Illinois Audubon - November 1997

Illinois Audubon
November 1997

Handbook of the Birds of the World
Edited by Josep del Hoyo, Andrew Elliot, and Jordi Sargatal.

The Handbook of the Birds of the World series (Lynx Edicions) consists of 12 separate volumes that are being published in association with Bird Life International (one volume about every 18 months). As of this writing, four volumes are available, which cover all bird species from the ostrich to cuckoos. When complete, the series will eventually summarize information on every known bird species in the world. This is an ambitious task, indications of which are the size and weight of each volume (each volume measures 12.2 by 9.4 inches, and Volume 3, for example, weighs about 9.5 pounds). Yet The Handbook series is far more than a large compendium of information about birds. There is an alarming message present throughout the series; or rather, it is a warning, reminding us to take heed of our actions over the next few decades, or we may quickly lose many of these beautiful and enigmatic objects of our great interest. But first and foremost, there is the science.

The coverage of birds in the series is arranged in phylogenetic order and presents the most current ideas on the classification of birds into various taxonomic groups (orders, family, genus, species). Separate chapters are devoted to each family. Even though chapters throughout the four volumes were written by many different authors from many countries around the world, the style and clarity of writing are very consistent. The writing reflects the British style of usage and spelling (e.g., birds are "ringed" rather than "banded"), which may seem strange at times; but the style, if anything, emphasizes that the United States is not the only country that has been making great accomplishments in the avian sciences.

Each family treatment begins with a discussion of evolutionary relationships followed by a section on family morphology. These two sections tend to be somewhat more technical than the others, and at times use specialized terminology and refer to rather abstruse biological concepts. However, many terms are explained as they are used; in addition, Volume I of the series provides a very good overview of basic bird biology for the general reader, which is an incentive to purchase at least the first volume in addition to any other volumes.

Other sections of each family treatment include discussions on habitat use, behavior, ecology, breeding, and conservation. Discussions are heavily grounded in the ecological and evolutionary sciences. This makes the text thought-provoking as well as informative, and takes The Handbook series very far beyond mere descriptions of birds and their distributions and abundances. Each family treatment, in fact, provides the reader with an efficient and highly readable summary of a great deal of current ornithological literature, which otherwise would be thinly spread over a myriad of obscure scientific journals.

Other excellent features of the family treatments are the fine color photographs liberally interspersed throughout each volume. The photographs tend to give the text a sense of animation and life, with each accompanied by a caption that explains the photograph while reiterating certain points made in the main text. Color plates illustrating all species for a family follow the main text for each family. The individual species accounts are written in a somewhat shorthand style with smaller-sized text. Species accounts summarize for each species the same type of information presented earlier for the entire family. Each species account includes a distribution map as well as bibliographical citations. An amazing amount of information is presented in The Handbook series even at this point with only one quarter of the series complete. For example, Volume 3 alone (824 pages, $185.00) contains about 10,000 bibliographical references, 60 color plates, 834 color photographs, and 577 distribution maps.

Publication of such an extensive work as The Handbook series is an indication that we live in a very special time in the history of bird studies and the appreciation of birds. Just a few generations earlier, such a work on so remarkable a scale could not have been contemplated; the color photographs alone would have been an impossibility. And one generation from now, many species probably will have become extinct.

The Handbook series illustrates many times throughout that direct and indirect effects from human activities are responsible for populations declines of many bird species around the world. Issues relating to birds and humans are examined in special sections called "Relationship with Man" and "Status and Conservation". The editors, to their credit, do not appear to exaggerate the facts, even as troubling as facts may sometimes be. To be sure, not all bird species are declining; in fact, many are increasing or stable. The important point now is whether we can use the fantastic arsenal of scientific knowledge and environmental awareness embodied in The Handbook series to help the imperiled birds in all parts of the world. What chance for survival as a species, for instance, does the golden-tailed parrotlet have? The golden-tailed parrotlet breeds only in a narrow strip of eastern and northeastern Brazil, where The Handbook (Volume 4) indicates the species is "likely to have suffered a major and continuing decline with steady clearance of final vestiges of lowland forest outside of protected areas." A further question of increasing importance is: how many species of birds over the world will be lost before this situation of increasing amounts of habitat loss or degradation resulting from human activities is somehow stabilized?

Yet for all the bad news for some species, The Handbook series can be looked upon as a celebration of birds, science, and the high technology necessary to create such an impressive product. Each separate Volume of the series stands alone as a monumenntal scientific achievemennt. Birds all over the world are probably already indirectly benefitting from the publication of the first four volumes of The Handbook series due to the strengthened resolve to make a difference that is undoubtedly being inspired in its readers. And this may have been what the many people connected with this series had in mind from the start.

Thomas V. Lerezak