Cotinga - Nº 5, 1996

Cotinga 5

Handbook of the Birds of the WorldVolume 2: New World Vultures to Guineafowl,
edited by Josep del Hoyo, Andrew Elliott & Jordi Sargatal, 1994.
Barcelona, Lynnx Edicions. 638 pp, 60 colour plates, numerous colour photographs and distribution maps. £ 98.

Only two volumes old, and yet it is already becoming hard to say something original about Handbook of the birds of the world (or HBW as it has become affectionately known). Few reviewers have been able to offer anything other than lavish praise for what promises (and has indeed already proved) to be a superb series of books, worthy of collection by any serious birder. There must be relatively few readers who remain unfamiliar with the format, layout and above all consummate professionalism of this gargantuan undertaking. Tremendous colour plates and photographs reproduced to the highest standards, informative text written by a team of experts (truly international in their composition), good quality paper, well bound and expertly designed; it all adds up to one of the best buys for birders ever. Neotropical enthusiasts will find this second volume to be a veritable treasure trove of information on the relevant groups which inhabit their favourite part of the planet. And all backed up by splendid photographs, many of which have never been published previously. Those whose passion is for the Latin American avifauna will thrill to mouth-watering shots of, e.g., Bare-faced Curassow Crax fasciolata in central Brazil and Horned Guan Oreophasis derbianus in the El Triunfo cloudforest reserve in south-eastern Mexico.

Each family is subject to an extended essay which discusses, among other issues, the taxonomic relationships, morphological characters, plumage, breeding, habitat, food and feeding, voice and conservation status of the group, highlighting as many specific examples as possible. Naturally the larger the family the longer the appropiate text. This is followed by a concise account for each species, which seeks to bring together as much information as possible, under similar headings to those (outlined above) of the general section, in a shorthand style. Distribution maps accompany each text. The emphasis is on relaying as much detail as possible in as little space on the page as can be reasonably achieved . The current conservation status of each species in the world is the subject of special attention, with the editors and authors attempting to make these sections particularly accurate and up-to-date. The text discussing the general characteristics of each family is liberally sprinkled with top quality photographs throughout; many of which have been especially chosen for their usefulness in demonstrating and amplifying the texts’ discussion of relevant aspects of behaviour or life history. The individual species accounts in contrast are presaged by colour plates (by many of the world´s foremost bird illustrators), which seek to illustrate both sexes as well as many major racial variants. These are largely of admirable quality, and seemingly backed up by excellent and faithful colour reproduction.

One might be permitted a few quibbles. With Walter J. Bock as the series’s taxonomic consultant it comes as no surprise to find that traditional systematics have been followed throughout the first two volumes. It is unfortunate, and surely remarkable in a work of this magnitude and scope, that comparatively little discussion is devoted to the ideas of Sibley and Monroe concerning the higher levels of avian relationships, much less to those of Cracraft and others, who propound the Phylogenetic Species Concept. This seems to be a major shortcoming. In this volume it is disappointing that so few raptors are illustrated in flight. Whilst HBW does not pretend to fulfil the role of a field guide, with such an array of artistic (many experienced in illustrating identification guides) at their disposal it seems a pity that the editors did not make greater use of the skills available. One can also point to a number of minor errors in the discussion of status and distribution within the concise species accounts for a number of the Galliformes.

However, it would be distinctly churlish (as well as impossible) to find too much to criticise. Why bother when the overall feel and content of the work exudes so much quality? If you do not already collect HBW, for whatever reason- cost or lack of shelf space- then you really should re-evaluate your priorities. Firstly HBW is a bargain for the financial outlay involved. Secondly there must be several books in your collection which do not deserve to be on your shelf as much as these. Bite the bullet, remove some of the chaff from your library (put it in the loft or sell it) and start by obtaining the two volumes you´ve missed. The longer you wait, the harder it will be to catch up without spending a small fortune, and the more you will have missed during the interim. More than recommended: fail to purchase at your peril!

Guy Kirwan