South Dakota Ornithologists' Union - Vol. 50, no. 2; June 1998

South Dakota Ornithologists' Union
Vol. 50, no. 2
June 1998

Handbook of the Birds of the World, Vol.4. Sandgrouse to Cuckoos
H.J.del Hoyo, A.Elliott, and J.Sargatal, Eds.

Lynx Edicions, Barcelona. 1997. Hardbound. 664 pp. $185.00

When I reviewed Volume 3 of this series last year (SDBN 49:39-40), I described it at "the best bird book ever". This description still applies.

As in the previous volumes, the layout consists of a long section describing each bird family covered. Topics include systematics, morphology, habitat, behaviour, voice, breeding, movements, and relationships with people, including status and conservation. Following this come a series of species accounts, with notes on taxonomy, distribution (with a map), description, habitat, food, breeding, migration, status and conservation, and a bibliography.

The family description is lavishly illustrated with stunning color photographs. These photos must be the result of digital technology, as they are uniformly excellent, at times approaching three-dimensional. Outstanding in this volume is a photo of a Greater Roadrunner grasping in its beak a large rattlesnake. Another photograph is of a nearly surrealistic mob of green, blue and yellow lories, so closely packed together that there is no space between the individuals. In front of each species account section lie a series of paintings showing each of the species covered (usually males, but occasionally other plumages). The editors apologize in the introduction that the number of artists has increased from about a dozen to 18. The editors are concerned about style variations. To me, the paintings look uniformly excellent, and those of cockatoos by Lewington approach photographic quality. In total, there are 70 color plates and 236 photographs in the volume.

Again, the book's layout and design are stunning and represent a subtle improvement from the first volume. I also notice that, beginning with the cuckoos, voice is included with the species descriptions, whereas for previous families this aspect was only covered for the family in general. This addition will be very helpful with the upcoming passerine volumes.

Volume 4 comes with two added features. The first is a print of a perky Ostrich head taken from the cover of the first volume. This gift is nice (and worthy of framing); I would have preferred a reduction to the book´s cost, however small that might have been. The second is more valuable, an introductory lecture on the nature of our understanding of the species concept as it applies to birds. Ornithologists tend to think of birds species as real, rather than subjective, entities. It turns out that there are three schools of thought, those that hold to the typographical concept, the biological concept, or the phylogenetic concept. Depending on which concept you hold dear, the result in numbers of bird species recognized ranges from about 8,500 to 20,000! The author, Jurgen Haffer, argues for the biological species concept with resultant conservative totals. This forward is not easy reading and could probably have benefited by doubling its dozen pages for the benefit of the lay reader. However, the foreword, along with the introduction to avian biology in the first volume, result in a sophisticated ornithology course for any reader. So not only do you get a wonderful reference book, you get an ornithology course too.

You can glean a powerful amount of data by just skimming these volumes. I have decided to read the family accounts cover to cover. Even if I retain only a fraction of the information contained within, I will vastly increase my ornithological knowledge. (For example, did you know that pigeons and doves are almost the only birds to suck water when they drink? Or that sandgrouse young drink from water soaked into their father´s feathers and thereby transported to the nest -and to accomplish this male sandgrouse feathers have structural modifications that make them three to four times more absorbent than synthetic sponges?)

As said in my initial review, these books deserve whatever sacrifices you might need to make for their purchase. The quality of the series makes the price well worth the sacrifice. If the volumes are beyond your budget, you should make every effort to have your regional library obtain them. Information on pricing and even ordering forms, along with examples from each volume, can be obtained on the Internet at

Dan Tallman, Northern State University, Aberdeen, SD 57401