Rare Birds Alert, 22 March 2016

From http://www.rarebirdalert.co.uk/v2/Content/book_review_bird_familes_of_th...

This large format volume is another member of the ‘Handbook of the Birds of the World’ (HBW) family alongside the Handbook itself and the now partly-complete HBW/BirdLife International ‘Illustrated Checklist of the Birds of the World’. It is, as its subtitle says, ‘An Invitation to the Spectacular Diversity of Birds’, providing an introduction to each of the world’s 243 bird families as currently defined. In effect it therefore distils the 17-volume HBW into a single book.

Each family account comprises on average a double-page spread comprising a number of photographs and a standard text format covering related families, similar birds, description, habitat, food, breeding, conservation and relationships. This latter section is particularly useful and is fully referenced. The text is quite brief and, at this family level, necessarily somewhat superficial and all-encompassing. Most of the space is taken up by the photographs which, are as one would expect, of high quality and feature representative species within the family. Each heading is contained within a red ‘title bar’ which lists for each family its number of constituent genera and species.

Also included in the family accounts are range maps showing seasonal distributions and a graphical representation of the size of each family by comparison with, in the case of the ostriches, a whole human and, in that of most passerines, a human hand. The remainder of each account is taken up with a montage of paintings showing a representative member of each genus within the family and, where appropriate, other groupings such as tribes and subfamilies.

Taxonomy is of course at the heart of any such work and the book provides a very helpful introductory section on the principles of avian classification and recent developments in higher level systematics. This has of course seen something of a transformation since the 1970s as a result of the increasing use of genetic evidence, with old familiar groupings and sequences constantly torn up and replaced. All of this is of course something of an inexact science, the authors taking care to point out that while the species is defensible as a genuine biological entity, higher levels above that of the species (i.e. genus, family, order etc.) are human constructs devised for our own convenience.

A final section in the introduction entitled ‘Faunal regions and avian endemism’ provides a fascinating overview of the distribution of endemic families across the world’s biogeographical regions. This is most starkly visible in the Americas where the Nearctic Region hosts just one endemic family (the Olive Warbler) whilst the Neotropical Region contains as many as forty-four.

Despite the recent (and inevitable future) flux in taxonomy, the editors have ensured a synergy with the partly-complete ‘Illustrated Checklist’ (though not of course with HBW). There are therefore some interesting clues here as to what species level treatments we might expect from the passerine volume of the ‘Checklist’. For example, the family Phylloscopidae is here divided into four genera as in the 4th edition of the ‘Howard and Moore Checklist’. These are:

Rhadina comprising 3 species (Wood Warbler is illustrated and other two are presumably - though this is not revealed here - Eastern and Western Bonelli’s Warblers).

Abrornis comprising 9 species (Pallas’s Warbler is illustrated and most authorities recognise the number of species in this group to be 10 so it will be interesting to see which species has been downgraded - presumably forresti?).

Phylloscopus comprising 15 species (Chiffchaff is illustrated and this grouping presumably includes the non wing-barred species).

Seicercus comprising 43 species (White-spectacled Warbler is illustrated but presumably all the other current phylloscopine warblers now appear here).

A quick look at some other obvious topics of interest shows five species of Loxia and five of Acanthis (though in neither case do we know which these are).

This is a pleasant diversion, however. The main aim of this book is to showcase the amazing diversity of the world’s birds, and this it does magnificently. One might question the logic of producing such a large, high cost volume at a time of constant taxonomic upheaval but of course this could be an argument for never publishing anything.

This book will be most useful to the general reader or ornithology student who wants to understand the full variety of the world’s birds. For such an audience the text is relatively simple, with technical jargon kept to a minimum. It might also find a niche readership amongst world ‘family-listers’ and taxonomy geeks. For those who already own the full set of HBW and are purchasing the ‘Illustrated Checklist’ as well, it might not add significantly to what they already have but for those who don’t own HBW this would certainly warrant a place on the bottom shelf of the bookcase.

Andy Stoddart
22 March 2016