South Dakota Bird Notes - 53(3): 49-50 - September 2001

South Dakota Bird Notes
53(3): 49-50 - September 2001

HANDBOOK OF THE BIRDS OF THE WORLD. Vol 6 Mousebirds to Hornbills. 2001. J. del Hoyo, A. Elliott, and J. Sargatal, Eds. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona. Hardcover. 489 pp. $185.00 (substantial discounts are available: see, which also contains sample pages from the book).

A reviewer of the Handbook of the Birds of the World runs the risk of spewing superlatives. Although not inexpensive, each volume contains a wealth of information. Even retaining a fraction of this information would make the reader a very well educated birder. Of the 12 avian families covered in Volume 6, only one is found in South Dakota (kingfishers), three others are wholly (todies and motmots) or partially (trogons) restricted to the New World, and the rest (mousebirds, bee-eaters, rollers, ground-rollers, cuckoo-rollers, hoopoes, woodhoopoes, and hornbills) are found only in the Old World. Thus, many of the birds covered in this book will be unfamiliar to South Dakota birders. Many happy hours of reading will remedy this situation and expand our appreciation of the world's birds.

This volume begins with an exquisite and well-written forward on avian sound. These 30 pages alone are worth the purchase of the book. The temptation to share some of the cool facts reported is overwhelming. Did you know that male Brown Thrashers can sing over 2000 different songs, the number of which may influence his reproductive success? Or that Palm Cockatoos of Australia make drumsticks to rap against hollow logs? The list of amazing research goes on and on. The introduction has a unique format. Ornithologists around the world submitted questions that they would like to see answered. These questions appear in the wide margins opposite to where the subjects are discussed in the essay. The essay is profusely referenced with over 500 citations to the professional literature.

The syrinx is discussed, the organ that allows some birds to sing simultaneously two songs or produce one song alternately from one side or the other. I was surprised to learn that the exact mechanism of sound production by the syrinx is unknown, as is exactly how airwaves are transformed to neural transmissions. The text continues with an interesting discussion of the neural control of song.

Many questions are addressed in the essay. How and when do birds learn song? To what extent is song learned or inherited? How do birds learn dialects? What are the evolutionary and ecological consequences of dialects? How do birds learn new dialects and why should they do so? What about mimicry? Did you know that White-crowned Sparrows can be tricked into learning other bird songs, if the new song is preceded by a species-specific song-learning whistle? Live teachers are more effective than loud speakers for teaching baby birds; if birds are raised by humans, then a person with a loud speaker around his or her neck is more effective than a speaker alone.

The essay continues to discuss the function and evolution of calls and songs as they relate to territory, mate choice, pair maintenance, fitness, advertisement, and intelligence. After the introduction, the text continues, in the superb style to which we have become accustomed in the previous volumes, with stunningly illustrated (photos and plates) family discussions and species accounts. The family accounts cover the systematics, morphology, habitats, behavior, voices, and migrations of the species within the family. These discussions end with the family's relationship with humans and the status of conservation needs of the group. The species accounts list the species in each family and include information on taxonomy, morphology, ecology, breeding, migration, and conservation status, and include a bibliography of works on the species. Of special interest to many birders are lists of subspecies of each species, information that is otherwise increasingly hard to locate, especially for all the birds of the world.

The color plates and photographs are uniformly superb. Among the best of the photographs are a series of diving European Kingfishers, as they hit the water after minnows. A close-up of a White-throated Bee-eater atop a Water Buffalo's horn is almost poetic in its beauty. The fact of the matter is that all the photographs are wonderful. Although illustrated by a number of different artists, the color plates are remarkably uniform in their excellence. Some of the kingfisher plates are especially elegant in their attention to detail. One small improvement for future volumes might be the inclusion of juvenile plumages with these plates.

Clearly this handbook is beyond the financial bounds of some of our readers. Nevertheless, if you can afford this series, I urge you to purchase these books. If they are beyond your means, you should recommend them to your local library. This series of volumes stands as a hallmark to ornithological knowledge of the birds of the world.

By Dan Tallman, Northern State University, Aberdeen SD 57401.