Ostrich - September 1994

September 1994

Del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. & Sargatal, J. (Eds). 1992.

Handbook of the Birds of the World. Volume 1: Ostrich to Ducks.
Barcelona: Lynx Edicions. 696 pp., map for each species included, many coloured photographs, 50 coloured plates, some coloured figures.

There is no book on birds anywhere like this one. Every serious student and "amateur" of birds should have access to it. In his foreword Dr Christoph Imboden, Director-General of the International Council for Bird Preservetion (ICBP), writes "I am delighted to endorse this marvellous Handbook on behalf of the ICBP." He is quite right to do so. What has he endorsed and why?.

Volume 1 starts, after the usual preliminaries explaining in detail what the book is about and how to use it (19 pp.), with a general chapter on birds (39 pp.). This is generally very good even though the account of avian evolution and systematics could have been written 40 years ago. The author (E. de Juana) and editors do not appear to have heard of cladistics (basically, classification by shared derived character states), developed and made popular by Willie Hennig, or of punctuated equilibria (basically, long periods of no change followed by incidents of rapid change) developed and made popular by Stephen Jay Gould and Elizabeth Vrba.

On p.76 the guts of the book starts, beginning with the Ostrich Struthio camelus. An indication of the thoroughness of the work may be obtained from the number of modern references cited for this species that were unknown to me. Each family has an introductory chapter with subheadings: systematics, morphological aspects, habitat, general habits, voice, food and feeding, breeding, movements, relationship with man, status and conservation, general bibliography. Similarly, the account for each species (normally thos recognized by 1975 Morony, Bock & Farrand) is standardized: English, Latin, French, German and Spanish names, taxonomy, subspecies and distribution, descriptive notes, habitat, food and feeding, breeding, movements, status and conservation, bibliography. The species accounts are printed in a small face and written in telegraphic English to save space. Further details can be found in the family accounts. The text is not normally directly referenced so that the family and species bibliographies must be scanned to find the source of a matter of interest.

Each species is handsomely illustrated in full colour by a breeding adult, both sexes being shown when necessary. Five artists have been involved in the work. Distinctive subspecies are also illustrated in whole or in part. No attempt is made to cover juvenile and immature plumages.

The distribution maps try to represent current distributions, not historical ones: the Ostrich map does not show the Arabian and Central Asian ranges from which they have been eliminated. The maps must be examined in the light of the species accounts, e.g. the Reed Cormorant Phalacrocorax africanus (which they call the Longtailed Cormorant) where the map does not show coastal breeding and inshore foraging in Mauretania clearly set out in the text. The common convention is used: yellow for breeding range vacated outside the breeding season, blue for nonbreeding range, green for when the two ranges coincide (largely resident species). Obviously, the scale of the maps does not permit the presentation of more than a broad picture.

The strong emphasis on conservation history and needs is well warranted, and very interesting. The ICBP´s caution in classifying species that need special conservation action on a worldwide basis is very evident, including updating in the light of recent studies initiated or supported by it. I had not realized how seriously introductions of exotic fishes had impacted many athalassic water-birds, even leading to apparent extinctions. Extinction of waterbirds, however, nearly always seems to be the result of several interacting factors including restricted range, exploitation, pollution, and habitat destruction, as well as introductions of exotic animals.

There has been a developing upsurge in high class ornithological work in Spain in the last 20 years, most of it by residents. I had not realized until I examined this book that much of the upsurge was centred in Catalonia, in the northeast of Spain. Catalan nationality and language were heavily repressed by the Franco government after the Spanish civil war which ended in 1939. The end of repression has led to a cultural and economic flowering in Catalonia, exemplified for most people by the latest Olympic Games held in the capital, Barcelona. This book is a major product of this flowering. Who would have guessed that the first attempt this century to write a birds of the world covering all species would emerge in Catalonia? The book is superbly researched, formatted and produced. It is a testimony to the scientific, linguistic and technical abilities of the Catalans: George Orwell (Homage to Catalonia) would certainly have approved.

The English used is usually accurate and clear. However, standard English does distinguish between the verbs "review"= survey the known data, and "revise"= rearrange the known data. The authors seem to use revise throughout. Of course, both verbs have similar etymologies. "Outside" is never used, the archaic and dialectal "outwith" being preferred.

There are, of course, occasional typographic errors such as "supercede" for surpersede. There are occasional errors of fact: cormorants do not have an oil gland at the base of the neck but at the base of the tail where all other birds who have oil glands have them.

There is another feature I must praise and that is the superb coloured photographs that accompany the family accounts. The captions are long enough to tell the reader why that photograph has been chosen, i.e. that it illustrates some aspect mentioned in the text. In addition, the scientific name is given as well as that of the photographer and place of photographing, thus giving maximum information.

The SAOS should note the reasonably successful attempt to give distinct English names to all species covered. The Society could do worse than decide to follow nearly all the choices in the interests of international communication, a matter that I and others have raised in appropriate book reviews in the Ostrich.

We must hope that the succeeding volumes (nine are planned) appear fairly soon and maintain or excel the standard already set. They will be a major guide and source book for all serious students of birds, not to mention conservationists generally.