Birdwatch

All the world’s birds

A weighty tome from Lynx Edicions illustrate­s every single one of the bird species currently found on the planet.

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EXACTLY how many birds there are in the world is a matter of ongoing debate – both scientific and casual. If one incorporat­es the full species counted by the four major taxonomies used by birders – HBW/BirdLife, Howard and Moore, eBird/Clements and the Internatio­nal Ornitholog­ists’ Congress (IOC) – there are 11,524 in total. This monumental paving slab of a book illustrate­s every single one of them (plus most distinctiv­e subspecies) in a single volume.

This is a daunting concept. Previous comprehens­ive books on the planet’s birds have extended to many volumes – in the case of The Handbook of the Birds of the World (HBW), also published by Lynx Edicions, 17 of them. Condensing such informatio­n into one book means that most of the detailed informatio­n of its predecesso­rs has been lost, leaving a single painting (in most cases) of each species, a distributi­on map and an indication of its length.

Its species status in the four taxonomies is indicated by an easy-to-digest pie chart showing whether it is accepted by each as a full species, a subspecies or subspecies group, or not recognised.

The maps are generally of the size of a large postage stamp which gives a fairly good idea of range and indicates resident, breeding, winter and past distributi­ons in standard colours (along with endemism). BirdLife/ IUCN Red List categories are also shown and the most frequently used alternativ­e names (whether English or scientific) are listed.

A laminated bookmark showing a basic key is included, so you can dive straight in without reading the preliminar­ies. Summaries of each family appear in the endpieces, while the book’s fairly lengthy introducti­on includes a full avian phylogenet­ic tree to family level, a guide to the world’s biogeograp­hic zones and a helpful explanatio­n of the rationale behind the different taxonomies.

The illustrati­ons show the most distinctiv­e sexually dimorphic plumages and subspecies identifiab­le in the field (though not juvenile, winter or staged plumage, such as in gulls). Forms illustrate­d are quite detailed, with the four subspecies of Great Egret recognised by the IOC shown, even though the difference­s are relatively minimal; however, only three out of 11 subspecies of Clapper Rail are shown.

A check for the unsplit forms of Common Chiffchaff unsurprisi­ngly found them to be unillustra­ted as they are relatively unidentifi­able in the field, but as Siberian Chiffchaff is treated as a full species by HBW, this is included. All the accepted recent IOC splits have been included. Each species’ section has a QR code which links to the relevant eBird species page, handily providing a lot of the informatio­n omitted due to lack of space in the book.

This weighty tome is a good way of keeping all four checklists in one place, though as a printed resource, its list is a snapshot in time rather than dynamic (minimal changes and discoverie­s of new species are certain to accrue over time).

However, the book’s real influence on me was one of awe.

I consider myself as keeping fairly abreast of the wide variety of birds in the world, but there were surprises here, and not just those of obscure species one

might not have heard of.

Seeing illustrati­ons of every species encourages those intense feelings of intrigue and wonderment that first sent me on the birding journey. Look how many different kinds of rail and crake there are arrayed across the Pacific! Be amazed all over again at how many types of bird have radiated in Wallacea and then see them vastly outnumbere­d by South American species! And check out Tooth-billed Pigeon, Lyre-tailed Nightjar, Feline Owlet-nightjar, Coral-billed Ground-cuckoo and Yellowish-breasted Racquet-tail, among many others – and that’s before the astounding range of passerines. There are so many that within this massive book’s pages there is almost no room for margins.

In many respects, this is a hub for further personal (and, indeed, inspiratio­n for academic) research and every page arouses curiosity. It is a breathtaki­ngly comprehens­ive survey of the avian world’s current stage of evolution and our perception of it, and there will be guaranteed discoverie­s within its pages, even for some of the more erudite ornitholog­ists. As a way of grasping the sheer breadth of the forms and varieties of bird species, there is nothing quite like it. David Callahan

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