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Book Review - HBW 12

By Frank Lambert

Handbook of the Birds of the World. Volume 12: Picathartes to Tits and Chickadees. del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. and Christie, D. A. (eds). Lynx Edicions. Price €205.00. ISBN 84-96553-42-2. Oct 2007.

If you already have the eleven volumes that precede this 816 page tome, you may be wondering where you will fit the other five volumes that will complete the set. Imagine, however, if you had to accommodate a staggering 2,640 volumes on your bookshelves! This is the number that would be needed if HBW was to have covered all the birds that had ever existed on the planet (in similar detail), estimated to have been 1,634,000 since the first recognised genus, Archaeopteryx, first appeared some 150 million years ago. This is something I gleaned from the informative and incredibly interesting Foreword to HBW12, an essay on Fossil Birds by K.J. Caley. The chapter traces the evolution of birds from dinosaurs, and provides an insight into the on-going controversy over what really was the first "real" bird. The essay provides an overview of what we know about the various families of birds from the fossil record. Clearly, there is a huge amount we don't know, but what we do makes great reading, and the Foreword is packed with interesting facts.

For example, the planet's avifauna was once dominated by what are known as the "opposite birds", a sister group to a lineage of modern birds that diversified to occupy all the niches that modern birds occupy today. Hence the Enantiornithes and other toothed birds dominated the planet throughout the later Cretaceous (97-65 million years ago), but then died out, whilst the ancestors of modern birds radiated and become dominant between 65 and 56 million years ago. Recent fossil and molecular studies suggest that the oldest "modern" birds are the ratites (flightless birds), with rheas the oldest and the now extinct moas of New Zealand the next offshoot, though this is by no means settled and it may be that the kiwis and moas are in fact older. Whilst the fossil record is very incomplete, especially for smaller species and the passerines (which all have similar skeletons), the study of those fossils we have provides a fantastic insight into the birds that once inhabited our planet. Imagine, for example, encountering Aepyornis maximus in the forests of Madagascar, a bird some 3m high, and weighed up to 450kg (the Ostrich weighs a mere 100-130kg). Or imagine sea watching off the coast of California some 23 million years ago and glimpsing a passing Osteodontornis, a pelagic pelican-like bird with a wingspan of 5.5-6 metres! Even bigger, however, were the vulture-like "teratorns" that inhabited Argentina 5-10 million years ago, with wingspans of up to 6.8 metres, the largest known flying birds to have ever lived.

The Foreword of HBW12 is full of facts about such creatures, and very well worth reading. And whilst one comes away with the feeling that so many incredible birds are already extinct, our planet still harbours a fantastic array of extant birds, as the remainder of this book will show. A significant number of today's birds, nevertheless, face the prospect of extinction driven by human activities, rather than evolutionary change, and we should not let this slip from our minds.

HBW12 covers a diverse group of bird families, but the great majority of the birds documented in this volume are to be found in Asia, Australasia and the Pacific, or in Africa. Neotropical birders will be disappointed to flip through this volume in a vain search for species from that region, since the only New World birds included are eleven species of tit (Paridae), of which two range south to southern Mexico, and the Wrentit Chaemaea fasciata of the western USA, which has recently been shown to be a babbler. Indeed, a large proportion of the book is devoted to the babblers (Timaliidae), with 309 species of 872 taxa in 84 genera covered in 222 pages. The other families treated by HBW12 are all much smaller, these being the Picathartidae (Picathartes), Paradoxornithidae (Parrotbills), Pomatostomidae (Australasian Babblers), Orthonychidae (Logrunners), Eupetidae (Jewel-babblers and allies), Pachycephalidae (Whistlers), Petroicidae (Australasian Robins), Maluridae (Fairywrens), Dasyornithidae (Bristlebirds), Acanthizidae (Thornbills), Epthianuridae (Australian Chats), Neosittidae (Sittellas), Climacteridae (Australasian Treecreepers), and the Paridae (Tits and Chickadees). The last of these families, the Paridae, have representative all across the holarctic, unlike the other families treated.

