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review: handbook of the birds of the world: vol 8

Handbook of the Birds of the World, a project of BirdLife International published by Lynx Edicions, is an ambitious, stunning, detailed series of books which, when complete sometime around 2011, will illustrate and gather all  the
essential information about every species of bird in the world.  This will be the first work ever to deal with each member of an entire Class of the Animal Kingdom.  So far, ten volumes have been published, and each is currently priced at $205US.

Even in my most cash-strapped days, I never felt guilty about purchasing books, especially fine reference books. Still, I had a hard time writing a check to obtain one of the Handbooks until this past Christmas, when I bought Volume 8: Broadbills to Tapaculos for my husband, justifying the expense because it was a gift, because it was the first volume to cover passerines (songbirds), and because it contains the treecreepers, one of hubby’s favorite groups of birds. As it turns out, I didn’t need all the excuses, it was worth every penny.

At 845 pages (with print requiring reading glasses, even at my tender age), this is certainly meant as a reference and not as a book to read cover-to-cover.  But with its plentiful outstanding color photographs and sumptuous plates, it definitely invites — demands — browsing.  And unlike the informative but often dry-as-a-fart Birds of North America series, the writing frequently sparkles.

Gnateaters are characterized as “obscure little spirits of the dim forest understorey.” The caption of one of the eye-popping photos of the White-plumed Antbird says of its subject, “With it’s unique facial ornaments and spry charisma, it is a joy to watch.”  There are gems even amongst the technical species accounts, such as this description of the foraging method of the Ornate Antwren: “…rummages audibly…in a single leaf or cluster, probing by delicately inserting the bill, sometimes the entire head, into curls and crevices.”  How often do you get to read delightful or evocative writing that conveys the author’s enthusiasm in reference or scientific works these days?

Each family is thoroughly introduced in many pages covering systematics, morphology, habitat, behavior, voice, food, breeding, movements, relationship with man, and status and conservation.  The introductory material is lavishly
illustrated with truly amazing photos. High-quality plates and individual species descriptions follow, which include maps.

Front matter includes a Foreword entitled “A Brief History of Classifying Birds” (31 pages!) and an introduction.  At the end is what looks like an exhaustive list of references and a thorough index.

I won’t live long enough to read this whole thing, but I have learned a great deal just skimming through it; nearly every caption or paragraph imparts fresh knowledge.  I know that in a series like this, the quality can be very uneven depending on the authors and editors, but if the rest of the Handbooks are as good as this one, I’ll be sure to invest in further volumes.

Oh, yes.  My husband liked it, too!

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  • John January 24, 2006, 10:52 am

    informative but often dry-as-a-fart Birds of North America series

    This looks like an attempt to get more weird searches. :-)