The Quarterly Review of Biology, Volume 91, Number 3, September 2016

View in PDF

Bird Families of the World: An Invitation to the Spectacular Diversity of Birds.

By David W. Winkler, Shawn M. Billerman, and Irby J. Lovette; Consulting Editor: Natasha Atkins; Photo and Captions Manager: Teresa M. Pegan. Barcelona (Spain): Lynx Edicions and Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York. 87.00 €. 599 p.; ill.; index. ISBN: 978 - 84 - 941892 - 0 - 3. 2015.

Over the past few decades, with the advance of molecular phylogenetics, the avian “tree of life” has been, in part, deconstructed and reconstructed repeatedly. This state of affairs can result in both frustration and exhilaration: the former due to the necessity to relinquish, sometimes reluctantly, ageold notions of relationship as taxa are reshuffled, while the latter follows from scientific discovery and a sense of getting to the crux of avian phylogeny once and for all. Although the science of classification is the technical concern of avian systematists, the implications of their decisions reverberate through the pages of field guides, books on single bird families, and larger collections that treat birds of the world. In fact, no modern study, or even basic appreciation, of birds is untouched by the way we classify them. Thus, Winkler et al.’s project is both timely and welcome in that it synthesizes recent phylogenetic hypotheses and weaves together an aesthetic and erudite road map to understand the diversity of living birds and, more specifically, each avian “family’s evolutionary exploration” (p. 24).

Bird Families of the World covers the 36 orders and 243 families of the 10,000-plus extant species of birds. The focus is clearly at the family level, which follows Winkler’s teaching objectives in his Birds of the World unit taught as a component of an ornithology course at Cornell University. Each family account includes subsections on Related Families, Similar Birds, Description, Habitat, Food, Breeding, Conservation, and Relationships. Stunning and often diagnostic photographs accompany the text; thankfully, a photograph location is given. Many images capture behavior, such as a pair of pied fantails (Rhipidura javanica: Rhipiduridae) simultaneously feeding their two nestlings, which have patently outgrown their shared nest (p. 374). A color plate illustrating a representative species of each genus, conveniently organized by subfamily, offers a quick visual summary of the range of morphological diversity within each family (e.g., see Vanginae, p. 367); the handsome illustrations are taken from the Handbook of the Birds of the World collection. In addition, each account includes a range map, a size-comparison silhouette of a hand with the smallest and largest members of the family, and a highlighted, quick-reference text box with summary information and fascinating facts about the taxon in question (although it is surprising to find no mention of neurotoxic alkaloids in skin and feathers of pitohuis). Literature citations extend through 2014.

The phylogenetic hypothesis that underlies the organization of the book is informed by Hackett et al. (2008. Science 320:1763 – 1768) and Jarvis et al. (2014. Science 346:1320 –1331), with the addition of three new family names described here by Fjeldså et al. (pp. 33 – 34). Those who do not keep up with taxonomic overhauls may find some surprises: Dendrocolaptidae (woodcreepers) is now subsumed in Furnariidae (ovenbirds), Cnemophilidae (satinbirds) has been split from the Paradisaeidae (birds-of-paradise), Teretistridae (Cuban warblers) is now separated from Parulidae (New World warblers), and the Neotropical Donacobius (Donacobius atricapilla) has been plucked from Troglodytidae and given its own monotypic family (Donacobiidae), which is sister to the Malagasy radiation of warblers.

The book’s layout works well, the production is excellent, and information is easily accessed. If I were pressed to offer points for improvement, I would suggest better use of full-page format (about one-third of the page of at least eight pages is blank), the addition of ♂/♀ symbols to photograph captions, and the inclusion of an abbreviation for biogeographic realm (e.g., N = Neotropical) after each common name on the color plates. One omission that needs addressing in a future edition is the absence of genus Nyctanassa (yellow-crowned night-heron), which is here subsumed under Nycticorax, a vestige of Handbook of the Birds of the World, Volume 1 (1992. Barcelona (Spain): Lynx Edicions). Minor shortcomings aside, the authors deserve praise for producing a handy, informative guide where every page is a visual delight. With the plethora of single-volume, birds of the world books available today (see 2007. QRB 82:425 – 426), Bird Families of the World undoubtedly rises to the top of the pile thanks to its depth and breadth of coverage, up-to-date avian classification, clear organization, and impressive artwork. Both advanced birders and ornithology students, as well as faculty who teach ornithology-related courses, will find this a useful resource—one that is difficult to place down.

Mark Riegner, Environmental Studies, Prescott College, Prescott, Arizona