Working for birds in Africa

The Birds of Zambia. An Atlas and Handbook

Fri, 12/21/2012 - 11:35 -- abc_admin
R. J. Dowsett, D. R. Aspinwall (†) & F. Dowsett- Lemaire, 2008. Liège, Belgium: Tauraco Press and Aves a.s.b.1. 606 pp, numerous photographs (15 pages in colour), over 700 maps. ISBN 2–87225–005–0. Softback. Available from
pages 112-113

Relatively speaking, this publication comes hard on the heels of the atlas for a neighbouring country - The Birds of Malawi (2006) (which was reviewed in Bull. ABC 14: 110–112, and by myself in Ibis 149: 177–178) - and is the work of the same core team. Unsurprisingly therefore The Birds of Zambia is almost identical in appearance, format and layout to its sister publication that set a remarkably high benchmark for such publications covering part of the Afrotropical region. As a result this review is unavoidably comparative in part.

These two land-locked countries lie at the heart of the Zambezian biogeographic region. Zambia is considerably larger, extending 1,350 km east to west by an average 500 km north to south. The distances and limited resources for such an ambitious project dictated that atlas work was based on half-degree squares, rather than the quarter-degree interval used for Malawi. However, Zambia has a greater variety of main habitat types and accordingly has considerably greater avian diversity, with 753 recorded species.

As with the Malawi work, to call this book an atlas is an understatement: it is a milestone event in the country's ornithology. The 447 pages of distribution maps and species accounts are sandwiched between equally comprehensive introduction and reference sections. The introduction comprises six concise accounts of physical features, vegetation and habitats, biogeography, a fascinating account of the history of ornithology in the country (something of a who's who), a summary of the composition of Zambia's avifauna, and conservation. The accounts include somewhat limited maps and 15 pages of superb colour photographs of typical habitats and associated key species. Alone, this section of the book provides an excellent introduction to Zambia's ornithology.

The list and atlas results are inevitably a statistician's dream: 303 atlas squares populated with 81,141 species records. Distilling this into meaningful results of field work, nearly all squares have 200 species records, whilst no less than 487 species were recorded in three well-watched locations— a direct result of observer coverage and indicative of potential records elsewhere. These results are remarkable and a tribute to the dedication of the relatively small number of field workers involved.

Moving on to the systematic list, the reason for deficiencies in the records will be self-evident from the statistics summarised above. More importantly, the book provides a permanent record of the incidence of many species over a large part of the African landmass. Each species account succinctly covers distribution, ecology, status, conservation, breeding records and taxonomy.

After the species accounts there are still 81 pages to go. A summary of ringing recoveries (with maps) reveals a surprising number of Palearctic recoveries including a Lesser Black-backed Gull Larus fuscus, ringed as a nestling in Finland. Also, there are the astonishing first and second Zambian records of (probable) Greater Spotted Eagles Aquila clanga from Poland, satellite-tracked for two successive seasons but never seen in Zambia due to their inaccessible location. (Further details of results from the limited ringing activity in Zambia are available from the authors.) Finally, for any visitor there is a vital gazetteer of localities followed by no less than 31 pages of references.

One criticism - as with the other work - is that such a heavy reference work is published only in softback form: presumably economic realities precluded a hardback edition. This is especially a pity as the book will be an indispensable companion for any birdwatching trip to the country and it is somewhat 'delicate' for the rigours of the African bush.

A word must be said of the middle author who disappeared from Lusaka under presumed tragic circumstances in 1995. Dylan Aspinwall was the driving force behind Zambian ornithology for two decades and a substantial proportion of the field records were as a result of his dedication to the project, as well as a greater understanding of intra-African migration and species movements generally. In summary, the Dowsetts are to be congratulated on the completion of two remarkable pieces of work - from inception, through the years of active and coordinating fieldwork, and the thoroughness of the end-product. With the rapidly changing demography and land-use in this part of the world, it may be many years before it is replaced and then, undoubtedly, such replacement work will record a severe decline in both natural habitat and bird species.

Bob Medland

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