British Birds - Februrary 2004

British Birds
February 2004

Handbook of the Birds of the world Vol. 8 Broadbills to tapaculos
Edited by Josep del Hoyo, Andrew Elliott & David A. Christie. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona, 2003. 845 pages; 81 colour plates; numerous distribution maps and photographs. ISBN 84-87334-50-4. Hardback £120.

The cloacal temperature of the little-known Hooded Gnateater Conopophaga roberti was once found to be 39.8°C. You will learn much more from this volume than to beware of scientists carrying thermometers. It is not for such gems of ornithological trivia that this tome is so memorable, but rather the comprehensive accounts of both the families and species which make up Volume 8.

This marks the start of the passerines, and what a bunch they are! Anyone who has visited the tropics will have searched hard, and often long, for the broadbills (Eurylaimidae), asities (Philepittidae), pittas (Pittidae), ovenbirds (Furnariidae), antbirds (Thamnophilidae) and tapaculos (Rhinocryptidae), which contain some of the lister's most prized birds. This volume contains all one could wish to know about any of these birds except which bush it is in.

It is doubtful whether the writings of so many pre-eminent field ornithologists have ever occurred together within the covers of a single book. Their wealth of knowledge and experience pours from every page. To fill this many pages in such an informative manner, about so many aspects of the lives of these often rare and secretive species, further emphasises the skills of all contributors and their colleagues. Having once spent an hour in bamboo (Poaceae) with an Automolus foliage-gleaner and failed to even discover its name, my admiration for all their efforts knows no bounds.

Volume 8 follows the same formula as the previous seven: an introduction to the family followed by the species accounts, both of which are divided into pre-determined sections. The essay on food and feeding of the Thamnophilidae is just one of many that makes compulsive reading. Such a rigid approach may not always be necessary. For example, we read in the movement section in the introduction to the Rhinocryptidae that 'all tapaculos are entirely resident'. Do we then need to have 55 movement sections in the species accounts stating 'sedentary'? There are similar examples, taking up space that might have been better used.

The illustrations, as one would expect, vary in quality, usually between good and excellent. Many are the best I have seen of a species and some of the Furnariidae are simply sumptuous. There are exceptions (for example, I do not like the Restinga Antwren Formicivora littoralis) and I would have loved to have seen the two genera of ant-thrushes (Formicarius and Chamaeza) on separate plates - if only to increase drooling time. The photographs too, however they were obtained, are often of the highest quality, considering how hard some of these birds are just to see. So up-to-date in all aspects is this volume that it even includes the first published photographs of some species.

Transcribing bird songs and calls is no easy task. While I am sure that the described song of the Chucao Tapaculo Scelorchilus rubecula is technically correct, it does not evoke the ringing onomatopoeic sound familiar to anyone who has ever stood in a central Chilean forest. A more human, less scientific approach can be just as meaningful (and is used for many other species).

That these criticisms are largely unimportant is testimony to another near-faultless effort. The previous seven volumes in this series have rightly amassed a plethora of rave reviews and all the good things apply here as well. This volume is exactly as one would have expected - magnificent.

Richard Schofield