Birder's Journal - Vol 11(5) : 106-107 - October-November 2002

Birder's Journal
Vol 11(5) : 106-107 - October-November 2002

Handbook of the Birds of the World. Volume 7: Jacamars to Woodpeckers. 2002.
Edited by Josep del Hoyo, Andrew Elliott and Jordi Sargatal. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona, Spain.
E-mail: Hardcover 613 pages. $185US. (ISBN 84-87334-37-7).

With the publication of Volume VI, the editors of the Handbook of the World polled their readers to see if they wanted every scrap of detail available in each species account, and therefore more volumes. Almost unanimously the cry came back "more is better" so the original plan to have only 12 volumes has been expanded to 16, and we can look forward to many more of these beautiful and indispensable volumes.

It's hard to imagine that one could dedicate over 600 pages of text and photographs to such a narrow range of species as "Jacamars to Woodpeckers", but in keeping with their desire to ensure that complete and accurate information is presented to the reader and researcher, the editors and authors have done just that - over 600 large format pages to describe the 18 Jacamars, 35 Puffbirds, 82 Barbets, 34 Toucans, 17 Honeyguides and 216 Woodpeckers - 402 species in total.

Ten authors from England, Kenya, Brazil, USA, Austria and Germany have collaborated to produce this latest volume in the ongoing series of HBW. Like all the previous volumes, its quality, both in content, accuracy and format, is precedent-setting. Already the series is recognized as one of the gold standards for ornithological literature and research. The authors of the new Field Guide to the Birds of Peru used Volumes I through VI of HBW as part their standard references for the development of their field guide, referring to this series as a "monumental work" - how true!

Now let's see what Volume VII has to offer. The book begins with a fascinating essay on Extinct Birds by Errol Fuller, supported by 250 references, ten figures, and 21 colour plates. It covers 72 species which have become extinct since 1600 AD, a date chosen by most scientists to coincide with human-induced extinctions, or are presently suspected of being extinct. The article is most interesting in that it doesn't just mention these species in passing, but provides insights into their life histories, what factors caused their extinction, and occasionally the chances of their eventual rediscovery in some remote region. These hypotheses are not taken lightly and substantial thought has been put into the interpretation of definitive and potential information. The essay concludes with a remarkable analysis of "hypothetical" and "mystery" birds - species for which no material but some circumstantial evidence suggests their former existence. Fuller expounds on the pitfalls of these types of records, applies motives to their initial reporting, and offers suggestions as to the birds' possible true identities.

And with this we jump into the Species Accounts. As in all past volumes, the quality of text and photographs is superb. For my own personal reasons I was most fascinated by two of the groups - Jacamars and Honeyguides - the first because they are so unusual in appearance and wonderful to watch as they forage the jungles of Central and South America for insects, and the latter because they're so darn hard to identify and frustrating to see!

The Jacamars are represented by 18 species worldwide, all of which are restricted to the New World. All are short winged, small to medium-sized, forest-dwelling, flycatching birds, superficially looking a bit like kingfishers. Their uniqueness in the bird world is emphasized as the author explores potential systematic links between the Jacamars and several other families, including Puffbirds, Trogons, Bee-eaters, Rollers, Kingfishers, and Woodpeckers. Current thought suggests that they are most closely related to Puffbirds, but the door is ajar and this attribution could change with further research. A 15-page essay ensues, describing the morphology of the group, habitat preferences, general habits, voice, food and feeding, breeding, movements, relationships with man, status and conservation, and a bibliography. This format holds for all the Families covered in this volume.

After the Cisticolas of Africa, the Honeyguides are one of the most challenging families of birds I have encountered. Virtually all are green, with subtle highlights of white or black or gray, subdued by deep forest shadows and movements in the mid- to high canopy - not exactly ideal viewing conditions. Fortunately most are geographically separated or found in subtly different habitats. The introduction to this section explains the derivation of the name "honeyguide" as the belief that the birds led early hunters and foragers to beehives as they searched for honeycomb for themselves. Apparently fascinated by human activities, such as wood-chopping and the making of fire, the birds seemed to welcome company, but in reality were merely being opportunistic. The authors have done an admirable job of describing and distinguishing the various species in this group. They are brood parasites, they include beeswax as an integral part of their diet, and in the Greater Honeyguide actually does lead humans to beehives - so that it can scavenge the beeswax once the honey is taken by the hunters!!!

The species accounts for the Puffbirds, Barbets, Toucans, and Woodpeckers are covered in a similarly thorough manner. Each species account is supported by one or more paintings of male and female birds, including recognizable forms, as well as all the general topics outlined above, and of course a clear and readable range map.

With a book of this nature, one has to try very hard before finding fault. My only quibble: I didn't like the picture of the Magellanic Woodpecker on the cover. It seems an ungainly bird and a prettier one could have been chosen. A minor detail indeed!

All serious birders emphatically need this series as part of their library. If you haven't yet set out to acquire these gorgeous, encyclopaedic books, maybe now is the time. All volumes are still available. You won't be sorry.

Geoffrey Carpentier