Ibis, Vol.157, Nº4, Oct. 2015 by George Sangster

View review in PDF: 

DEL HOYO, J., ELLIOTT, A., SARGATAL, J. & CHRISTIE, D. Handbook of the Birds of the World. Special Volume. New Species and Global Index. 812 pages, 214 bird illustrations, 50 figures, 319 colour photographs, 94 distribution maps. Barcelona, Spain: Lynx Edicions, 2013. Hardback, €145.00, ISBN 978-84-96553-88-0. Website: http://www.lynxeds.com.

This volume concludes an amazing, 21-year running series of well-researched, well-illustrated and well-liked handbooks that describe and illustrate all the world’s bird species. Avian systematics is in flux and has seen numerous changes in species designations, group composition and taxonomic order since the series’ first volume was published in 1992. This book helps to bring the series up to date taxonomically but also provides insight into how these changes have come about. In addition, it includes several other features that most ornithologists would find valuable and interesting.

The Foreword by Nick Langley describes the history and other important aspects of the work of BirdLife International. The chapter commemorates the 90th anniversary of BirdLife’s predecessor, the International Council for Bird Preservation. It provides an overview of a wide range of topics, including Important Bird Areas, conservation policy, local empowerment, and climate change. Numerous case studies illustrate the general points made in this essay.

The first chapter (by Jon Fjelds[1]a) discusses the many changes in avian systematics since Sibley and Ahlquist (1990, Phylogeny and classification of birds). This chapter provides an introduction to DNA sequencing, describes how phylogenies are reconstructed, and reviews the state of knowledge of the relationships of birds as of early 2013. Anyone interested in bird evolution is well advised to read this chapter.

The next four chapters are devoted to new bird species. One of these is titled ‘The Discovery of New Bird Species’ and is also authored by Jon Fjelds[1]a. It provides a detailed review of the factors contributing to the ongoing discovery of new species, including technological, morphological and geographical aspects. Not surprisingly, many newly described species are cryptic (nine owls and five tapaculos have been described since HBW5 and HBW8, respectively) or have a tiny geographical range in a remote part of the world. Thus, it is quite amazing that new species of kiwi (Apteryx rowi), grouse (Centrocercus minimus), albatross (Diomedea antipodensis), hawk-eagle (Spizaetus pinskeri) and hornbill (Tockus ruahai) have been formally described by taxonomists in the last 23 years.

The book includes 69 species accounts of recently recognized species. Each of these accounts is similar to those in the main HBW series and thus includes an illustration and a map. This section covers new species that are currently considered valid but also includes four species originally described as subspecies after publication of the relevant HBW volume and subsequently raised to species level, and a few species which were not yet recognized as valid taxa (not even at subspecies rank) when previous volumes appeared. Most other newly split species are not listed in this section. In some cases, the author indicates that the taxonomy and nomenclature of a new species is controversial and needs clarification. This includes three pairs of recently described South American species (Glaucidium mooreorum vs. G. sicki; Grallaria fenwickorum vs. G. urraoensis and Scytalopus petrophilus vs. S. notorius). In some of these cases, the name used here may prove to be incorrect. I found it slightly annoying that the species were listed in a now widely abandoned taxonomic order, with a falcon listed after two accipitrids, and Galliformes listed between raptors and rails. Clearly, the editors preferred to maintain consistency with previous volumes rather than follow current insights. The range maps only indicate the breeding range, but the green colour (used in other HBW volumes to indicate resident breeding) may mislead some into thinking that the species are present year-round.

An essay by Bret Whitney and Mario Cohn-Haft describes the discovery of new species in Amazonia. Their chapter reviews the post-1960 history of species discovery in Amazonia and importance of ongoing taxonomic work, along with the strategies, methods, and techniques used. This includes the clever use of satellite maps to identify promising areas for fieldwork.

 One of the most interesting and surprising aspects in the book are the 15 new scientific descriptions of Amazonian bird species. As expected, most of these are from ‘difficult’ groups, including four woodcreepers, five antbirds, three tyrant flycatchers and one gnatcatcher. However, there are also descriptions of a new puffbird (named after US President Barack Obama) and a new species of jay. All descriptions are based on at least two lines of evidence per species, typically some combination of morphology, vocalizations and mitochondrial DNA. All descriptions include an illustration and a range map, and most also contain one or more photographs, sonagrams and a molecular phylogeny. The descriptions have been peer-reviewed but in at least some cases I would have preferred more in-depth quantitative analysis to document species divergence (e.g. multivariate analyses of song divergence). Given the hefty price tag of this volume, ornithologists in the countries where these species are found may have a hard time getting access to a copy (as opposed to publications in scientific journals). Thus, I hope the publication of new species in books will not become a trend. The next chapter consists of a photo gallery with 200 photographs selected from the images presented in the HBW World Bird Photo Contest 2012. All photographs are special in one way or another. Some show an interesting behaviour, whereas others are of species that are spectacular, little known or exceptionally beautiful, or some combination of these qualities. All photographs are accompanied by basic metadata, including species name, locality and the name of the photographer. The book concludes with a 300-page global index to the entire series. There are separate indexes for scientific names, and common names in English, French, German and Spanish. Despite its eclectic nature, this book is a highly significant work which celebrates both the diversity and beauty of birds. It has lots to offer for anyone interested in avian taxonomy and thus should find a place in any ornithological library.

George Sangster