Birdwatch - Volume 2, Number 1, January 1993

Volume 2, Number 1
January 1993


Handbook of the Birds of the World, Volume I (Ostrich to Ducks)
edited by del Hoyo, Elliott and Sargatal

Lynx Edicions, Barcelona; 696 pages with numerous colour photos and illustrations, hardback

Fierce competition for your spending money.

Some bird books are designed to give practical advice, others to act as valuable works of reference, and more still simply to please and entertain. In one way or another, the new generation of "superbooks" for birders manage to do all these things, and a few more besides.

Oxford University Press´Handbook of the Birds of the Western Paleartic, or BWP as it is best known, set the running with its first volume, covering Ostrich to ducks, back in 1977. Fifteen years on, Volume VI of BWP is now here, but it is no longer the only contender for birder´s funds.

Picking up the gauntlet is Lynx´s Handbook of the Birds of the World, covering the same group as OUP´first volume but in a different format and on a global scale. Notwithstanding the difference in geographical coverage, how do they compare?

BWP always was, and still remains, the definitive reference work for its subject matter. The sheer depth of content on each species in all the volumes so far has been staggering, and the latest edition is no exception. It follows a tried and trusted format for categorising information in each species account, which in some cases run to 30 pages. Volume VI is also the first to deal with just a single family, the warblers, and will undoubtedly appeal to large audience.

With so many pages of unbroken text the colour plates come as a welcome relief to the eye, and in the main these are highly accurate and extremely well executed. However, the Dartford Warblers on plate 14 stand out as distinctly too pink on the underparts (unlike the one on the dustjacket, which is a better representation), and there are several plates illustrating flying warblers which could have been put to better use -showing the detail of spread wings is helpful, but flight portraits of a family almost invariably identified when perched seem a little incongruous.

Having said that, Dan Zettterstrom´s Phylloscopus plates are truly superb, specially those featuring the "crests", and Alan Harris´s Sylvias and Ian Lewington´s "Acros" are both highly pleasing.

Illustrations fill an equally important role in Lynx´s Handbook of the Birds of the World, although here they are also supported by photographs. The wholly different feel of this masterwork is further characterised by introductory sections to each family and species account, almost in the style of a field guide, although the level and quality of detail is more substantive.

The introductory sections cover in excellent detail systematics, morphological aspects, habitat, general habits, breeding, movements, relationship with man and status and conservation of the family concerned. These are followed by very impressive plates and species accounts which together are reminiscent of handbooks such as Shorebirds and Bee-eaters, Kingfishers and Rollers, although the sheer number of species covered restricts the amount of detail; identification is not specifically dealt with, and on some species the brief descriptive notes require the reader to rely largely on the plates.

Each species account also features a distribution map showing breeding and wintering ranges, and there is a useful bibliography detailing further references.

Comparing the species content with BWP would be to do neither work justice, as the two volumes set out to achieve different goals. BWP is the classic reference work and will give you every answer about a species man has ever come up with; as such it will contend keenly for your money.

But whether BWP´s level of detail is for you or not, Handbook of the Birds of the World is a compulsory purchase. There has been no true guide to all the world´s birds until now, despite a multitude of coffee-table titles that suggest otherwise. This work is a masterpiece of the highest quality which no ornithologist or birdwatcher should be without, and it cannot be recommended too highly.

Dominic Mitchell