International Zoo News - Vol. 42/3, No. 260, 1995

International Zoo News
Vol. 42/3, No. 260, 1995

Handbook of the Birds of the World: Volume 2, New World Vultures to Guineafowl
edited by Josep del Hoyo, Andrew Elliott and Jordi Sargatal.
Lynx Edicions, Barcelona, 1994. 638 pp., 60 colour plates, 302 colour photos. ISBN 84-87334-15-6.
£ 98.00 from specialist bookshops or directly from the publishers, Lynx Edicions, Passeig de Gràcia, 12, 08007 Barcelona, Spain (Tel: 93 301 07 77; Fax: 93 302 14 75), postage and packing, £ 5.00 extra. (For prices in other currencies please check with the publishers).

All that a reviewer really needs to say about Volume 2 of the Handbook of the Birds of the World is that it is as good as Volume 1. Anyone who has seen Volume 1 will know that this is praise enough. If the remaining ten volumes keep up the standard of the first two -and all the omens suggest that they will- the Handbook will end up as not merely the best bird book yet published, but the best that is ever likely to be published.

For those who have not yet seen either of them, and who find the price alarming, it is worth pointing out that these volumes are not merely crammed with information and beautiful to look at, but also very big -about 250 mm by 320 mm, and weighting over 3 1/2 kg- so you get a lot of book for your money. Weight for weight, these books are cheaper than most! Moreover, the typefaces used are fairly small -though perfectly clear- so, as well as the superb illustrations, those 638 pages hold more text than you might expect. The more I look at the Handbook, the more I am impressed by the quality of the planning that must have gone into this project: every detail has obviously been carefully thought through in advance, and if those responsible made any wrong decisions, I have yet to find one.

The birds covered in Volume 2 are the Falconiformes and Galliformes (both popular groups in aviculture). The order in which families and species are presented immediately raises the question of classification -or, more correctly, that of 'standard sequence'. (In the Foreword, Walter J.Bock draws a useful distinction, too often ignored, between these two concepts.) The Handbook follows the Wetmore-Peters sequence, in general use since about 1930, but incorporating many revisions introduced up to 1975; this is the system most of us are familiar with (as used in, e.g., the International Zoo Tearbook). The taxonomic assumptions on which this 'traditional' sequence was based are now believed to be incorrect in some cases, but it is not the job of a standard work of reference to make its basic arrangement conform to new, and perhaps still provisional, theories. Where appropriate, questions of this sort are fully discussed in the text. For example, the New World vultures are now thought to belong in the Ciconiiformes -their physical resemblances to the Old World vultures are a nice example of convergent evolution- but in the Handbook they appear where 99% of readers would expect to find them, in the Falconiformes, though the accompanying text gives full details of the grounds for rejecting this traditional placing.

Where keeping up with the latest developments does not conflict with user-friendliness, though, the Handbook is impressively up-to-date. Thus, the new Mace-Lande categories of threat are given for those species for which they are available (four of the Galliform families). And more impressive still, the Udzungwa forest-partridge (Xenoperdix udzungwensis), a monotypic East African species first observed in 1991 and only scientifically described in 1994, has a full entry in its proper place.

The illustrations are obviously of enormous importance in a work of this kind. The colour plates in the Handbook, the work of ten artists, are a remarkable achievement. The large page-size makes possible the clear representation of up to 20 or so birds, all to the same scale, on a single plate -a feature of great practical value, making the comparison of related species much easier than in books of a smaller format. The photographs are mostly of such suberb quality that it would have been excusable to include them merely for their ornamental value; in fact, however, many of them have been carefully chosen for their information content as well- it is noteworthy that their captions tend to consist of a paragraph rather than a sentence, emphasising their close integration with the purpose of the book as a whole.

This brief review has had to be highly selective. With such a work as the Handbook of the Birds of the World, however, that is inevitable. Indeed, no reviewer can expect to give more than some initial impressions. Books like this are not meant to be read straight through -they are to be kept handy and consulted (probably several times a week at least!) for the rest of one's life.

Nicholas Gould