Avicultural Magazine - 106(1) 2000, UK

Avicultural Magazine
106(1) 2000, UK

Handbook of the Birds of the World

The recently published fifth volume of the Handbook of the Birds of the World is simply stunning. Any doubts that it would be impossible to maintain the high standards achieved with the much acclaimed first volume in 1992 have receded further into the distance with the appearance of the four that have followed. Volume 5 easily maintains what is now a well established standard of excellence. Just three Orders, covering 10 families, occupy most of the book's 760 pages: Strigiformes (Barn Owls and typical Owls), Caprimulgiformes (Oilbird, Owlet-Nightjars, Frogmouths, Potoos and Nightjars) and Apodiformes (Swifts, Treeswifts and Hummingbirds). The format remains the same: a lengthy introduction to each family which provides considerable details under the headings Systematics, Morphological Aspects, Habitat, General Habits, Voice, Food and Feeding, Breeding, Movements, Relationship with Man, Status and Conservation.

Page size is 310 x 240mm and more than 750 distribution maps are provided adjacent to information about individual species. Use of colour is best described a lavish, even by modern day standards. There are 76 full-page plates and more than 400 colour photographs, many of outstanding merit. Completing details of the book's vital statistics, there are approximately 8.000 bibliographical references. Not least of many important contributions is a thought-provoking introductory essay from Dr N.J. Collar.

Some of the information contained in this volume is so recent its inclusion is remarkable, bearing in mind the length of time which must be taken-up from design to publishing. The Forest Owlet Athene blewitti, provides a good example. Rediscovered as recently as November 1997, it is not only fully described in Volume 5 but an excellent colour photograph of an example in the wild (Maharashtra, India) is also reproduced.

As a means of identifying individual species and distinctive subspecies, the colour plates are of a high standard and although styles vary (19 artists contributed to the volume) quality is consistent. No fewer than 32 of the 76 plates are devoted to hummingbirds with all of the generally recognised 328 species (plus many subspecies) illustrated. There are also 125 outstanding colour photographs of these iridescent New World gems. And while the majority of species appear to have been photographed in their natural environment, I was particularly taken by a shot of a Bee Hummingbird Mellisuga helenae perched on the unsharpened end of a pencil to illustrate its tiny size.

Photographs of a number of interesting conservation-sensitive species are also included. Worthy of note are the Blossomcrown Eriocnemis derbyi, Juan Fernandez Firecrown Sephanoides fernandensis, Chilean Woodstar Myrtis yarrellii and Hooded Visorbearer Augastes lumachella.

While aviculturists will be particularly interested in the comprehensive treatment given to the hummingbirds, coverage of the barn owls and typical owls is also extensive and is accompanied by some outstanding photographs. I do not claim to be an owl expert (in fact I shy away from the over-used word in relation to every subject with which I am reasonably familiar) but I was impressed by several photographs here, including one of a Congo Bay Owl Phodilus prigoginei, which apparently vanished after its discovery in 1951 to reappear again 45 years later. Photographs of other species which also took my eye include relatively 'new species' including the Long-whiskered Owlet Xenoglaux loweryi from northern Peru, Cloudforest Pygmy Owl Glaucidium nubicola from the Pacific slope of the Andes, and the Sangihe Scops Owl Otus collari from Sangihe Island. A taxonomic challenge is highlighted on facing pages by photographs of 12 species and subspecies of the genus Otus. There are many more examples of the wildlife photographer's art with most subjects pictured while involved in some kind of behavioural activity.

One of my favourites among the typical owls is Woodford's now probably better known as the African Wood Owl. My relatively meagre knowledge of the Strigidae was given something of a lift when I discovered (p 204) that what I had always known as Ciccaba woodfordii has been reclassified Strix woodfordii. DNA studies have shown that the previous generic separation was not justified.

The first five volumes have already added immeasurably to our knowledge of the world's birds. The books will undoubtedly appreciate in value and are worthy of acquisition for aesthetic reasons alone. My niece, a County Archivist, spotted Volume 5 when she visited us recently and spent half a day going through it page by page before delivering an opinion: 'This is going to be a much sought-after collectable in the next century', was her view. But few people will leave this or any of its predecessors to gather dust on a bookshelf. So informative a work demands regular use!

Like earlier volumes it is edited by J. del Hoyo, A. Elliott and J. Sargatal and published by Lynx Edicions, Passeig de Gràcia 12, 08007 Barcelona, Spain. Tel: 34-93 301 07 77 / Fax: 34 93 302 14 75 / E-mail: lynx@hbw.com / Internet:http//www.hbw.com.

Frank Woolham