Birding World - April 1998

Birding World
April 1998

Handbook of the Birds of the World Volume 4: Sandgrouse to Cuckoos edited by Josep del Hoyo, Andrew Elliott and Jordi Sargatal.
Lynx Editions, 1997. 679 pages, 70 colour plates, numerous colour photographs and distribution maps. Hardback, £110.00.

With the current trend for publication dates to be missed and missed again, it is a pleasure to review a book that actually comes out on time. This is especially true of this series, and moreso when one considers the effort that must have gone into its production, eg in the current volume there are no fewer than 54 pages of references. The editors and publishers are to be congratuled.

This fourth volume maintains the high standards set by volumes 1-3 and follows the same format, with introductory sections on each family containing a liberal scattering of excellent photographs (frequently of little-known species, although I have seen better published photographs of some of the species featured). Many of the photographs are mouth- watering and bring back great memories of past birding trips and provide incentive for future trips. Among my personal favourites are the Speckled Pigeon on page 94, the Red-fan Parrot on page 288, the Scarlet Macaw on page 293 and the Blue Lorikeet on page 311.

The species accounts follow the introductory sections and include plates of every recognised species. As mentioned in reviews of previous volumes, the individual species accounts are necessarily fairly brief but nevertheless remain functional and cover a variety of subjects including Taxonomy, Distribution, Descriptive Notes and Habitat.

No fewer than 18 artists have contributed to this volume (an increase on the 5-10 for the previous volumes). This has understandably resulted in considerable variation in the quality of the plates. I must confess to being disappointed with the ground-doves, plates 10-11, and in particular with the Channel-billed Cuckoo, plate 62. On the orther hand, many of the other plates are excellent. I particularly like Chris Rose's pigeons and doves on plates 8-9.

With the almost simultaneous publication of Parrots: a guide to the parrots of the world, it seems appropriate to briefly compare the two books. While the text in Parrots is clearly more comprehensive, I certainly prefer the plates in HBW4, with one or two exceptions.

Unlike previous volumes, volume 4 includes a 12-page Forward 'Species Concepts and Species Limits in Ornithology', a pertinent inclusion given the current debate between the proponents of the Biological and Phylogenetic Species Concepts. It is interesting to note that the world list would increase to c.20,000 species if PSC1, the assignment of species status to morphologically diagnosable populations is widely adopted. HBW concludes that adoption of this concept is both 'premature and this time of rapid development of taxonomic methods and thinking' the difficulty of determining the 'limits of diagnosibility' being used as justification for this stance. I welcome these words of caution at a time when splitting seems to be taking place with undue haste. If HBW was to be extended to include 20,000 species, would it ever be completed?

A book containing as much information as HBW is bound to contain mistakes but I found very few and it would be churlish to nit-pick here. Some people may consider £110 expensive for a book but given the number of photographs and 70 colour plates this volume is excellent value for money. When one compares the cost of HBW with the cost of the many single family monographs now being published this value for money is emphasised further.

If there is one downside to the book it can only be that it makes one realise how many great places there are to visit and how little time there is to do so. How can anyone resist the lure of Australasia after browsing this book?

This is an essential purchase for world birders and a worthy addition to any birder's library. Buy it if only to realise what you miss by staying in Britain.

Richard Webb