Handbook of the Birds of the World
The major ornithological work of our time.
“We have a saying in Spain: you cannot love what you do not know. If a bird goes extinct before anyone has ever photographed it, or written about it, you do not really care. But once you have seen how beautiful and fascinating it is, you do care. We hope that now people have the facts, they will do something to save the species before it is too late.”
Josep del Hoyo
In an interview with BBC Wildlife Magazine
The Handbook of the Birds of the World (HBW) is the first work ever to illustrate and deal in detail with all the living species of birds. The 17-volume encyclopaedia contains texts and illustrations from 277 authors and 33 illustrators from 40 countries.
Acclaimed as the most remarkable publishing project on birds ever conceived and executed, it is also the first work ever to cover an entire Class of the Animal Kingdom.
The series is collected by scientific organizations, birdwatchers and wildlife enthusiasts in over 150 countries. Essential for libraries, universities, ornithologists and birders, HBW is now on its way to becoming a valuable collector’s item.
HBW BY NUMBERS
Our commitment with the Handbook of the Birds of the World series has been to carefully treat and illustrate every species of bird in the world. This task took from 1992, with the publication of Volume 1, to 2011, with the publication of Volume 16, covering the last families of birds. The series has been complemented with a Special Volume (Volume 17), published in 2013, that covers 69 species genuinely new to science that were described after the publication of their respective volumes and therefore not featured in the previous 16 volumes. It also includes the original scientific descriptions of 15 species, all new to science, and a global index to the entire series.
The material in each volume is organized systematically by family, with an introductory text on the general aspects of the group, which is generously illustrated with colour photographs. This is followed by individual species accounts, with their accompanying distribution maps and colour plates, which illustrate all species, including all significant sexual and subspecific differences. In addition, each volume contains a foreword on a particular ornithological topic of interest.
Each volume covers 300–800+ species in 600–900 pages of full-colour content with 45–81 plates of illustrations, hundreds of photographs and distribution maps, and thousands of references.
Before the first volume of HBW appeared in 1992, most people gave it little chance of success. The market was saturated with bird books, and the idea of an unknown, Catalan publisher producing the definitive English-language work on birds seemed ridiculous. Indeed, the Handbook of the Birds of the World is arguably the most ambitious undertaking ever in the field of natural history publishing. The story of how it came to be is a tribute to the vision and persistence of a close-knit team.
A dream takes flight
In the early 1980s, Josep del Hoyo, a country doctor from Catalonia, shared with his friend Jordi Sargatal an idea: to produce a comprehensive work covering all the world’s birds. After initially questioning his friend’s sanity, Sargatal eventually agreed to take on the project. Since both men lacked the funds for such an endeavour, they approached Ramon Mascort, a lawyer and entrepreneur with a great interest in books and nature. Mascort promised them financial backing. With the recruitment of Scotsman Andy Elliott—not only an ornithologist but also an expert linguist—the epic project was underway.
When news of the project leaked out in the early 1990s, most birders were frankly sceptical, especially when finding out that the series would be produced by an unknown publishing house in Barcelona run by two Catalans and a Scotsman.
The cynicism, however, turned into amazement when the first volume was released in 1992. The ornithological world was stunned, and HBW received excellent reviews in almost all of the world’s specialized journals. The success of the series has been ascribed to the authoritative and well-written texts, the pervasive academic rigour, the stunning photographs and the superb illustrations. Whatever factors may have been involved, the result was an international prestige that permitted the incorporation of renowned experts from all over the world as authors for future volumes, which in turn resulted in better and better reviews for each new volume. Thanks to the collaboration of expert writers and artists, HBW has become a truly international project, drawing contributions from 277 pre-eminent specialists, 33 illustrators and 1,151 photographers from around the world.
