The Canadian Field-Naturalist - Vol. 111, November 1997

The Canadian Field-Naturalist
Vol. 111, November 1997

Handbook of the Birds of the World. Volume 3: Hoatzin to Auks
Edited by Josep del Hoyo, Andrew Elliott and Jordi Sargatal.
1996. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona. 821 pp., illus. U.S.$175.

Good books are often the most difficult to review and this is one that every birder will prize. Birds of the World: Volume 3 is the latest large, glossy, and expensive addition to the 12-volume project to document the world's bird species. Like previous editions it is well written, lavishly illustrated and covers some of the world's most intriguing birds. What more can I say?

This volume covers thirty groups of birds. The major ones are cranes, rails, bustards, shorebirds, gulls, and auks. Many of the minor groups contain only one or two species that have been a problem to classify. Hoatzin, for example, is a bizarre creature that has some un-birdlike features and it is an intriguing species with which to start the book. The photographs of Hoatzin are, like many in the book, marvellous. Each family, whether it has one or many members, is described in detail. Some people may have difficulty with the sections on Systematics as they are replete with technical terms and many will find this demanding reading. The remaining text on habitat, habits, breeding, conservation, and other family characteristics is less scholarly and will likely be more pertinent to the average birder.

The family section is followed by a field-guide style coverage of each species. This provides the same type of information as the family segment, but for the individual species. A range map gives the world-wide distribution for summer, winter, and permanent residency. One component of these species accounts I found enlightening was the remarks headed "Status and Conservation."

The illustrations in the species accounts are for adults in summer plumage only. Where there is a difference between sexes or sub-species then the alternative plumage characteristics are also shown. For most birds this is reasonable, but I did have a problem with the birds that are more often seen in winter than in breeding plumage. For example, Purple Sandpipers and Dovekie occur in the north and Asian Dowitcher in the south mostly in their winter plumage. All birds are shown standing, making important details seen in flight, difficult to discern. The distinguishing tail pattern of the recently split Belcher's and Olrog's gull is a case in point.

In drawing up the list of species, the authors have used the finest division criteria. This means that controversial splits, like Thayer's Gull, are included as a separate species. The author's rationale is that from a population point it does not matter if they are eventually lumped; their data are still valid. I noted that they had split the Bush-hen (Australia and other Pacific islands). This split was missed by the latest Australian field guide (Simpson and Day 1966) published earlier this year.

One thing this type of book brings is a world perspective. A bird that few of us see regularly and very rarely in anything but small numbers is the Dovekie; world population eight to 18 million. Compare this to a bird I have recently seen in huge numbers, the Sandhill Crane; world population over half a million. I recently added two birds to my life list. The first, Long-tailed Jaeger has been a jinx bird for years. I was always on the wrong boat on the wrong day in the wrong year! I never thought of it as a rarity, just that I was unlucky. The other bird, Ross' Gull, I have always considered a true rarity, needing dedicated effort rather than a change in luck, to see. Both these species have similar world populations!

Looking at the world distribution maps raises a point I have wondered about several times. Vanellus Lapwings occur throughout the world, except the polar regions and North America. A typical Vanellid is large, colourful and entertaining. All the 23 living species seem happy to use farmland, pasture, airports, lawns or other human enclaves. It is a pity we missed out! We also do not have a bustard, but we do have turkeys.

Reviewers feel an obligation to find errors, it somehow seems to justify their existence. By looking hard, I can see some minor points that merit a mention. As with previous editions, some information is out of date. For example, the Whooping Crane statistic for the "current" population is about 20% low (see Jones 1996). The French names used are the European version and, in some cases, the North American French name is different. Francophones will have little problem recognizing the species concerned, however. Some photographs do not carry the common name of the species shown. The range maps, because of their size (the world is shown in a 5 cm by 3.5 cm box) can often be difficult to interpret. Despite this problem I believe I can detect some minor errors, like the incomplete range of the Sandhill Crane. The historical records for Corn Crake in Australia and the recent North American occurrences of the Common Crane are missed. It has been some years since I saw a bustard and the plates show birds that are longer and more slender than I recall. The artist has lost the solid chunky appearance of these impressive birds. All these I feel are trivial points compared to the huge quantity of valid information in the book.

There are two items that cause me a little more concern. Recently, at a school presentation my data on Whooping Crane heights were challenged by a young lad. These cranes were as high as his eye, and he had the references to prove it. The height I had quoted was too high and this book make a similar error. The second and more important problem is the illustration of some terns. As I read the book, I would try to identify the birds illustrated before reading the identifying captions. I had difficulties with the terns. The Caspian Tern, for example, is depicted as paler and with more of a sandy overtone than I have seen in the field. The difference in leg lengths of Common and Arctic terns are far more noticeable than depicted. Indeed, many tern illustrations are not up to the same standard as those of other birds.

From the insightful foreword, written from an artist's perspective by Robert Bateman, to the minutiae of subspecies, this book is an amazing contribution to bird literature. It will be a major reference for years to come and is a wonderful purchase for anyone who can afford it. There are nine more volumes planned so we can anticipate more pleasure to come. The next volume will likely include that most spectacular of bird families, the parrots. I can hardly wait!