Kubila - Vol. 11: 158-160, 2000

Vol. 11: 158-160, 2000

del Hoyo, J., A. Elliott & J. Sargatal. Eds. 1999. Handbook of the Birds of the World. Vol. 5. Barn-owls to Hummingbirds. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona. pp.759.

As for Volume 4, superlatives are again in order. But the HBW volume that deals with night birds and swifts has got to be a winner. And hummingbirds too, although these lie outside the experience of this reviewer and of many Kukila readers (the last 213 pages of text, and 32 colour plates, are devoted to this family). This magnificent volume brings together some of the best photographs available of many quite obscure species, with at least one stunning photograph on every page of the long essays that introduce each family, while 19 artists have contributed to the 76 species plates, beautifully executed and superbly reproduced.

Once again, this reviewer is amazed at the rigorous discipline and incredible co-ordination that must have been required to produce a 759-page volume, with 38 individual authors and at least 7400 literature citations, that was published in 1999, yet can still include references to work published in that year (see Anon (1999) in World Birdwatch 21(1), in relation to a new Scops-owl on Sangihe Island). It goes better than this, with a reference on p. 85 to a new species of Ninox from Indonesia "that is likely to be described before the current year is out". This has to be Ninox ios (see Rasmussen 1999, in "Other Literature" below). The cut-off date for data derived from Kukila is 1997 (Volume 9), as probably 1999 was well advanced before Volume 10 reached the HBW editorial office in Barcelona.

Perhaps one of the biggest headaches in a work of this magnitude, with such rapid advances being made in taxonomic studies, must be keeping up with the literature. Yet this feat is achieved; see for example Lambert & Rasmussen (1998) on the aforementioned Sangihe Island Scops-owl, and Rasmussen (1998) on the new scops-owl from Great Nicobar Island (both of which papers were briefly reviewed in Kukila 10 of the same year). The questions of Otus taxonomic status, especially island forms, are obviously very far from resolved. Regrettably, the mystery of the pair of scops-owls which once visited and bred on the treeless Perak Island (see review of The Birds of the Thai-Malay Peninsula above) is ducked altogether, or else I overlooked it in the text. This is a pity, because interesting questions of scops-owl dispersion and colonizing ability are raised by this event.

Not always are the most recent recommendations followed. The split of the Christmas Boobook Ninox natalis from Moluccan Boobook N. squamapila is recognized (Norman et al. 1998 - see "Other Literature" below), but not of N. hypogramma (N. Maluku) and N. squamapila (Central and SE Maluku) as advocated in the same work.

The outline follows the format of the previous volumes. An "essay" introduces each family, followed by the species accounts and plates. The authors and artists for each are named in the contents lists at the beginning. Thus Murray Bruce is the author for both the essay and the species accounts for the barn-owls, and three authors wrote the essay on the typical owls while nine authors prepared the species accounts. The essay for the typical owls runs to 76 pages, but perhaps 40% of this space is taken up with no less than 111 magnificent colour photographs (some in series). Each essay is divided into Systematics, Morphological Aspects, Habitat, General Habits, Voice, Food and Feeding, Breeding, Movements, Relationship with Man, and finally Status and Conservation, finishing with a General Bibliography. The photographs accompanying the essay on the typical owls include Moluccan Scops-owl Otus magicus, Sulawesi Scops-owl O. manadensis and Sangihe Scops-owl O. collari (all by Frank Lambert), and probably the first colour photograph of the generally silent (and thus very poorly known) Javan Scops-owl O. angelinae (by Manuel Ruedi).

Obviously an enormous wealth of global information is presented, but indicative answers are found to many specifically local questions. The mystery of the single Sumatran record of White-fronted Scops-owl O. sagittatus is now placed into a context, or the two records in Sumatra (but none in Borneo) of Oriental Scops-owl O. sunia (p. 130). There are still gaps, however. Although the text on nightjars notes that peak calling times for most species are dusk and dawn, someone familiar with the two Eurostopodus species of the western Sundanese region would surely have commented on the almost obligatory timing of their "song-flights" at those hours, the most characteristic feature of these birds. The author of this section may have failed to pick up the range extension in 1988 of the Savanna Nightjar Caprimulgus affinis into Singapore and latterly into West Malaysia, as the species is not listed for this region under Distribution; yet anomalously Panti Forest Reserve (West Malaysia) is mentioned under Status and Conservation. Under the Linchi Swiftlet Collocalia linchi, it is incorrect to say that in Sumatra it occurs only at high altitude, because the holotype of the sub-species ripleyi was collected by its describer (Somadikarta 1986) at an altitude of 240 m in the Lampung plains.

Another example of the benefits of compiling such a wealth of data is the information on the colossal trade in edible swiftlet nests - nearly 20 million nests a year traded across national boundaries, valued at US$ 1,060 million from Indonesia, the main producer. In view of the dramatic decline in populations from places such as the Niah Caves, it is pleasing to record that purpose-built swift houses (p. 416) have caught on in Java (see Pramana Yuda & Felicia Zahida (1998) under "Other Literature" below). It would be very useful to know what proportion of nests derive from such "swiftlet farming", and whether any trends have been detected.

The short introduction to the volume makes a statement on nomenclature, especially in relation to the hyphenation of group-names, and follows the convention adopted by BirdLife International (e.g. Barred Owlet-nightjar). It makes reference to the arguments in favour of this system as promoted by the Indonesian Checklist (Andrew, 1992: The Birds of Indonesia: a checklist).

The 16-page Foreword is an essay (entitled Risk Indicators and Status Assessment in Birds) by one of the authors, Nigel Collar of BirdLife International, whose lead role in the preparation of much of the literature on threatened birds has given him a comprehensive overview of the status of conservation. As he says, by 2010 (when HBW is scheduled for completion), not only will we know more about birds than ever before; we will also have most of them "completely surrounded". David Wells' introduction to the Birds of the Thai-Malay Peninsula carries a similar message, that very few pockets of true lowland forest remain, "upon whose fate hangs the survival of close on one half of the Peninsula's bird species" - in other words, the "largest, most characteristic bird species assemblage - could be near (has perhaps already passed) a point of no return". Time is running out if HBW is not to become a historical document that passes on to our children and grandchildren the beauty and mystery of the world's avifauna that we allowed to pass into extinction.

Anyone requiring information on almost any subject relating to the owls, other night-birds, and the swifts of Indonesia is likely to find it in this volume. Unfortunately, to most of our readers, anywhere, the price of HBW will inevitably make it accessible only in specialist libraries. In Indonesia this probably means only in the library of the BirdLife office.

Derek A. Holmes