Neotropical Birding 14 p.78 by Christopher J. Sharpe

Handbook of the Birds of the World, Special Volume: New Species and Global Index
edited by Josep del Hoyo, Andrew Elliott, Jordi Sargatal and David A. Christie, 2013. Barcelona,
Spain: Lynx Edicions. 812 pp, 214 bird illustrations, 50 figures, 319 colour photographs
and 94 distribution maps. Hardback. ISBN 978-84-96553-88-0. EUR145.00 (approx. $197.52 /

The first volume of the Handbook of the Birds of the World (now universally known as HBW) appeared in 1992 to wide acclaim. Subsequent volumes consolidated HBW's reputation as the single most reliable and accurate source of information on all the world's birds. Several of them were of particular interest to our readers, either for their coverage of quintessentially Neotropical families (like the furnariids, woodcreepers, antbirds and tapaculos treated in volume 8, or the cotingas, manakins and tyrannids of volume 9), or because they provided a much- needed synthesis of particular families that had hitherto been inadequately covered by Neotropical field guides (such as owls, nightjars and hummingbirds, treated in volume 5). Sometimes the plates contained the only accurate or colour illustrations of little-known endemics. The final volume, including tanagers and icterids, rolled off the press in 2011, bringing the sixteen-volume series to a conclusion.

So why a Special Volume? "Birds just offer too many things to talk about!" quips Josep del Hoyo in his introduction. Admittedly, the Special Volume was an "afterthought", albeit one conceived several years before the end of the project. As Josep explains, the extra volume aimed to give an overview of the way avian systematics had developed since HBW's inception (when the Peters' Check-list was adopted as a basis for organising the survey), to cover the dozens of species that had been described since the project began, and to provide a much-needed index. When the project was nearing completion, the editors received an offer they could not refuse: to publish descriptions of 15 entirely new species. Thus the elements of the volume came together to be melded into a single, if rather heterogeneous book.

BirdLife International has been involved in Lynx's initiative since the start, so it is fitting that the Foreword should comprise a history of the organisation, which celebrates 20 years as a global partnership and 90 since its founding as the International Council for Bird Preservation.

Jon Fjeldså's essay on Avian classification in flux gives a masterly overview of a subject that can cause as much consternation to birders as it does to professional ornithologists. He explains the value of classification, shows why it is changing so rapidly (due to the rapid growth in genetic analyses, the increasing rate of discovery of fossils, the congruence between molecular and morphological data and our clearer understanding of Earth's history) and explores the current bird classification, order by order. In the process, he examines the purposes of naming and classification, the reasons for splitting well- established species, the different species concepts and just what is involved in "genetic analyses". For me, this is one of the highlights of the volume: the perfect introduction to a polemical topic and the ideal answer to the birder's continual question of why bird names and classifications are constantly changing. The final section, entitled Why is it so difficult?, just about sums it up! Required reading, then, for those who struggle with Splits, Lumps and Shuffles...

Fjeldså's next essay on The discovery of new bird species is equally gripping. Despite Ernst Mayr's assertion in 1946 that all but a hundred or so bird species had been catalogued, in the two decades since HBW began 128 new entirely bird species have been described, a figure includes neither splits nor the 15 newly described species contained in this volume. This puts the annual rate of discovery at half a dozen species per year, a figure which shows no sign of tailing off. Neotropical birders will not be surprised to learn that more of these new species are being found in South America than anywhere else.

The following section is logically devoted to the 69 New bird species described since 1992 (if you're following the figures, this does not include new species already covered in the previous 16 volumes of HBW). The accounts are exactly like those of the main body of HBW and include superb illustrations by Hilary Burn. With these additional accounts, HBW now treats every bird species known through until the end of 2012.

After this comes the set of type descriptions of the Fifteen new species of Amazonian birds. All of these are Brazilian species, and 11 are country endemics. The last time so many new species were described simultaneously in the same publication was in von Pelzeln's publication of 1871 on the birds of--you've guessed it--Brazil.

After all the serious technical information, readers might be ready for some refreshment-- and they get, it in the form of 200 spectacular photographs that illustrate the diversity of avian plumages and behaviours.

Serious duties resume with a comprehensive Global index by scientific name, or common name in English, French, German and Spanish.

And thus, this extraordinary twenty year odyssey through the avian world concludes. Or does it? The Special Volume is in many ways a transition volume. Later this year, Lynx will be publishing the two-volume HBW and BirdLife International Illustrated Checklist of the Birds of the World. At the same time, the entire content of HBW, updated and with a huge amount of supporting material, has been made available online as the continuously updated HBW Alive.

So, to buy or not to buy? The easy answer is that those who already have volumes 1-16 will undoubtedly want this final volume--indeed, will already have it. Those who have cherry-picked the most relevant volumes to the Neotropics (5, 8, 9, 16) will find much of utility here, given the geographical slant. Those who don't have previous volumes will probably not have sufficient reason to part with their money. With what they save, my recommendation would be to plump for three years of HBW Alive. 

Mayr, E. (1946) The number of species of birds. Auk 63: 64-69
von Pelzeln, A. (1871) Zur Ornithologie Brasiliens. Resultate von Johann Natterers Reisen in den Jahren 1817 bis 1835. Vienna: A. Pichler's Witwe & Sohn.
Peters, J. L. (1931-1951) Check-list of birds of the world. Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press.

Christopher J. Sharpe