HBW aims to be an extensive reference work to what is probably the best known of all the Classes in the Animal Kingdom. The work displays the extraordinary diversity of birds, covering aspects such as taxonomic relationships, evolutionary history, ecology, general habits, breeding strategies and the current status of populations on a global level. One of the main aims is to give comprehensive worldwide coverage from a genuinely international point of view, enhancing an appreciation of birds’ diversity on a global, rather than a regional, scale.
In accord with the close link with BirdLife International, the work also seeks to emphasize status and conservation and thus contribute towards the protection of birds and their habitats. There are many books dealing with the subject of conservation, but HBW goes a step further by analysing the status and conservation of all species, not just those that are known or thought to be threatened.
Given the major developments in the field of classification over the years, including DNA testing, the task of deciding the taxonomic treatment at the family level was not easy. Generally, HBW editors opted for more traditional classifications, although the most significant alternatives always receive consideration in the HBW text.
The family accounts are useful, reliable and readable essays accompanied by a generous use of colour photographs. It is accessible to the lay reader without shirking the obligations to science. The depth of information on each family, written by well-qualified experts, is comparable to the information provided in many family monographs, and the result is a rare combination of rigorous scholarship with an infectious enthusiasm for the subject.
This information, separated from the texts of the species accounts, helps the reader to emphasize the similarities between related birds and also to show the range of variation. The family text includes numerous illustrative examples that give a general idea of the members of the family, including those species about which very little is known.
The family text is organized in different sections that cover the main biological aspects of birds. These are Systematics, Morphological Aspects, Habitat, General Habits, Voice, Food and Feeding, Breeding, Movements, Relationship with Man, and Status and Conservation. The family text closes with a General Bibliography.
The family texts are amply illustrated with stunning full-colour photos that depict a great number of the species covered, including many that have rarely been photographed. No stone has been left unturned to carefully select from the best work of 1,151 professionals, and the result is an array of visual imagery, informative and artistic in equal measure. The photographs have been selected primarily with the objective of illustrating aspects of biology or ecology that are mentioned or explained in the text, such as methods of thermoregulation, feeding techniques or breeding behaviour. Pictures are accompanied by extensive and informative captions.
The species accounts offer a detailed description in a condensed form of the topics covered in the family text, although they are exclusively dedicated to each of the species forming part of the family in question. They open with a heading covering the nomenclature of the species. Names are also given in French, German and Spanish. The remaining sections are Taxonomy, Subspecies and Distribution, Descriptive notes, Habitat, Food and Feeding, Breeding, Movements and Status and Conservation. A Bibliography section is included at the end of each species account.
Without exception, each species account is accompanied by a distribution map, whose function is to give a rough idea of the range of the species.
The Species Accounts are appropriately illustrated with plates showing all species—including all significant sexual and subspecific differences—of all of the families covered. Since HBW does not intend to function as a field guide, illustration of plumage variation has been limited to the principally known types (male and female, and important geographical variations) without including immature and non-breeding plumages.
All the birds appearing in a plate have been painted to the same scale, and they have been placed strategically to correspond with the systematic order of species in the species accounts to facilitate direct comparison.
It is inevitable that a team of artists would be necessary for a project of this magnitude, but, although slight differences in style are apparent, none has fallen below a very acceptable standard, especially considering that many of the species illustrated in HBW have never been illustrated before. The 1,030 plates, with 20,617 figures, in 17 Volumes will be a living monument to all the world’s birds.
The section of References at the end of each volume consists of two parts. The first, titled “References of Scientific Descriptions”, contains the bibliographical details of the original descriptions of every genus, species and subspecies accepted in HBW. The other part, the “General List of References”, includes the full references for all the citations appearing in the book.
Each volume concludes with an index that lists English and scientific names with page numbers for all orders, families, genera, species and subspecies treated in the volume. Also, the page numbers of the photographs are included and specially marked in this index.
Some bird books are designed to give practical advice, while others serve as works of reference or are simply a source of sheer pleasure. In one way or another, HBW exceeds expectations at every level. It continues to hold its place as the definitive published work on the world’s birdlife.