Working for birds in Africa

Birds of Africa, Vol. VII

Fri, 12/21/2012 - 12:48 -- abc_admin
C. Hilary Fry & Stuart Keith (eds.), 2004. London, UK: Christopher Helm. Hardback, xxli + 666 pp, 36 colour plates, line drawings, maps. ISBN 0-7136-6531-9.
pages 231 - 233

Like many similar projects, The Birds of Africa has had a protracted and at times troublesome gestation. From the initial concept of a two-volume work in the 1960s, to the publication of the first volume in 1982 and up until this final tome, the project has seen numerous changes, including a new publisher for this volume. There are advantages and disadvantages to such a timescale. The later volumes have benefited significantly from the recent increase in field work and published data, and the early volumes now seem badly out of date.

This seventh and last volume covers the remaining 309 species in six passerine families (Passeridae, Ploceidae, Estrildidae, Viduidae, Fringillidae and Emberizidae) and, at nearly 700 pages with 36 colour plates, it is one of the largest in the series. The first thing one notices on opening the book is yet more design improvements and the overall effect is clean, clear and elegant.

The very readable introduction summarises the project's history and outlines some of the latest changes. For example, the once conservative taxonomic approach of the editors has been influenced by current trends and new species concepts, and splitting has become more liberal. However, the extent of such seems to depend largely on the opinion of the individual authors. The series as a whole comprises 2,134 species yet the editors admit that if they were to start anew this figure would rise to well over 2,250.

Some of the systematic decisions may raise a few eyebrows. The use of the grey-headed sparrow superspecies to illustrate the complexity of such decisions is very appropriate and the authors choose to split this assemblage into five species. In this case, there are at least a couple of recent references to support such a move, but in others there are frustratingly few, and one wonders whether some decisions are a little premature. For example, neither the splitting of Black-headed Alario alario and Damara Canaries A. leucolaemus nor that of Cape Emberiza capensis and Vincent's Buntings E. vincenti are supported by a substantial contemporary reference. Other splits that will engender debate are those of the rufous sparrow complex (here considered six species) and Kandt's Waxbill Estrilda kandti (from Black-headed Waxbill E. atricapilla). Perhaps easier to accept are Black-lored Waxbill E. nigriloris (from Common Waxbill E. astrild) and Red-billed Pytilia Pytilia lineata (from Red-winged Pytilia P. phoenicoptera), as the rationale for these splits has previously been published by others (see Dickinson 2003).

With regard to vernacular bird names, it is surprising that many alternative names are omitted. For example, Red-billed Pytilia is also known as Lineated Pytilia, but this is not included. Also rather irritating is the lack of explanation given for certain obscure name changes. Baka Indigobird, for instance, has become Barka Indigobird. As if indigobirds were not confusing enough . . .

Curiously, two vagrants have not been included: Red-eyed Vireo Vireo olivaceus (recorded in Morocco) and Yellow-breasted Bunting Emberiza aureola (Egypt), both of which were mentioned in the respective country's avifauna (Thévenot et al. 2003, Goodman & Meininger 1989) and BWP (Cramp & Perrins 1994a,b).

Martin Woodcock's plates have continued to improve over the course of the series and most are well designed and a pleasure to browse. They are, however, not identification plates and birders hoping for fresh help with female weavers and widows will be disappointed. This is a pity as there are accurate descriptions of many of these plumages in the text. Similarly, the subtleties of the grey-headed sparrow complex are simply not apparent and birders in East Africa are now likely to be more confused. The non-breeding male Yellow Bishop Euplectes capensis should not have a pale central crown-stripe but errors such as this are few.

No doubt, financial and space restrictions dictated the range of racial and age-related plumages that could be depicted, but many species are represented by only one or two figures. Some very distinctive plumages have not been illustrated, e.g. female Gola Malimbe Malimbus ballmanni and female Yellow-mantled Weaver Ploceus tricolor of the race interscapularis (with black underparts). Regional field guides often illustrate more plumages, whereas one would rather expect the opposite to be the case. For example, for 28 of the 49 estrildid species occurring in western Africa, Borrow & Demey (2001) illustrate the juvenile plumage, compared to only seven in this volume. No attempt has been made at most female indigobirds, but on present knowledge this is probably wise.

The colours on some plates are slightly too dark (e.g. the Green Twinspots Mandingoa nitidula on plate 20) whilst others are rather saturated (see e.g. the Oriole Finches Linurgus olivaceus on plate 31) and this may well be the result of the printing. However, the poor Dusky Crimsonwing Cryptospiza jacksoni (plate 17) is much duskier than it deserves and the petronias (plate 1) show yellow throat patches with a luminosity never evident in the field. In both cases, the figures appear alongside others with accurate coloration.

Ian Willis's line drawings are superb and his depictions of weaver and waxbill nests are exquisite. Hilary Fry's page of estrildid and viduid mouth markings is also an unusual and fascinating delight, but one craves more explanation. It seems a rather random assortment and a missed opportunity to explain the significance of the similarities and differences in the markings and also the imitation found in brood parasites.

It is easy to become absorbed in the species accounts. They are well written and not as dry as one might expect. This is particularly true of the General Habits sections. The Range and Status sections are unavoidably list-like but there is inconsistency in the way ranges are described. Sometimes the detail for certain countries is staggering, yet at other times it simple states 'as mapped' as if the author had run out of steam. Occasionally even this level of detail is forsaken as in the case of the Zambian range of Parasitic Weaver Anomalospiza imberbis for which it simply states 'Zambia' and nothing more, yet the map clearly shows an intriguingly patchy distribution.

