The blurb on the back cover of The Birds of Malawi ably summarises the plain facts of this astonishing book; it presents '…detailed accounts of the 650 species known [from the country]. For each there are sections on distribution, ecology, status and movements, conservation, breeding season (where applicable) and taxonomy, the whole based on extensive fieldwork supported by some 700 published references. There are clear atlas maps for all but vagrants, as well as details of ringing recoveries and a gazetteer of 400 localities. In 80 pages, the introductory chapters review such topics as vegetation and major bird habitats, biogeography, conservation and a history of the ornithological exploration in Malawi.' As such therefore the book effectively covers a similar range of topics to the British Ornithologists' Union's Checklist series, combined with the atlas mapping element of, for example, Ash & Miskell (1998) and Carswell et al. (2005), but includes significantly more besides.
Whilst there have been two previous national avifaunas published for Malawi (Belcher 1930, Benson & Benson 1977), upon which the authors draw heavily, the amount of new information on Malawi's birds that has been gained in the last 30 years is remarkable. Much of this has been generated by the authors themselves, partly, but by no means solely, deriving from the atlas project they initiated in the early 1980s while resident in the country and which continued after their departure. They briefly describe its history in the introductory section, acknowledging in particular the role played by Bob Medland in coordinating the project in 1987–94. The data generated by this project form the basis of the maps and parts of the accompanying species accounts published here. Not the least astonishing aspect of this book is how much information has been generated by a very few dedicated contributors - insignificant in number compared with those involved in atlas projects in western Europe, North America or even South Africa.
One innovative and pleasing aspect of this book is the effort made to place Malawi's avifauna in continental context. Thus, the chapter on vegetation and bird habitats shows how the vegetation types of the country relate to the chorological classification of the vegetation of Africa of White (1983), which is based upon shared patterns of distribution shown by plant species (as opposed to families or genera), as well as using his definitions for particular vegetation types. Interspersed within this chapter are 16 pages of colour photos of habitats as well as of representative or key bird species; the captions to these photos however lack data as to when, and in the case of the birds, where the photos were taken.
The following chapter on biogeography pursues this contextual approach and examines Malawi's avifauna in the context of the three phytochoria, or 'biomes', represented in the country, the names of which simplify to the Zambezian, the Afromontane and the Eastern (forest) regions. The high floristic distinctiveness of these regions is mirrored by the animals that inhabit them, to which many are therefore endemic or near-endemic. Lists of the bird species largely or wholly confined to particular biomes have been prepared and form the basis of one means of identifying Important Bird Areas, BirdLife International's site conservation programme (Fishpool & Evans 2001). Here, the authors present an analysis and discussion of those elements of the Malawian (and neighbouring Zambian) avifaunas whose distributions are restricted to each of these three biomes.
Some 20 pages of the introduction are given over to a discussion of the conservation issues facing Malawi's habitats and birds, with a focus on the country's protected area system. Summary details are given for each of the 46 national parks, wildlife and forest reserves, including an assessment of the threats facing each. The overall message here is not encouraging…
Each species account and map occupies about half a page and are models of economy, succinctly packing in an enormous amount of information. The two-colour maps show presence / absence data for each species in 175 15 min × 15 min squares, printed over a background map of the country which uses white and two tints of grey to show three altitude ranges, whilst filled blue squares are usually used to indicate species' occurrence. Black or partial blue filling of the squares is also used on some maps to show unusual records or, for example, breeding sites of colonial species. Each map is printed with numbered gridlines at one-degree intervals and the total number of squares is given from which the species has been recorded. The 'Distribution' section of the accompanying text provides wider biogeographical information as well as summary details of within-country distribution, to complement and help interpret the map. An indication of abundance is also given here (although, oddly, the introductory explanation of the abundance scale does not appear in the same place as that of the distribution section itself).
The section headed 'Ecology' includes information on habitat, food and feeding behaviour and nesting sites, whilst that on 'Status' here means whether the species is resident or not; if migrant, what type of movements are undertaken and indications of their extent and timings. Also included are indicative numbers for congregatory and colonial species as well ringing recovery data, together with estimates of longevity and site fidelity. There is a separate section headed 'Conservation' which, along with the latest edition of 'Roberts' (Hockey et al. 2005) is, I think, the first time that explicit consideration of the conservation status of each species has been made in a work such as this in Africa. The authors give their assessment of the effects of habitat degradation and other threats on each species, and point out, as appropriate, sites where particular species are well protected as well as indicating those species profiting from anthropogenic changes to the environment. All of which strikes me as both a welcome, indeed significant, innovation and a depressing sign of the times. Under 'Breeding' appears information on season, expressed as the number of clutches started in each month, along with data on clutch and brood size, moult and, where appropriate, the months during which males are in breeding dress. The 'Taxonomy' section presents information on the subspecific identity or, as necessary, identities, represented in Malawi. In cases where more than one race occurs, their respective ranges in the country are outlined and, in some instances, but not all, these are distinguished on the accompanying map. Throughout the species accounts, key facts are referenced in the text using superscripted numerals, with the references given at the end of each account.
There are two appendices, the first detailing ringing recoveries in Malawi of 20 species (with maps provided for eight), whilst the second is an extensive gazetteer of localities which, in a further welcome addition, includes altitudes or altitudinal ranges for all. What a sensible idea!
Overall, therefore, the subtitle of the book—'an atlas and handbook'—is fully justified. This book exudes authority, is essential for anyone with a serious interest in the birds of Malawi and is almost so for those whose main focus is elsewhere the sub-region. It is likely to remain the standard work on Malawi's birds for years to come.
Less essential perhaps but valuable nonetheless, A Contribution to the Ornithology of Malawi. Tauraco Research Report No. 8 contains two papers, of which one is entitled 'Notes supplementary to The Birds of Malawi (2006)'. This gives, species by species, further details and sources of (often unpublished) records upon which the book draws but which were omitted from it 'in order to unclutter the presentation of the species accounts…' It is obviously a pity that this additional information could not have been included in the book and hence have it all in one place, but there is a lot of material here, amounting to 55 pages, so one can see why the decision was made to publish it elsewhere.
The other (64-page) paper, 'An annotated list and life history of the birds of Nyika National Park, Malawi-Zambia' is, in effect, The Birds of Malawi writ small. Thus, it contains an account of the avifauna of the 3,134 km2 Nyika National Park in northern Malawi (as well as the 80 km2 of the park located just across the border in Zambia). Short prefatory chapters are given on the history of exploration of the plateau, an ecological description, considerations of its biogeographical and conservation importance and of the threats to which it is subject, whilst the bulk of the paper is devoted to an account of each species recorded from the park. Unlike The Birds of Malawi however, there is only one map, of the park itself. On the other hand, the species accounts are often more discursive and diverting. It is hard, for example, to resist this from the entry for Cape Batis Batis capensis: 'The female and her mate (both colour-ringed) were in the same patch near the Zambian rest house during visits in 1975 and 1977. In Oct. 1979 the territory was found empty, but the female had moved to another patch (350 m distant) and was paired with a new mate. In early Nov. a subadult male appeared in the first (deserted) patch, upon which (no later than early Dec.) the old female left her new mate and returned to the Zambian side to pair with him: she then successfully raised two young.'