International Zoo News - 2005

International Zoo News

HANDBOOK OF THE BIRDS OF THE WORLD: Volume 9 - COTINGAS TO PIPITS AND WAGTAILS edited by Josep del Hoyo, Andrew Elliott and David Christie. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona, 2004. 864 pp., 78 colour plates, 440 colour photos, hardback. ISBN 84-87334-69-5. £120.00 from specialist bookshops or directly from the publishers, Lynx Edicions, Montseny, 8, 08193 Bellaterra, Barcelona, Spain (Tel: +34-93-594-7710; Fax: +34-93-592-0969; E-mail:; Internet: (For prices in other currencies, instalment plans, and special offers for purchasers of the first nine volumes, please check with the publishers.)

In the near future I shall be moving into a new office. Details of its layout have yet to be worked out, but on one point I have already made up my mind - it must include a shelf and desk designed specifically to house the Handbook of the Birds of the World. Any owner of this series will sympathise. If you own the Handbook, you're sure to find yourself consulting it frequently - typically several times a day, in my experience - and the only thing preventing you from consulting it even more frequently is likely to be the sheer physical effort involved. ('Handbook', surely, is a misnomer, having as its root meaning, the dictionary informs me, 'a small book or treatise, such as may conveniently be held in the hand'. A gorilla or a professional weightlifter might be able to hold one of these volumes conveniently in one hand, but a sedentary editor in his declining years definitely cannot!)

Volume 9 covers over 800 passerine species in nine families: Cotingas, Manakins, Tyrant-flycatchers, New Zealand Wrens, Scrub-birds, Larks, Swallows, and Pipits and Wagtails. A mixed bunch, these: some are so widespread and familiar that virtually everyone can recognise them - the common, or barn, swallow, for example, is found at some time of the year in every continent except Antarctica. Others are hardly known even to professional ornithologists; for example the scrub-birds, two secretive species restricted to small ranges in eastern and south-western Australia. Many, like the pipits, are unspectacular and hard to differentiate. But some are among the most distinctive and showy of all birds the cocks-of-the rock, for instance, or the lyrebirds.

As with every HBW volume, I only have to open this book to learn something new. (Admittedly, since my knowledge of some of these families was virtually nil, there's plenty to learn.) The cotingas, for example, are a diverse group of neotropical forest birds, not at all well represented in zoos. Their taxonomy is controversial and many are little-studied - the words 'no information' occur frequently in their species descriptions in this volume. One of those included, the chestnut-capped piha, was discovered as recently as 1999, and the author of the family account is sure that other restricted-range species will be found in the future. The tyrant-flycatchers, the largest of all avian families, with 429 species found in all parts of the Americas except the extreme north, are even more diverse. Indeed, they form an object lesson in evolutionary convergence, with species resembling, among others, shrikes, jays, wrens, crows, thrushes and warblers. One, the short-tailed pygmy-tyrant, is the smallest passerine in the world, weighing in at only 4.2 g (smaller than many hummingbirds); another, the great shrike-tyrant, is the size of a jackdaw and feeds on small vertebrates. By contrast, the three small and rather drab species of New Zealand wrens 'have a zoological importance out of all proportion to their restricted distribution and limited diversity' - recent DNA studies indicate that they are the most primitive of living passerines, the only survivors of a lineage that was isolated when New Zealand broke away from Gondwanaland about 85 million years ago. It would be easy to go on and on quoting nuggets of information from this volume, but these few samples must suffice.

In other respects, too, Vol. 9 shares the virtues of its predecessors. The colour plates are, as usual, both beautiful and practical. Their uniform excellence throughout the series is astonishing. I'm not sure how many artists have contributed to the project over the years, but this volume contains the work of ten of them, four of whom first appeared in Vol. 2 (no artist has been involved continuously since the start). The photos are as outstanding as ever, and as in Vol. 8 many of them were taken specially for the book; they include a number which are the first ever published of the species concerned. A first for Vol. 9 is the formal scientific description of a newly-proposed subdivision of the Tyrannidae. Such descriptions normally appear in specialist academic journals, but experts in the field agreed that the choice of HBW was entirely appropriate, since 'the series is more readily accessible to a greater proportion of the broad ornithological community worldwide than are quite a number of important ornithological journals.' This emphasises the degree to which the Handbook is becoming accepted as the standard reference source for avian studies generally.

For the volume's foreword, Richard C. Banks of the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., contributes a useful 13-page essay on ornithological nomenclature, a topic notoriously full of pitfalls for the amateur (and, indeed, many professionals). Anyone who has sampled the intricacies of the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature will find Dr Banks's exposition refreshingly clear and readable. One item here, a list of the people most frequently honoured in birds' scientific names, nicely supplements the information in another book I recently reviewed, Whose Bird? [see IZN 51 (8), 493-4]; other tables give the rate of annual descriptions of new bird species since 1920 (which shows no obvious signs of slackening), the most frequently used descriptors in birds' names (cinereus, 'ash-grey', and cristatus, 'crested', top the list with 40 each), and ornithologists who have provided currently valid names for 100 or more species (Linnaeus still leads the field here with an impressive 714, well ahead of his nearest rival, P.L. Sclater, with 429).

The Handbook is now more than halfway to completion. Production of the first eight volumes spanned twelve years; now, however, the pace has quickened, and we can look forward to a volume a year until Vol. 16 completes the series in 2011 (just in time for my 70th birthday - an alarming thought!). And concurrently, Lynx Edicions are continuously adding to their list of other books. Not just ornithological ones, either: Josep del Hoyo, the initial driving force behind HBW, has for years dreamed of a companion set, the Handbook of the Mammals of the World, and planning goes steadily ahead on this project. The triumphant progress of HBW was one of the zoology publishing sensations of the 20th century; perhaps HMW will be an equal success in the 21st!

Nicholas Gould