Friday, August 9, 2013

Review: Handbook of the Birds of the World: Special Volume

The Handbook of the Birds of the World is an awesome, encyclopedic 16-volume series. Just published is a special, 17th volume, containing an index to the previous books. The usefulness of an index should be fairly obvious, especially one with references of scientific names and common names in English, French, German, and Spanish. The whole series is currently offered by the publisher for a 20% discount, or about $3700 (depending on the strength of the dollar). This price may well seem exorbitant, but works out to 30 cents a page—not bad for a book full of stunning photographs, color illustrations and text covering all the birds of the world. This price is comparable to smaller books covering only single bird families. Installment plans and free shipping are offered by the publisher, Lynx Edicions, along with samples of the format and contests of the books. Note that not all volumes are readily available through other sources like Amazon.com.

Why might someone who does not own this series be interested in this 182-page, $200 index? This book is not like any other I have ever seen.

The book contains a center section of 200 stunning photos obtained from the best bird photographers of the world. I have never seen such amazing images. For examples, a black and white wagtail feeds in a shallow puddle and looks at its mirror image; an Australian White Ibis in flight with its wings outstretched, the bird’s head silhouetted behind the feathers of the wing; a Pelagic Cormorant swimming under water among thousands of fleeing fish.

This book describes 69 new bird species discovered during the series’ publication (from 1992 to 2011). These descriptions contain text, distribution maps, photos, and gorgeous color illustrations, much in the format of previous volumes. The book branches out into the unexpected, covering 15 Amazonian birds never before scientifically named or described. Suddenly the reader enters the world of taxonomic ornithology!

Most birders are aware that avian taxonomy is in a constant state of change. DNA and molecular biology are revolutionizing how we classify birds. This supplemental volume to the handbook includes a long essay on avian classification and how it has evolved in the last 20 years. Another essay discusses where new birds are being found. Most are of limited range in areas of the world that are difficult to explore.

A forward by BirdLife International discusses the history of that august conservation organization, and may be of less interest to the casual reader than are the scientific and artistic sections of the book.

The shortcomings of the whole series are few and far between. There are few or no Illustrations of eggs. Domestic birds, for better or worse, are omitted. The series, having been published in Spain, has an Old World bias to common names (e.g., Brown Creepers are called American Treecreepers—but creepers can be successfully found in the index). Texts describing the bird families of the world tend to be poorly referenced. Overall, however, the series is mind-blowing in its coverage. If you cannot afford the price—the books have been described (by an internet reviewer) as “the world’s most expensive Christmas gift”—consider recommending it to your local or college library.

Another option exists for those of you not wedded to the printed page. The publishers have digitized the whole series, calling it “The Handbook of the Birds of the World—ALIVE” This website will be constantly updated as new ornithological discoveries are made via vetted “wikicontributions." It includes videos. By the publisher’s count, that adds up to 15 million words, 20,617 illustrations and photographs, 10,200 maps and about 100,000 bibliographical references.  The cost for on-line access is 29.95 Euros (about $40 per year), plus a 20 Euro registration fee. Ordering, which can be difficult to find on the publisher’s website, can be accomplished at http://www.hbw.com/pricing. Compared with the high price per volume of the hard copies, and the ease of Internet searching, the option of this digital subscription seems to me to be worth the expense.

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