As in previous volumes, the referencing in this section is inconsistent. Why some data have been referenced whilst others have not remains mysterious. To give just one example, the distribution of Crimson Seedcracker Pyrenestes sanguineus in Guinea (p. 322) reads 'reported from Foulayah, Haut Niger Nat. Park (Nikolaus 2000) and Macenta . . . .' One wonders why the second locality has been referenced but not the first and third, localities taken from two other papers, also published in Malimbus, in 1995 and 1994 respectively. Similar cases can be found in almost every species account.

Sites are sometimes listed randomly, as if the author did not know (or care) where they are located. See, for example, the localities mentioned for Preuss's Weaver Ploceus preussi in Cote d'lvoire (p. 188), given as 'Mt Peko, Bossematie, Yapo, Sipilou, Tai whereas a logical sequence, from west to east, would have been 'Sipilou, Mt Peko, Tai, Yapo, Bossematie.' Another inconsistency can be found in the spelling of certain site names. For instance, Marahoue National Park in Cote d'lvoire is variously written Marahoue, Maraoue and even Maroue within this volume. Surely, in our electronic age, this could have been easily avoided.

The maps are significantly better than those in previous volumes, reflecting the increased collaboration with a number of atlas projects. Distributional errors are inevitable in a work of this scope, but these seem to be relatively few. For Zimbabwe, the text mentions the occurrence of Northern Grey-headed Sparrow Passer griseus in Hwange National Park, but this is not marked on the map. Bertram's Weaver Ploceus bertrandi is mapped and described as occurring around the south-western corner of Lake Tanganyika which is erroneous. The Zambian distribution of Baglafecht Weaver Ploceus baglafecht, on the other hand, is correctly described in the text, yet inaccurate on the map, with a dot placed somewhere in the region of Kasama, c. 300 - 400 km from the nearest known locality. Similar mistakes are to be found on several other maps such as Yellow-backed Weaver Ploceus melanocephalus (not known from south of Lake Bangweulu) and Long-tailed Widowbird Euplectes progne (not known from the east side of Lake Mweru).

In some instances, the mistakes are more frustrating as they highlight the fact that published material has been overlooked. There is no mention of Scaly-fronted Weaver Sporopipes squamifrons occurring in Zambia, despite the species being first recorded in 1994 and since being found to be not uncommon and breeding in several areas. A record of Orange-cheeked Waxbill Estrilda melpoda from Mwinilunga and further records of Compact Weaver Pachyphantes superciliosus from the same area have also been omitted and this should not have been the case at a time when e-mail was operational and correspondence with local field workers relatively straightforward. It is also surprising that the only distributional comment for Fan-tailed Widowbird Euplectes axillaris for Zambia is 'generally below 900 m." This is misleading as this species is absent from the lowlying valleys and its distribution is centred on the major wetland areas of the plateau.

On the map for the Red-headed Weaver Anaplectes rubriceps (p. 97) there is a question mark over Cote d'lvoire's Comoe National Park, even though details of its occurrence were published in 2000. The accompanying text states 'Mapped by Borrow& Demey (2001) in broad band through SE Senegal, NE Guinea, extreme SW Mali and N Ivory Coast, but we do not know of any published records from those areas.' However, several unpublished records do exist and a simple e-mail to one of the authors would have revealed this.

In other sections of the text, few other points arise. Cases of parasitism by African Cuckoo Cuculus gularis are mentioned for both Northern Passer griseus and Southern Grey-headed Sparrow P diffusus. Both seem highly unlikely hosts and if the parasites were correctly identified, it was surely a case of 'egg-dumping.' For P. diffusus there is not even a reference, which is surely essential with such an unusual case. There is no mention of Chestnut-backed Sparrow-weaver's Plocepasser rufoscapulatus fondness for escarpment miombo, a point that is clear in the key reference and one would expect a more thorough approach when dealing with poorly known species such as this. Very little is said about the seasonality of Clarke's Weaver Ploceus golandi on the Kenyan coast, yet this too is well known and published. The text implies that Dark-backed Weavers P. bicolor may undergo extensive dispersal on the basis of a few records along the Zambezi Valley, yet there is no reason to suppose the bird is not simply a scarce resident in such areas.

Finally, it seems odd how few errata have ever been published in the series. Here, only seven errata are mentioned for the previous volume and a few of these seem comparatively trivial. Why mention that 'Dicrurus ludwigii is mapped slightly too far north in Ghana' when numerous maps with far greater inaccuracies are ignored?

Despite the points raised here, this volume is a new benchmark and a magnificent achievement. The editors and authors deserve our congratulations and gratitude. It will surely remain a primary reference for African ornithology for many years to come and one only hopes that the cost does not prevent it from reaching as many African libraries as possible.

Pete Leonard and Ron Demey
Borrow, N. & Demey, R. 2001. Birds of Western Africa. London, UK: Christopher Helm.
Cramp, S. & Perrins, C. M. (eds.) 1994a. The Birds of the Western Palearctic. Vol. 8. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Cramp, S. & Perrins, C. M. (eds.) 1994b. The Birds of the Western Palearctic. Vol. 9. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Dickinson, E. C. (ed.) 2003. The Howard and Moore Complete Checklist of the Birds of the World. Third edn. London, UK: Christopher Helm.
Thévenot, M., Vernon, R. & Bergier, P. 2003. The Birds of Morocco: An Annotated Checklist, BOU Checklist No. 20. Tring: British Ornithologists' Union & British Ornithologists' Club.
Goodman, S. M. & Meininger, P. L. (eds.) 1989. The Birds of Egypt. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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