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Book Review - HBW 11
By Frank Lambert
Handbook of the Birds of the World. Volume 11: Old World Flycatchers to Old World Warblers. del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. and Christie, D. (eds). Lynx Edicions. Price 199,00€ (£138). ISBN 84-96553-06-X.
If you are a world birder, HBW is a useful tool for planning your birding trips, and a worthwhile investment. This seems to become more and more true as the series proceeds. The present volume, for example, contains good quality illustrations and range maps for many taxa that are hard to find anywhere else, and the only published photo of the recently rediscovered Large-billed Reed Warbler Acrocephalus orinus. It also includes three recently described species, the description of one of which, Dark Batis, from the Mdandu Forest in Tanzania, almost coincided with the publication of HBW, showing just how up to date this series seeks to be.
However, with 800 pages, 55 colour plates, 343 colour photographs, and 733 distribution maps (not to mention 11 volumes!), you are not dealing with a book that you could take on many trips. One hopes that, sooner rather than later, the publishers will decide to publish the book in electronic format, enabling those who travel regularly to take it with them. This would increase the usability of the set enormously.
Volume 11 continues with the passerines, and includes the following families: Muscicapidae (Old World Flycatchers), Platysteiridae (Batises and Wattle-eyes), Rhipiduridae (Fantails), Monarchidae (Monarch-flycatchers), Regulidae (Kinglets and Firecrests), Polioptilidae (Gnatcatchers), Cisticolidae (Cisticolas and allies) and the Sylviidae (Old World Warblers). Hence the book will appeal to a broad spectrum of birders, since these groups are well distributed on a global scale.
As with other volumes, the Foreword is an informative, succinct chapter; in this case, the subject is the "ecological significance of bird populations" by Cagan Sekercioglu. The chapter provides an overview of the role in and contribution to ecosystem functions that is made by fruit-eating and flower-visiting birds; briefly investigates the subject of predation and pest control by insectivorous birds, and the role played by raptors and scavengers. It also covers the rarely mentioned but important role that birds play in nutrient cycling, in particular, that played by seabirds.
The book follows the usual HBW format, with an overview of each family (illustrated with top quality photos) followed by descriptions of each species and accompanied by range maps, with the illustrations of each species alongside related taxa. In cases of significant variation within species, several races are often illustrated together. It is difficult to judge the accuracy of so many paintings, but overall the quality looks very good, as with previous volumes.
The range maps, on first glance, look impressively detailed for the most part, although as with other volumes, there are many instances when an entire island, such as Borneo, is shown as part of the range, even though this is clearly not the reality. Comparing range maps with others that have been published fairly recently also brings to light inconsistencies between publications. For example, comparison of the maps in HBW and those in Borrow & Demey (2004) for species such as Bates Paradise-flycatcher Terpsiphone batesi and Blue-headed Paradise-flycatcher Trochocercus nitens (called Blue-headed Crested-flycatcher in the latter) leaves one wondering where the limits to range actually lie, since there are fairly significant differences.
One of my only dislikes of the HBW set is that it lacks detailed citations within the species account texts (they all appear together at the end of the account), making it impossible to link a particular fact with a particular reference. I feel that this is a serious flaw. On the other hand, HBW has now announced that the index will be available on-line at hbw.com, making it a lot easier to find what you are looking for and negating the need to trawl through several volumes (note that you need to register to use the index). It is also worth mentioning that you can now view video footage of a third of the world's bird species at hbw.com/ibc. Making all the references available on-line would also be worth considering.
Nobody can expect to be entirely happy with all the taxonomic decisions made in this book, and it would be inappropriate here to do more than draw attention to some of the more interesting decisions. One that surprised me, in that I was unaware of it, was that the Herero Chat, a Namibian endemic, is now an Old World Flycatcher: the Herero Chat-flycatcher Namibornis herero.
As with other volumes, there sometimes seems to be inconsistency in the taxonomic approach taken. For example, it seems very odd to me that the distinctive elisae race of Narcissus Flycatcher Ficedula narcissina is not treated as a separate species, when other very similar flycatchers have been split (see Plate 4). Semi-collared Flycatcher Ficedula semitorquatus, for example, which looks very similar to Common Pied Flycatcher F. hypoleuca but is apparently more closely related to Collared Flycatcher F. albicollis, is here treated as a species, despite continued debate on the subject. All this demonstrates, however, is that we are still a long way away from deciding on species limits for many of the less-studied species. HBW has to rely on published material to make its decisions, and for many species, this is just not available.