The recent spate of phylogenetic studies has transformed our understanding of the affinities of many passerines. When I took up birding, no one would probably have disputed that Sylvia warblers of Eurasia and Africa were warblers, but now, some 35 years later, they are babblers (though not included in HBW12). Such studies are changing the face of avian taxonomy so rapidly, and often so radically, that I personally find it hard to keep up with all the changes. Most of the books on birds that I possess are taxonomically out of date and here HBW becomes a useful reference for cross-checking, for example, on whether there are one or two species of miniature babbler (Micromacronus) in the Philippines (2, in fact), or on the most recent thinking on the logrunners Orthonyx of the Australasian region (also two species now). For this reason, I have restricted this review to an overview of some of the taxonomic changes that I spotted. It goes without saying that other aspects of the book, such as the depth of coverage, the introductory family chapters and the quality of the photos are all outstanding, as with previous volumes of HBW.

Whilst predominantly an Asian family, the babblers presently include a great diversity of African taxa, such as Illadopsis, Dapple-throat Areanator orostruthus, Spot-throat Modulatriz stictigula, Grey-chested Kakamega Kakamega poliothorax (perhaps more easily recognised by some as Grey-chested Akalat or Illadopsis), the two rockjumpers Chaetops spp., and Madagascar Groundhunter Mystacornis crossleyi ("Crossley's Babbler"), the Bush Blackcap Lioptilus nigricapillus of southern Africa (probably most closely related to Sylvia), Juniper Babbler (or Abyssinian Catbird) Parophasma galinieri (still of rather uncertain affinities), and Principe Flycatcher-babbler Horizorhinus dohrni (Dohrn's Thrush-babbler). It should be emphasised, however, that there are still a number of species included within the treatment adopted by HBW which may not actually be babblers: the Timaliidae has, it seems, long been considered as a "taxonomic dustbin", into which species of uncertain affinities have been thrown. Hence some of the species included in this volume are almost certainly not babblers, and are likely to move elsewhere as taxonomic studies proceed. The Pteruthius shrike-babblers and White-bellied Erpornis (White-bellied Yuhina in most of my books) are two such Asian examples. Such studies have already shown us, for example, that the Rail Babbler Eupetes macrocerus of South-east Asia is not, after all, a babbler, and it is now a member of the Eupetidae, or Jewel-Babblers, as are the strange Blue-capped Ifrit (Ifriti kowaldi) and the two species of Melampitta of the New Guinea highlands, and the four Psophodes spp.; two Wedgebills and two (Australian) whipbirds. The Australasian babblers are also no longer treated as members of the Timaliidae, but are in their own family, the Pomatostomidae.

Looking at various field guides on my bookshelves, I find that the taxonomy and species limits of the babblers has changed very dramatically. This is largely thanks to the careful work of Nigel Collar and Craig Robson, the authors of this important chapter of HBW12. Collar (2006) provides much of the science that has led to the many changes in babbler taxonomy found within HBW12, but to see all the changes, there is no alternative single reference than HBW. Hence, for birders keen on Asia, this really is a volume of HBW not to miss. Going through the text on babblers I found many unfamiliar names and species. Some examples; White-headed Babbler is now two species, the northern White-hooded Babbler (Gampsorhynchus rufulus) and southern Collared Babbler (G. torquatus); Black-crowned Fulvetta Pseudominla klossi (previously Alcippe) of South Vietnam is separated from Rufous-winged Fulvetta (P. castaneiceps); several new wren babblers are now recognised from the north-eastern India region, so that we now have Naga Wren-babbler Spelaeornis chocolatinus, Pale-throated Wren-babbler S. kinneari, Grey-bellied Wren-babbler S. reptatus, Chin Hills Wren-babbler S. oatesi, Rusty-throated Wren-babbler S. badeigularis, and Rufous-throated Wren-babbler S. caudatus. The wonderfully named Wedge-billed Wren-babbler is now two species, Black-breasted Babbler Sphenocichla humei and Chevron-breasted Babbler S. roberti; the secretive Rabor's Wren-babbler of the Philippines is split into two species, in a new genus aptly named after Craig Robson; Rusty-headed Babbler Robsonius rabori and Grey-banded Babbler R. sorsogonensis. Jabouilleia is now included in Rimator, and there are now four species in this genus of long-billed wren-babblers; one distributed from NE India to Yunnan (Long-billed Wren-babbler Rimator malacoptilus), one endemic to N. Vietnam (White-throated Wren-babbler R. pasquieri), another endemic to Sumatra (R. albostiratus), and finally, Indochinese Wren-babbler (previously knonw as Short-tailed Scimitar-babbler) R. danjoui, which includes the recently described Jaboueilleia naungmengesnis from northern Myanmar (Rappole et al. 2005) as a subspecies.

