Cotinga - Nº22, 2004


Nº 22, 2004

Handbook of the birds of the world: volume 8 edited by Josep del Hoyo, Andrew Elliott and David Christie, 2003. Barcelona: Lynx Edicions. 845 pages, 81 colour plates, 477 colour photographs and 681 distribution maps. UK £110.

The latest volume of HBW will be of great interest to students of Neotropical birds, as six of the nine families that it covers are essentially Neotropical-ovenbirds (Furnariidae), woodcreepers (Dendrocolaptidae), typical antbirds (Thamnophilidae), ground antbirds (Formicariidae), gnateaters (Conopophagidae) and tapaculos (Rhinocryptidae)-whilst the other three, broadbills (Eurylaimidae), asities (Philepittidae) and pittas (Pittidae) occupy only 13% of this volume. The list of authors of the sections relevant to our region reads like a 'Who's who' of Neotropical ornithology-Isler, Krabbe, Marantz, Remsen, Schulenberg, Whitney, Zimmer, etc.-authoritative authors indeed. In contrast, I was struck by the lack of artists who specialise in the Neotropics amongst those commissioned to paint the plates-with the exception of one plate by Doug Pratt all the others have been painted by British artists, none of whom, as far as I am aware, have spent a great deal of time in the field in the Neotropics. But more on the plates later...

Volume 8 follows the now well-established pattern of previous volumes with lengthy introductions to each family lavishly illustrated by colour photographs and then detailed species accounts accompanied by colour plates and distribution maps. A number of changes suggested to Lynx by readers and reviewers of previous volumes have been made to this volume and these include: listing the photographs in the index both by English and scientific name, adding major rivers to the distribution maps, adding page numbers to the list of References of Scientific Descriptions, and including important sound recordings in the reference lists. In addition, the editors decided that as many of the Neotropical species covered in this volume are less well documented in the ornithological literature than many of those dealt with in earlier volumes, more detail than usual should be included in the species accounts, much of which has never been published before.

As with recent volumes in the series, the so-called 'Foreword' is in fact an excellent essay entitled 'A brief history of classifying birds' by Murray Bruce. This occupies 25 pages followed by eight pages of references and explains in some detail the gradual development of ornithological classification over the last few centuries. Essentially, it sets the scene for the order to be followed in the volumes of HBW that will cover the Passerines, of which this is the first, of course. Part of the introduction continues this theme and whilst not of particular relevance to the Neotropics, I was fascinated to learn that recent research indicates that New Zealand wrens (Acanthisittidae) may be the last surviving members of a group of primitive passerines long separated from the rest of the order. Apparently these wrens and the Australasian families of scrubbirds (Atrichornithidae) and lyrebirds (Menuridae) don't fit 'easily' into the suboscine or the oscine passerines, and probably should be treated as a separate group coming before the suboscines. However, as this volume was well into production before this finding became common knowledge the editors have elected to place the three families between the suboscines and the oscines.

The family introductions are superb reading once again-full of pertinent facts and frequently containing information about a species which isn't included in the specific account. This seems to be especially true of the sections on Systematics, which often discuss the reasons for the taxonomy followed. For example, it's here that you'll discover why two species of pitta Pitta sp. have been 'lumped', and why none of the 15 subspecies of Olivaceous Woodcreeper Sittasomus griseicapillus have yet been split. And brace yourself for Krabbe and Schulenberg's account of the current situation with the Scytalopus tapaculos-37 species treated here, with many more to be split!

Splendid colour photographs illustrate the family introductions. Several photographers are now actively seeking photographs of seldom-taken species specifically for HBW, and recent photographs therefore predominate, but it was nice to see a much older photograph of African Broadbill Smithornis capensis taken by Eric & Dorothy Hosking being included. Ovenbirds and woodcreepers don't really make for stunning photographs, being essentially rather dull in coloration but a few striking images do stand out, especially Edson Endrigo's splendid portrait of two Chotoy Spinetails Schoeniophylax phryganophilus. The patterns and colours of antbirds, on the other hand, offer great photographic potential and there are many outstanding images including two gorgeous close-ups of White-plumed Antbird Pithys albifrons by Doug Wechsler and a full-page portrait of the recently rediscovered White-masked Antbird P. castanea by Jose Alvarez Alonso.

The plates are generally very good, as we might expect from the quality of the artists chosen, but inevitably because of their differing styles some perhaps look better or more pleasing than others. I consider the shapes and postures of some of the ground antbirds to be not quite correct, with many birds appearing too horizontal or slightly tilted forward. The plumages look accurate and I'm sure they've been thoroughly researched against skins and other reference material, but I do suspect that this lack of correct 'jizz' may be due to lack of experience of the birds in life. Hilary Burn's typical antbirds on the other hand are quite stunning-and dare I say it-just as good as Guy Tudor's. Her Drymophila and Hylophylax antbirds are some of the best paintings of Neotropical birds that I've ever seen. It's also very useful to finally have top-quality depictions of species such as Marsh Antwren Stymphalornis acutirostris and Orange-bellied Antwren Terenura sicki. Presumably at the request of the authors or editors, the artists have really worked on illustrating subspecies in this volume with, for example, eight of the 15 subspecies of Olivaceous Woodcreeper being portrayed and no less than both sexes of all eight subspecies of Variable Antshrike Thamnophilus caerulescens-16 paintings of one species that take up almost all one plate!

As mentioned, the species texts have been lengthened and in some cases are quite long now, especially compared to many of those in the first few volumes. The text for Strong-billed Woodcreeper Xiphocolaptes promerophyrinchus, for example, fills a full page and quarter-and this is small print on a big page! The texts include much information never published before and the authors have cast their nets wide in trawling for facts. Ironically, the day before I read that the vocalisations of Scallop-breasted Antpitta Grallaricula loricata are unknown, I received an e-mail from a friend in Venezuela stating that he had just seen the species and recorded its voice! Oh well, I guess almost all books are bound to be out of date as soon as they are published!

HBW also seems to be becoming even better value for money. This volume has 845 pages, compared to 613 pages for volume 7 and 589 pages for volume 6 (with, of course, a similar increase in the number of plates and photographs), and yet it costs the same! This trend is one that I'm sure we'd all be glad to see continue.

This is yet another fantastic volume in the HBW series and contains unprecedented quantities of information for the Neotropical families it covers. It can be thoroughly recommended. My only dilemma is how to make use of this 4-kg volume in the field? Will there ever be a CD-ROM version I wonder?

David Fisher