Another family that is certainly in need of further taxonomic examination is the Monarchidae. Many of these taxa are scattered among the Pacific islands and remain little known. With six species of monarch extinct since 1600, and others precariously rare, it would seem a priority to establish which of the 289 recognised taxa should be treated as species. At present, only 97 of these taxa are recognised as species, but there are likely to be others. Incidently, the two species of Philentoma (Maroon-breasted Flycatcher P. velata and Rufous-winged Philentoma P. pyrhoptera), are treated as monarchs in HBW, though their phyllogeny is poorly understood and there have even been suggestions that they may be more closely related to the vangas of Madagascar (see Dickinson 2003).
There are instances where the taxonomy in HBW does not follow that of recent field guides. For example, HBW includes both chalybea and jamesoni as races of Blisset's Batis Dyaphorophyia blissetti, whereas Borrow & Demey (2004) recognise chalybea as being distinct species (Black-necked Wattle-eye). Some readers may be surprised that the distinctive "Tenerife Goldcrest", often considered a good species, is treated as a race of Goldcrest Regulus regulus based on evidence from acoustics and molecular markers. Madeira Firecrest R. madeirensis, however, receives full species status.
One of the families in HBW11, the Cisticolidae, has recently been erected from a subset of Old World Warblers (Sylvidae), and includes far more than the infamous cisticolas. This family (27 genera, 145 species) includes tailorbirds, prinias, 25 species of apalis, the Madagascan Jery's, Camaroptera's, and an assortment of interesting warblers, such as Cricket Warbler Spilophla clamans, Rufous-eared Warbler Malcorus pectoralis, and Oriole Warbler Hypergerus atriceps.
The biggest family included in HBW11 is the Sylviidae, the Old World Warblers, with an incredible 270 species comprising 660 taxa that are distributed amongst 42 genera. I was surprised to learn that half of these species occur in tropical Africa, including, apparently, the Madagascar "babblers", such as White-throated Oxylabes Oxylabes madagascariensis, which looks and behaves more like a babbler than a warbler.
Recent years have seen many revisions of species limits within the Sylviidae, particularly in the leaf-warblers. Hence we find that what was for a long time the (Common) Chiffchaff Phylloscopus collybita, is now recognised to be a complex of four species. A few more examples of splits within the genus Phylloscopus include Bonellis's Warbler, which is now separated into a western and eastern species (P. bonelli and P. orientalis) whilst Pallas's Warbler has been split into four species (Gansu Leaf-warbler P. kansuensis, Chinese Leaf-warbler P. yunnanensis, Yellow-rumped Leaf-warbler P. chloronotus and Pallas's Leaf-warbler P. proregulus). These taxa are relatively well-known, but two of the island forms of the Philippines, Sundaland and Wallacea, namely Mountain Leaf-warbler P. trivirgatus (11 races) and Island Leaf-warbler P. poliocephalus (19 races) likely include unrecognised species and warrant further study. Another phylloscopine genus, Seicercus, has also recently been the focus of serious taxonomic study, resulting in the recognition that there are a number of rather cryptic species, such as Martens's Warbler S. omeiensis and Alström's Warbler S. soror, which were previously part of the "S. burkii complex". Studies of the nine subspecies of Chestnut-crowned Warbler S. castaneiceps could also show that more than one species is involved.
Amongst the Sylvia warblers, the mostly resident taxon balearica has now been separated as a species (Balearic Warbler) distinct from Marmora's Warbler S. sarda, but the eastern and western populations of Desert Warbler S. nana are treated as one species, although further studies may show that they warrant separation.
All of these species-limit changes illustrate what we are all growing to accept, that taxonomy is rapidly changing, and indeed, it is impossible to keep up with. The sad truth is that by the end of the HBW series, taxonomic changes will render the earlier volumes less useful to readers. This could be overcome, as suggested earlier, by making available an electronic form of the book that could be updated as new taxonomic evidence comes to light. Something for the editors to consider…
Borrow, N. and Demey R. 2004. Birds of West Africa. Christopher Helm, London & Princeton University Press.
Dickinson, E.C. 2003. The Howard and Moore Complete Checklist of the Birds of the World. 3rd Edition. Christopher Helm, London & Princeton University Press.
Other Reviews by Frank Lambert