International Zoo News - Vol. 47/1 (no. 298) February 2000

International Zoo News
Vol. 47/1 (no. 298) February 2000

Handbook of the Birds of the World: Volume 5. Barn-owls to Hummingbirds
Edited by Josep del Hoyo, Andrew Elliot and Jordi Sargatal.
Lynx Edicions, Barcelona, 1999.
759 pp., 76 colour plates, about 400 colour photos, hardback.
ISBN 84-87334-25-3. £110.00 from specialist bookshops directly from the publishers,
Lynx Edicions, Passeig de Gràcia 12, 08007 Barcelona, Spain
(Tel: +34-93-302-1475; Fax: +34 –93-302-1475; E-mail:; Internet:,
postage and packing £6.00 extra. (For prices in other currencies please check with the publishers.)

Nowadays, like, I am sure, most other owners of the five published volumes of the Handbook of the Birds of the World, I have a fairly clear mental concept of the class Aves which divides them into two previously unrecognised sub-classes – those which already have an entry in the Handbook, and those which do not. The value of this project (I originally wrote ‘projects of this kind’, but then realised that there are no other projects of this kind!) is to some extent cumulative – each successive volume adds to the usefulness of all the preceding ones. The more species get the Handbook treatment, the more ones begins to regard it as the first place to turn to for ornithological information of all kinds – and the more one misses it when needing information on a family or species not yet covered!

Here, then, is the fifth batch, 747 species (bringing the grand total so far, by my count, to 3,250) comprising owls, nightjars, swifts, hummingbirds, and a number of smaller families from frogmouths to the oilbird (certainly a contender for the title of World’s Oddest Bird). As usual, the species information is full and impressively up-to-date. Just to test this, I looked up the Moheli scops owl (Otus moheliensis), first described in 1998. (I don’t really want to catch the Handbook out, but it’s a reviewer’s job to try.) The owl was there, of course, with an entry encapsulating probably all that is yet known about this restricted-range species from one island in the Comoros. The accompanying plate even illustrated two distinct colour morphs.

I mentioned above, in another review, my belief in the superiority of paintings over photos as a guide to identifying or distinguishing species.Where photos are the best is in depicting the behaviour of animals, or their life in its environmental context. The Handbook has always scored on both counts, with its big plates showing paintings of up to 30 or more related species, and its lavish use of photos in each general family account. Is it just the pleasure of studying a new volume, or are the photos this time even better than usual? Singling out a few to mention from nearly 400 isn’t easy – great dusky swifts clustered like bats on a cliff between two waterfalls; a nighthawk caught in the act of drinking in flight; a grey, flaky branch with a broken stump which turns out on close inspection to be a ‘freezing’ tawny frogmouth; treeswifts, adult and chick, squatting on their minute nest glued to the tip of a branch; several pages of photos illustrating the relationship between the shapes of hummingbirds’bills and the flowers they feed from . . these are examples chosen literally at random. And in each case the accompanying text is a short essay in itself, so that photo and caption perfectly complement each other, conveying several times more information than either could do on its own.

A feature of growing importance in each successive volume of the Handbook has been the Foreword, in which - rather in the manner of a guest editorial – an independent specialist comments on some aspect of the great subject of birds. This time, Nigel Collar of BirdLife International contributes a lengthy essay on what is today, sadly, perhaps the most important ornithological topic of all-assessing the nature and degree of the threats to the survival of bird species. He includes the current (1994) IUCN criteria and discusses some problems involved in their use. His contribution is appropriate, for BirdLife International (formerly ICBP) has been associated with this project from the outset. The Handbook of the Birds of the World is, among other things, a major contributor to the cause of conservation – both by inspiring its readers with a passion for the wonder, beauty and diversity of birds, and by providing them with the detailed, accurate information without which the struggle to save birds would be directionless and impotent.

Nicholas Gould