BirdWatch - May 2001

May 2001

Never mind the mousebirds …

Handbook of the Birds of the World (Volume 6: mousebirds to hornbills), edited by Josep del Hoyo, Andrew Elliott and Jordi Sargatal (Lynx Editions, Barcelona, 2001. 589 pages, 44 plates, numerous colour photos and distribution maps. Hbk, £110)

There was a time when it would have seemed inconceivable that a book - or even a series of volumes - covering the world's birds could be truly comprehensive, and something to be treasured as much by the scientific community as by amateur birders. But Handbook of the Birds of the World has achieved just that. Always an ambitious project and, just as BWP did, now starting to extend beyond the original parameters set by the publishers. HBW has captured the imagination of the birding public. It's an awesome task to attempt to catalogue all of the world's bird species in such a detailed, methodical way, but each of the five preceding volumes has done so admirably.

A riot of colour
The long-awaited sixth volume, finally published in early spring this year, impoves the standards set by its predecessors. The species featured help in no small way: though the volume title itself may not look inspiring, the families include trogons, kingfishers, todies, motmots, bee-eaters, rollers, ground-rollers and Hoopoe - in fact, a riot of colour and interest among which mousebirds and hornbills are to my mind outshone by their relatives.

A fascinating extended foreword on avian acoustics, by Donald Kroodsma and the late Luis Baptista, precedes the introduction and the true meat of this volume - detailed accounts which cover a total of 258 species. The order of the book is structured around sections on each of the 12 featured families, covering subjects such as systematics, morphology, habitat, general habits, voice, food, breeding, movements, relationship with man, and status and conservation. This informative narrative is followed by fairly concise accounts which provide key information on each species: taxonomy, subspecies and distribution, descriptive notes, habitat, food and feeding, breeding, movements and status and conservation are all covered in detail. Each species account is also accompanied by a distribution map and bibliography.

The species are illustrated with a successful combination of both photographs and plates. The photos, which feature in the narrative section for each family, seem to be increasing in both number and quality with each volume, and with such photogenic subjects this edition's selection are particularly outstanding. I could easily list 20 personal favourites, from the sequences of a diving Kingfisher (page 153) to the courtship-feeding Lilac-breasted Rollers (page 358), but every reader will doubtless have their own. The very attractive plates, which follow in the individual species accounts, are by such accomplished artists as Hilary Burn, Richard Allen, Tim Worfolk, Chris Rose and Jan Wilczur. For some species not covered elsewhere by recent identification handbooks or field guides, these are easily the best treatments. Subspecies are well depicted, though immature plumages are not.

Overall, the 600-odd pages of text and illustrations can engross you for as long or as little as you want - this is absorbing science for the dedicated ornithologist, or high-brow gloss for those who don't get beyond the pictures. HBW is genuinely hard to fault. I could be unnecessarily pernickity about the editing in one or two places, point out the odd literal, and certainly mention the smudged printing of text on two pages which should not slip through on a £110 book (but perhaps that's just my review copy). Fundamentally however, Lynx Edicions has done a near-perfect job in publishing this series - perhaps too much so, according to the introduction. This volume should have been the last covering non-passerines, but with so much material and rising costs, all species from jacamars to woodpeckers have been kept back to form a separate volume 7, and passerines move back a notch to start at volume 8.

With other volumes in the pipeline presumably also having the potential to expand in the same way, HBW may continue to grow in both number of volumes and cost to readers - and at 110 a throw that's a lot of extra money. But then I can think of few better ways to spend it: HBW is the definitive bird book.

Dominic Mitchell