Working for birds in Africa

The Birds of Angola. An annotated checklist

Fri, 12/21/2012 - 23:51 -- abc_admin
W. R. J. Dean. 2000. 433 pp, 33 colour photographs, nine black-and-white maps. BOU Checklist No. 18. British Ornithologists' Union, Tring. Distributed by NHBS, 2-3 Wills Road, Totnes, Devon TQ9 5XN, UK.
page 67

Given modern perspectives, Angola is almost as close to uncharted territory (from an ornithological viewpoint) as one can find. The civil war that has raged almost unabated since 1974, and with it the disconcerting knowledge that virtually the entire country must now be considered a mined area, has not so much stymied as caused the complete cessation of national bird recording. For the present, there appears little prospect of this dire situation improving. Judging from the introductory and illustrative material for this, the first readily accessible, comprehensive English-language work on the birds of Angola, the political problems that beset the nation are not just a tragedy for its innocent human inhabitants but also for pioneering birders and ornithologists. Perhaps surprisingly, the author notes that in conservation terms the conflict has probably not been an unmitigated disaster. It is obvious, even from a relatively casual perusal of this work, that the country embraces a broad range of habitat types supporting an exciting and little-studied fauna.

Richard Dean was fortunate to have conducted ornithological work in Angola in the years immediately prior to the civil war. He has performed what appears to be a remarkably thorough review of published literature, much of it in languages other than English (principally Portuguese), and specimen material from Angola, despite being unable to access in-country collections, which would doubtless have furnished much additional data, although Pinto had already published information on many of the passerines.

Introductory sections, covering ornithological work in Angola, a summary of the geography, climate, geology, vegetation, zoogeography, bird migration, breeding seasons and habitats, and conservation, provide interesting reading. Thenceforward one plunges into the species accounts. Nine hundred and fifteen species have been reliably recorded and many others (treated within square brackets) may do so based on occurrence in neighbouring regions. English, Portuguese and scientific names, and status codes, open each species account, and are followed by a paragraph summarising subspecies, status, range and habitat within Angola. Province names are denoted in bold, assisting the reader in elucidating the in-country range of each taxon. Where possible / appropriate, each species is then treated under the following headings, 'Collected', 'Breeding' and 'Specimens'. Under the former, all known specimen localities are listed, with month of occurrence and reference in parentheses. Thereafter all available breeding information is presented in similar fashion, while the number of specimens known from each museum (listed in alphabetical order according to acronym) completes each account. The majority of entries are very short, highlighting the extreme lack of data available from Angola and hinting at the major rewards that should befall those field workers that eventually recommence avifaunal studies in the country. Even the ten endemic species - Grey-striped Francolinus griseostriatus and Swierstra's Francolins F. swierstrai, Red-crested Turaco Tauraco erythrolophus, Red-backed Mousebird Colius castanotus, Gabela Akalat Sheppardia gabela, Angola Cave-Chat Xenocopsychus ansorgei, Pulitzer's Longbill Macrosphenus pulitzeri, Angola Slaty Flycatcher Melaenornis bnunneus, White-fronted Wattle-eye Platysteira albifrons and Gabela Helmet-Shrike Prionops gabela - are often very poorly known, with depressingly few life history data available for the majority of these. The work closes with a series of appendices, a reference list and indices of scientific, English and Portuguese nomenclature.

Once again the BOU (and its checklist series authors and editors) must be congratulated for bringing to fruition a work with comparatively little commercial value (in comparison to many of the titles being handled by non-charitable status publishers), but of exceptional worth to the ornithological community. One can make very few gripes with the present addition to the checklist series, although in following Birds of Africa sequence and nomenclature (with occasional deviations to satisfy the rulings of the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature) the author remains unfortunately wedded to some outdated views, such as that retaining Otus senegalensis within Otus scops. The high price tag may detract a small number of potential purchasers, but I presume that most of those with a serious interest in the birds of southern or West Africa will 'dig deep'. Such points do not detract from the author's success in realising his stated aim, to establish a key baseline for the researchers of the future. Would it that mere publication of this volume were sufficient to kick-start ornithological field work, but alas it is not.

Guy M. Kirwan

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