Birders Journal - Vol. 10(3): 142-143 - June and July 2001

Birders Journal
Vol. 10(3): 142-143 - June and July 2001

Handbook of the Birds of the World. Volume 6: Mousebirds to Hornbills

Edited by Josep del Hoyo, Andrew Elliott and Jordi Sargatal. 2001. Lynx Edicions, Spain. Hardcover 589 pp. $185US.

Volume 6 of this amazing series of books, documenting the birds of the world, continues to set the standard for authors and researchers who wish to summarize and present information to an informed public. Many books exist that speak to one or more species/groups of birds or that try to define birds, behaviour and/or distribution geographically. Anyone who has ever worked on a "local" guide knows how difficult it can be - try doing it for all the birds in the world! The editors have undertaken this task and once again their efforts and the results show in the quality and scope of the book.

This ambitious project was initiated approximately nine years ago and has involved an expert team of editors, an Editorial Council, and in the case of Volume 6, 13 world experts who have authored individual species accounts. Volumes 1 through 5, covering Ostrich to Ducks, New World Vultures to Guineafowl, Hoatzin to Auks, Sandgrouse to Cuckoos, and Barn-owls to Hummingbirds respectively, set the framework for this volume. In a thoughtful statement in the Introduction, the Editorial Council lament their options, in that their nucleus of contacts and the information available to them increases exponentially as the years go by. This means that they simply have too much information at their disposal to adhere to their original publication plan. So, rather than edit or cut text, they have split the current volume into two books, this one and Volume 7 to be published next year. This will allow presentation of the most thorough and informative volumes to readers rather than shaving available information.

As in the past, the volume begins with a foreword and introduction, including the usual thanks and acknowledgements. Continuing the pattern of providing a wealth of useful information, the editors have included a 43 page paper on Avian Bioacoustics by the late Luis F. Baptista and Donald E. Kroodsma. Ever wonder how a starling can mimic so many bird songs, how a mockingbird remembers its songs, how birds use their feathers to make sounds, why a bird can sing ..... Well, this essay will provide many of the answers while covering subjects including bioacoustics, how birds produce and perceive sounds, how sounds develop in individuals, the function of sound, and the evolution of sounds. In summing up this paper, the author advises that "In every scientist who studies bird song, however, there lies a poet...". Maybe now one can better understand not only why the songs we hear are wonderful to listen to, but how and why they are functional. Just in case you think the Editorial Council includes these forewords as filler material, the authors have included 483 references in support of the article! The article is further supplemented with beautiful paintings, photographs, tables, and graphs.

The rest of the book offers a detailed compilation of information related to every species of mousebird, trogon, kingfisher, tody, motmot, bee-eater, roller, ground-roller, cuckoo-roller, hoopoe, woodhoopoe, and hornbill. The section dealing with each family begins with several pages of text, interspersed with numerous high quality photographs of the species discussed. These articles are concise, instructive, and detailed. For example, the section on kingfishers is 57 pages long and discusses systematics, morphology, habitat, general habits, voice, food and feeding, breeding, movements, relationship with man, status and conservation, and a general bibliography, all highlighted with 87 spectacular colour photographs! Every family covered in the book is equally detailed.

Following these introductory sections, individual species accounts for every species known, including extinct or potentially extinct species, are presented. Each species account includes information on taxonomy, distribution (supplemented with an excellent range map), description, voice, habitat, food and feeding, breeding, movements, status and conservation and a specific bibliography. The colour plates produced to support the information in the text are again of superior quality and detail. Wherever possible the most similar members of the tribe or genus are depicted on the same plate. In keeping with the modern ideal with respect to field guides, several views of the birds are shown on each plate. For example, the three plates on bee-eaters depict 25 species, but show 53 individual views of males, females, and certain subspecies. When it is all added together, hundreds of paintings and approximately 380 photographs and 5600 references supplement the 257 species accounts. I do wonder why so many blank pages (23) are interspersed through the book. Obviously they divide sections, but I would have preferred a photograph or something more eye-pleasing than a stark white page in these instances.

It is difficult to find real fault with this book. It is well presented, detailed, inclusive, and instructive. However, I continue to wonder why none of the colour plates show juvenal or immature plumages. Some juveniles are included in the many photographs supporting each family discussion, but additional depictions in the plates would be helpful, particularly where the young are dissimilar to the adults. I recently had the opportunity to study many of the species covered in this volume while in Kenya, and remain impressed with the accuracy of the information, the range maps, and the commentary supplied. If the entire book is as accurate as the entries for which I have personal experience, it truly is a masterpiece! In general, the book is extremely current and includes not only much of the most recent information on all known species, but also up to date information on new species recently discovered or split from other species. For example, the Eurasian, Madagascar, and African forms of Hoopoe are considered by many to be separate species. The authors recognize this, and discuss the pros and cons of splitting or lumping these forms in some detail.

I was so truly impressed with this series that I "needed" to have all the books in the series, so I bought the ones I was missing and now own all six volumes. I thought this might upset my wife, who tends to spend money on frivolous things, like mortgages, food, and clothing, but she spent much more time looking through the book and praising its content and format than I had expected! One of my close friends was equally impressed by finally being able to solve an old mystery: he had travelled to Africa a few years ago and had video-taped a hornbill that he was unable to identify. Thanks to this book he finally knows that he saw a Long-tailed Hornbill.

The thoroughness and presentation of this book continue to impress me, and I look forward to the concluding volumes in the series. This remains one of the most amazing books that I have had the pleasure to study and should be included in every serious birder's library!

Geoffrey Carpentier, 155 Ravenscroft Road, Ajax, Ontario, L1T 1Y3.