Australian Birdlife, Vol. 4 nº1, p.80, March 2015

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HBW and Birdlife International Illustrated Checklist of the Birds of the World. Volume 1: Non-passerines
Edited by Josep del Hoyo and Nigel Collar
Lynx Edicions
RRP 185€ (direct from publishers)

Before opening the book I was slightly apprehensive: was the publisher just riding on the success of the Handbook of the Birds of the World series? In short, no: this is a spectacular book with an almost overwhelming number of images and range maps, with sufficient text when needed and a topical introduction. In content it’s more like a field guide to the birds of the world than a traditional checklist and it’s certainly the closest I’ll get to lots of the depicted species!

This volume (the second and final volume is scheduled for 2016) covers the non-passerines and has a brief introduction followed by the illustrated checklist itself, covering 4372 extant and 99 extinct species.

For each species, the checklist section has illustrations and range maps on one page, and a brief description on the facing page. Illustrations are large enough to show the details of each species, but necessarily small enough to fit so many into each volume. For dimorphic species, both male and female are illustrated, while for those species with subspecies at least some are pictured to illustrate geographic variation. Small but clear range maps accompany each species’ illustration and these are sufficient for a book of global coverage. The text contains relevant taxonomic notes for each species, plus a list of any subspecies, the geographic range of the species or subspecies and its IUCN threat rating. Extinct species are dealt with in two sections: those species that are well known (described in the same format as extant species) and those without complete specimens which are described with text only. This is the first time I can recall seeing all extinct avian taxa together, and I found it a great way to ponder what has been lost, not just what we have now. As the range map accompanying each species is small, 34 reference maps have been included to aid in interpreting the species maps. I thought these maps were of poor quality compare to the rest of the volume, and for anyone with a good atlas, will probably never be used.

While most people will turn immediately to the species descriptions, I found the introduction to be amazingly well written and engaging. It gives an excellent summary of the process of the avian speciation and the various problems in classifying species, and I would recommend this section to anyone wanting a succinct summary of the subject. It then introduces the Tobias criteria, which is used to define the species in this Illustrated Checklist and has been adopted by Birdlife International. This method scores differences in taxonomic characteristics between closely related taxa to allow an objective evaluation of their species status, and relevant examples are provided to illustrate its use and the complexities of avian taxonomy. One aspect of the Tobias criteria I applaud is that it does not consider genetic information when deciding on the level of a taxon. As such, all species can be identified in the field by a skilled observer using a combination of physical characteristics and location.

So, 904 pages later, should you have it? Simply, yes. The book is a stunning visual collection of approximately half of the world’s birds, with sufficient text to satisfy those who want to know more about any species. In time, it might be the most used bird book you will ever own–whether just looking at the pictures, planning your next birding adventure or reliving previous ones.

By David Wilson. David is a conservation biologist currently working on his world bird list in Mongolia.