated separately, and distinctive subspecies are illustrated, though not always the full range of geographical variation.

An obvious limitation of a work such as HBW is that there is insufficient space (and, I imagine, time and money!) to illustrate all ages, sexes and plumages of every species. This is a shortcoming for some species, such as the waders, where, at most, only a breeding plumaged male and female are illustrated. Birds are also, by and large, not illustrated in flight, though thumbnail illustrations are provided, for example, for some terns and gulls. This is no great drawback, however. Just providing a single illustration of every species is some accomplishment, and regional handbooks and many specialist guides provide such detailed illustrations.

Drawbacks
A potential drawback of HBW´s approach is that, for widespread or cosmopolitan groups, it can be difficult for the authors to fully deal with all the widely dispersed literature, or the emphasis can be on a region with which they are familiar. I noticed this in the species accounts of the Sternidae, where the coverage of Australia and New Zealand was not as good as I felt it could have been. However, this tends only to be a problem with the species accounts rather than the family accounts.

Equally, however, when an author from our region deals with such a group, there is usually no shortage of Australian and New Zealand data, which we will all no doubt applaud madly! Sadly, while I think southern hemisphere ecologists and biologist, including ornithologists, are more than aware of the theories and paradigms in ecology and biology that have been developed in the northern hemisphere, our northern hemisphere counterparts would benefit greatly from an increased exposure to southern hemisphere ideas and knowledge.

Certainly, owning a copy of HANZAB does not mean you don´t need HBW (though it may mean you can´t afford it!): the emphasis of the two handbooks differs greatly, and the concentration on the families of birds is a terrific supplement to the species-level approach of HANZAB. The coverage of all species in HBW also helps to better place the Australian and New Zealand avifauna in its world context.

HBW is a wonderful project, and I look forward to seeing future volumes as they appear.

PETER HIGGINS is Managing Editor of HANZAB