Amongst the laughingthrushes, which were previously mostly in the genus Garrulax, there are many taxonomic changes, in particular in the number of genera, which has increased to 11, most of which are unfamiliar. Another unfamiliar babbler I came across was the Chinese Bush-dweller Rhopophilus pekinensis, which under a previous, more familiar name, Chinese Hill Warbler, was once thought to be more closely related to the cisticolas. Finally, on babblers, it was pleasing to see that the most recently discovered babbler, the marvellous Bugun Liocichla Liocichla bugunorum (Athreya 2006) made it into this volume of HBW.

The majority of the birds in this volume, apart from the babblers and tits, are from the Australasian region. Some of the species in this region represent the some of the most complex examples of geographical variation in the avian world, and for these, species limits is by no means clear. The Golden Whistler Pachycephala pectoralis, distributed from Java to the Solomons, to Australia and even the remote Norfolk Island, has 59 recognised races, of which 19 are illustrated in HBW (Plate 33). Studies have already shown that some of the taxa originally placed with this species are in fact good species in their own right, such as the mangrove-inhabiting Black-tailed Whistler P. melanura of northern Australia and New Guinea, but surely further study will identify more.

Some examples of differences in the taxonomy followed by HBW when compared with Australasian guides that I possess are as follows: the lowland eastern form of Blue Jewel-babbler Ptilorrhoa caerulescens has been elevated to species level, as Dimorphic Jewel-babbler P. geislerorum. The three races of Shrike-tit, thought by many Australian birders to represent different species, are treated as one in HBW, and placed with the whistlers in the family Pacycephalidae, as are three other species with rather uncertain affinities, the Goldenface (Dwarf Whistler: Pachycare flavogrisea), Wattled Ploughbill (Eulacestoma nigropectus) and Crested Bellbird (Oreoica gutturalis). Short-tailed Grasswren Amytornis merrotsyi, (Gawler and Flinders ranges of South Australia) is recognised as being distinct from the more widespread Striated Grasswren A. striatus, whilst Kalkadoon Grasswren A. ballarae (NW Queensland) is treated as distinct from Dusky Grasswren A. purnelli. In the Acanthizidae, the western population of what was considered to be Rufous Fieldwren Calamanthas campestris is here treated as a good species, Western Fieldwren C. montanellus.

The final family treated in HBW12 is that of the tits (Paridae). A study published in 2005 (Gill et al. 2005), just in time for adoption by HBW, showed that the tits comprise of many more genera than Parus, the genus in which most had previously been placed. Hence in HBW we find some unfamiliar tit genera, such as Baeolophus in North America, Poecile, and Cyanistes. Parus is now a predominantly African genus. One overdue change adopted by HBW is the recognition of the "blue" tits in the Canary Islands as a good species, Canary Blue Tit Cyanistes teneriffe.


Athreya, R. 2006. A new species of Liocichla (Aves: Timaliidae) from Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary, Arunachal Pradesh, India. Indian Birds 2: 82-94.

Collar, N.J. 2006. A partial revision of the Asian babblers (Timaliidae). Forktail 22: 85-112.

Gill, F.B., Slikas, B and Sheldon, F.H. 2005. Phylogeny of titmice (Paridae): II. Species relationships based on sequences of the mitocondrial cytochrome-b gene. Auk 122: 121-143.

Rappole, J.H., Renner, S.C., Nay Myo Shwe and Sweet, P.R. 2005. A new species of scimitar-babbler (Timaliidae: Jabouilleia) from the sub-Himalayan region of Myanmar. Auk 122: 1064-1069.

Other Reviews by Frank Lambert

Handbook of Birds of the World, volume 11

Birds of Peru by Schulenberg, Stotz, et al.

Birds of Northern South America by Restall, Rodner & Lentino.

Copyright © 1992-2012 John Wall