The Condor

The Condor

Handbook of the Birds of the World, Volume I (Ostrich to Ducks)
J.del Hoyo, A.Elliott, and J.Sargatal (eds.).

1992. Barcelona: Lynx Editions. 696 pp. ISBN 84-87334-10-5.

Let´s start this review with a simple, unabashed, "Wow!". This impressive first volume launches a truly ambitious project -to detail the birds of the world in 10 major volumes. Some of us, quite frankly, were skeptical about this new handbook, which had been cooking quietly for a decade and then came to public attention in an aggressive marketing campaign in 1992. None of us was prepared for such a wonderful book. It has no real peer.

Lynx Publications, the publishers of the Handbook of the Birds of the World (HBW), was formed in 1987 with the financial backing of lawyer patron Ramón Mascort. After several smaller publishing projects, the new publishing company reorganized to take on their dream project. Their stated goal for HBW is to provide an extensive reference work that demonstrates the extraordinary diversity of birds with comprehensive worldwide coverage from a genuinely international point of view. A second primary goal is to contribute to the conservation of birds and their habitats by attempting for the first time, in partnership with ICBP, to analyze the conservation status of all species, not just the endangered or threatened ones. The three primary editors assembled one team of authors and researchers and a second team of artists led by Francesc Jutglar and produced the first volume in roughly three years time, if I correctly understand the editor's review of HBW's genesis.

Volume I of HBW starts with an introduction to the International Council for Bird Preservation (now BirdLife, International), a global bird conservation organization whose significant contributions appear throughout the text. Then follows a 39-page introduction to the Class Aves, a succinct, comprehensive, and nicely illustrated mini-course in ornithology. I should say little more because my own textbook was apparently an important (acknowledged) source for this section.

The body of HBW is organized taxonomically with strong summaries of the biology of each bird family, starting with a boxed summary of its characteristics and composition plus a map of its global distribution. A clever graphic conveys the approximate maximum and minimum sizes of the component species relative to an outline of a human (for little birds just the mannequin's lower legs!). The body of the text is organized into sections on systematics, morphological aspects, habitat, general habits, voice, food and feeding, breeding, movements, relationship with man, status and conservation, and general bibliography. Generously gracing the family presentations are stunning photographs of many species, not just portraits, but carefully selected images of birds doing interesting things and in striking natural settings.

HBW is based on a strong comparative and phylogenetic approach, including helpful hierarchical diagrams of the subfamilial taxonomic structure. The editors wisely chose a conservative course with respect to clasification. They did not adopt the classification of Sibley and Ahlquist (1990) and Sibley and Monroe (1990), instead they started with the well-balanced system of Morony, Bock and Farrand (1975) with appropriate updates. Throughout, however, HBW summarizes the DNA-based proposals in the appropriate contexts. Provided also at the end of the Introduction is a helpful, tabular comparison of the Sibley and Monroe classification with the traditional arrangement.

Following the overview of the family are terse, telegraphic individual species accounts (in very small type), organized by genus, and including topics that parallel the preceding general text, e.g., nonscientific names, taxonomy, distribution, descriptive notes, habitat, food and feeding, breeding, movements, status and conservation, and bibliography. Each species profile includes a color-coded map of its global distribution. Interlaced among the species profiles are full size color plates depicting each and every species and, in some cases, distinctive subspecies or color morphs.

Volume I concludes with a massive bibliography and a taxonomic index.

My overall impression, and I belive I am not alone here, is that this is a sensational book, with rather few shortcomings. Among the highlights are its rich, detailed text, its first rate photographs, and its expert conservation sections.

The text, whether an overview of each family of a capsule of information on each species, is accurate, comprehensive, and current, an amazing accomplishment given that the editors and authors are not internationally renowned ornithologists. They are now! The book was extremely well-edited in terms of both substance and technical copy. The text is amazingly clean and accurate, and the coverage of obscure references, including some of my own waifs, is inspiring. I, myself, am not an authority on any of the groups of birds treated in Volume 1, nor do I have Ken Parkes' eagle eye for factual error. I could not however, find any serious errors of omission, commission or typography in the sections for which I knew a modest amount.

The stunning photographs make up perhaps the richest collection of high quality, informative images of birds in their natural habitats that I have ever seen. The technical and artistic qualities of the photographs are first rate. Equally impressive is the number of really rare species, such as the Zig Zag Heron and Brazilian Merganser that are fully portrayed, some for the first time. Beyond debuts, however, are the informationrich contents of the photographs, which are accompanied by legends that teach you something and that cleverly complement the text itself. Among my favorites are the photographs of a Mottled Petrel climbing a tree to launch itself (p.220), an ice-caked Antarctic Petrel chick sitting in its exposed nest (p.221), and a bloody, red-headed Giant Petrel displaying at a seal carcass (p.225).

The conservation sections, contributed particularly by Nigel Collar of ICBP, are a third highlight of the text. These achieve a truly international and global perspective on each species' status. When all ten volumes of NBW are done, the original goals of ICBP's Red Data Book, conservation through sound ornithological knowledge, will be achieved gloriously at a new level.

Those are only some of the highlights. The shortcomings are minor ones; one must stretch to find much to criticize. For me, the greatest shortcoming centers on the reference system designed by the practical-minded publishers. No specific citations are listed in the text itself. Instead there are terminal reference lists called "Bibliographies", for each family and each species. It is almost impossible to relate the specific text contents to a particular source. One must review the various publications in the bibliography and then check them to determine whether they pertain to an issue at hand. But to do that, or anything else, one must first relate an author and date citation in the terminal text bibliographies to the entry in the main Bibliography at the end of the book. Also, all reference material is in tiny type. At best, the referencing system used is a clumsy one that reduces the potential working value of HBW.

A second shortcoming lies in the identification system for the color plates. As with the bibliographies, the editors have chosen an unfortunately clumsy and unfriendly referencing system in an otherwise well-designed book. Each species depicted on a color plate has a number, but there is no corresponding legend for the plate. Instead the species number on the plate connects to its number in the species accounts. Sometimes, the identification stands out easily on the opposite page, but often one must leaf through many pages to find a corresponding species account with a species name. This problem becomes worse with increasing size of a taxon and will become a nightmaree in the treatment of the passerines.

In conclusion, Volume 1 of HBW is an overwhelming, impressive reference on ten orders of the birds of the world. It belongs in every working academic library and shoud be available for every university course on the birds of the world. It leaves behing many competing books on the birds of the world, most of them just lightweight coffee table presentations. The Handbook should be everyone's first choice for a modern, comprehensive reference on the birds of the world. But remember - at the moment we only have one impressive volume; there are nine to go. If our colleagues from Spain can maintain the same high standards they have set in Volume 1, this will be a landmark reference for ornithologists. Perhaps the ratites through the ducks were some of the easiest avian taxa to summarize, and one wonders what the editors will do when they hit the babblers or spinetails. I have confidence, however, that somehow Josep del Hoyo and his colleagues will realize their bold ornithological dream. They deserve praise for Volume 1 and best wishes for Volumes 2-10-

FRANK B. GILL, The Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia, PA 19103.