Birdwatch - March 2006

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March 2006

World domination continues in style

  • Handbook of the Birds of the World Volume 10, edited by Josep del Hoyo, Andrew Elliott and David Christie (Lynx Edicions, Barcelona, 2005).
  • 896 pages, 81 colour plates, 427 photographs and 737 distribution maps.
  • ISBN 8487334725. Hbk, £120.

SO THERE YOU are in a BBC studio, sitting across the desk from Sue Lawley as she draws another episode of Radio 4's Desert Island Discs to a close. "And finally," she asks, "what book would you most like to have with you?" Assuming that you survive the tragedy responsible for washing you up on a remote outcrop in some distant tropical ocean with your mental faculties intact, you will surely appreciate the choice of any tome on the planet to keep you company. In the likelihood that you'll also have time to do some birding, then there can be only one answer: Lynx Edicions' Handbook of the Birds of the World.

Whether Ms Lawley would allow you to take all 16 existing and planned volumes to your surf-washed atoll is a moot point, but in its own right any one of them would still be worth tucking away securely in your luggage. This latest edition has a convenient touch of the tropical about its content, covering as it does cuckoo-shrikes, bulbuls, leafbirds, fairy-bluebirds, ioras and silky-flycatchers, as well as waxwings, hypocolius, palmchat, dippers, wrens, mimids, accentors and finally thrushes - in total some 723 species.

Devotees of the HBW series will be familiar by now with the format of each volume, which is essentially divided into chapters beginning with a detailed description of each family and their various characteristics. In view of the large amount of science distilled into these overviews the results could easily be dry and turgid, but instead we are treated to highly readable essay-style narratives summarising systematics, morphology, habitat, general habits, voice, food and feeding, breeding, movements, relationship with Man, and status and conservation.

The second half of each family chapter features species accounts of varying length with, for example, well-researched birds such as (Common) Blackbird occupying up to six times the space of less familiar species. For each one, English and scientific names are followed by those in French, German and Spanish, and then succinct information is given under the key headings of taxonomy, status and distribution, descriptive notes, habitat, food and feeding, breeding, movements, and status and conservation. A bibliography accompanies each species account, in addition to the more general bibliography given elsewhere in each family chapter.

The much-studied thrushes are responsible for a wealth of material in this volume, resulting in the longest family text in the entire series. The narrative overview of the Turdidae runs to 105 pages alone, and is then followed by 187 pages of accounts describing all 336 species. Amid such a glut of information there is plenty to interest not just the budding avian biologist, but also the armchair taxonomist, and with HBW’s influence extending around the globe these days it seems likely that many of its treatments may be adopted by national and regional checklists in the future.Some of these decisions directly impact on species occurring in Britain and the Western Palearctic. Two notable pairs of splits are Dusky and Naumann's Thrushes, and Red-throated (here Rufous-throated) and Black-throated Thrushes. In both instances separation has been based on "very different phenotypic characters", with considerable vocal differences also cited in the case of the latter two species; however, the editors also add the caveat "further study needed".

By contrast, another species tipped for a split, Siberian Stonechat, remains lumped, as does Mourning Wheatear, which here also includes the often-separated (South) Arabian Wheatear. But there is one gain among the wheatears, with Red-tailed now divided. Here, I have to be a little critical of the English names favoured by HBW. The two new species resulting from this split have been given the English names Chestnut-rumped Wheatear (Oenanthe xanthoprymna) and Rusty-tailed Wheatear (O chrysopygia) by the authors, a rather uneasy outcome considering the long-established (albeit questionable) name Red-rumped Wheatear for O moesta, which itself has been retitled here as Buff-rumped Wheatear! Perhaps a preferable option would have been to consider alternatives like Turkish and Kurdish Wheatears, previously suggested by other authors for xanthoprymna/chrysopygia.Further afield there have also been taxonomic changes, including the 'multi-split' scaly thrushes but, conversely, the lumping within Common Scaly (or White's) Thrush of the critically endangered Amami Thrush. This taxon is usually treated as a full species and, notwithstanding the arguments for revising this, one wonders how a 'lowering' of its taxonomic status may affect its conservation -just 75 pairs are thought to survive on Amami Oshima in Japan's Ryukyu Islands.Thrushes and their allies comprise just one of the 13 families covered by this volume, albeit by far the largest. From the single-species hypocolius and palmchat 'families' to the 138 species of bulbuls, many other diverse and fascinating taxa are documented. Well-travelled readers excluded, and leaving aside the few European species of waxwings, dippers, wrens and accentors, many may be unfamiliar, but all are brought vividly to life through the plates and photographs. All bar one of the former are the work of British artists, with Ren Hathway's accentors and thrushes among my favourites; the exception, Frangois Desbordes' beautiful assemblage of redstarts, is no less eyecatching.

The photographs are a treasure trove in their own right, and liberally enliven each family text. Among many outstanding images are the singing Brown-eared Bulbul on a snowy branch weighed down with berries; Dippers flying through the edge of a waterfall and swimming underwater; an Española Mockingbird about to break open an unattended egg in a Waved Albatross colony; and Mike Read's extraordinary shot of Blackbird, Redwing, Mistle Thrush, Fieldfare and Song Thrush gathered in a circle around an apple in the snow.

The burgeoning thrushes chapter is a contributory factor in this volume being the largest in the series: indeed, the editors admit to having to specify a slightly thinner paper to keep within the weight limit! No difference in quality registers, however, and in overall production terms this book is a heavyweight champion in every respect. The combination of large format and almost 900 pages - which include a 19-page 'foreword' on the ecology and impact of non-indigenous birds and no fewer than 65 pages of references - makes it the most substantial tome in the magazine's extensive library.

Its editorial authority and stature are no less weighty, and indeed HBW pulls off a remarkable feat in combining all the best qualities of academic treatise, family monograph, identification guide and world checklist. And, with those beautiful colour plates and mouth-watering photos, it is also sumptuous to browse. Whether in a museum library or on a bookshelf at home - or even on our notional desert island - it has everything that you could wish for in a bird book.

Dominic Mitchell