A Contribution to the Distribution and Taxonomy of Afrotropical and Malagasy Birds
R J. Dowsett & F. Dowsett-Lemaire. Tauraco Research Report No 5. Tauraco Press, Liége, Belgium. 1993. Available (at £15.00 each) from Aves a.s.b.l., Malson de I'Emironnement, Rue de la Régence 36, 8-4000 Liége, Belgium. There is a tradition amongst African bird taxonomists to write all-encompassing volumes which try to be definitive. W L Sclater's Systema Avium Aethiopicarum (part 1 1924; part II 1930) reigned supreme until C M N White's checklists appeared between 1960 and 1965. Then, those of us who dreamt that stability would be provided by the nomenclature used by the editors of the Birds of Africa were rudely awoken by the DNA hybridisations of Sibley & Monroe (1991, Distribution and Taxonomy of Birds). Now Dowsett and Forbes-Watson bring us another re-make on the grand scale. Each epic has different boundaries to the zones covered, with Sclater including all Africa and the Arabian peninsula south of the Tropic of Cancer plus outlying islands as far apart as St Helena and the Mascarenes; White restricted himself to the Afrotropical Region; Dowsett and Forbes-Watson's coverage is similar to Sclater's, but they only include the Yemeni parts of Arabia. North Africa remains a Cinderella. These two volumes, intended to be read in conjunction, are different sizes and a third companion is on the way. Volume 1 of the Checklist is a list of 2176 species' scientific names, together with English and French vernacular versions, and a table giving distribution and status in 50 or so countries or island groups. Birds are listed largely according to the sequence used by Voous in Campbell & Lack (1985, A Dictionary of Birds) and a table lists the differences between this and Sibley & Monroe's classification. The systematic list includes species listed by family and subfamily, with references to the treatment used, the numbers of species in the relevant family accepted by the authors to occur in the Afrotropics and Malagasy regions, those in the world's total for the family, and the number of Afrotropical or Malagasy endemics and near-endemics. The page numbers for the appropriate distribution tables follow. Next, the scientific name is given, complete with authority, synonyms, references to taxonomic justifications, the relevant page numbers of texts such as Birds of Africa (listed as BA1-4), Harrison (1985) (H), Langrand (1990) (L), Roberts (R) or Mackworth-Praed and Grant's handbooks (PG). The English and French vernacular names, references to tape recordings, and a code for the species in the form of a reference number complete the entries. Species thought to form a superspecies are bracketed. Thus, the Accipiters begin as follows:
44 313 (81/226 species; 48 endemics*, 4 near-end. +)
Distribution tables pp.120-131.
(Smith A. 1834) L56 Madagascar Cuckoo Hawk: Baza malgache •H01-0101
Swainson 1837 BA1:298 R128 African Cuckoo Hawk: Faucon-coucou (Bazacoucou) TapeG•H01-0102
(Linnaeus 1758) BA1:299 R130 Honey Buzzard: Bondrée apivore Tape G H01-0201 The information is there but it is not an easy read, except, perhaps, for cryptographers. So far, I have yet to find the Rosetta stone to explain the profusion of asterisks nor for the + after the numbers of near-endemics. Volume 2 of the Checklist will, we are told, provide a full synonymy for all species and subspecies with the original literature citation and list all type localities. If so, it will be very useful and we are to hope that the expected publication date of 1993 is not delayed much further. The second part of the Checklist volume is essentially a word-processed re-arrangement of the country checklists appearing in the companion book (Tauraco Research report no 5). Species are listed in a huge table stating what country they occur in (thus any mistake in Chapter 1 of the other book re-appears in the checklist) and their reference number. The countries are arranged by their presence in one of four regions (Western, Sahel & North-Eastern, Central & Eastern, Southern & Malagasy) requiring entries on four separate pages for each species listed. Thus, there are many blank areas such as those for the Vangidae. Within the body of the Tables are codes on status with classifications according to residents, intra-African migrants or Palaearctic and other migrants, and other categories such as introductions. The comprehensive reference list is followed by separate indices for English names, French names and Scientific names. Useful appendices provide details of rejected species and on the avifaunas of the following islands: Ascension, St. Helena, Tristan, Inaccessible, Nightingale, Gough and Prince Edward. Other islands or island groups given the status of a list proper in Tauraco Research Report no 5 include: the Cape Verdes, Socotra, the Gulf of Guinea islands (Bioko, Príncipe, São Tomé, and Pagalu), the Seychelles, Aldabra, Comores, Madagascar and the Mascarenes. Tauraco Research Report no 5 contains two chapters. Chapter 2 is Dowsett and Dowsett-Lemaire's paper entitled 'Comments on the taxonomy of some Afrotropical Bird Species', which is the most interesting part, but it should have been paired with the systematic list in the other volume. The chapter provides the justifications, complete with supporting sonograms in some cases, for the taxonomic changes proposed and upon which all else hangs. Some highlights include the elevation of batises and wattle-eyes to family status in the Platysteiridae and Stenostira (placed in the Sylviidae by Sibley & Monroe), Eliminia and Terpsiphone into the Monarchidae. By and large the authors' decisions are sensible and clearly argued. Some omissions or inconsistencies irritate, however: Sibley & Monroe's conclusions are discussed for the Zosteropidae but omitted from the account for the next family in the list, the Promeropidae. So we are not told why the DNA evidence for placing the sugarbirds in the Nectariniidae was rejected. Chapter 1 is Dowsett's tour deforce: annotated country checklists for all the Afrotropical faunas - a prodigious feat for which much praise is due. For each country or island group, all species known to have occurred are listed with status and source of reference. The taxonomy follows the scheme justified in Chapter 2 and listed in the other book. The two volumes under review represent the culmination of a colossal labour. This must have begun before the publication of the texts by Sibley & Monroe and Sibley & Ahlquist (1991, Phylogeny and Classification of Birds), which may be one reason why the results of the latter pairs are treated with caution. In a massive work of this kind mistakes are inevitable, especially for those areas the authors are less familiar with such as the Upper Guinea zone. For the Togo list, I quickly found examples which are irksome as they are all red herrings introduced by carelessness: Walsh did not claim that the Black Duck Anas sparsa occurs in Togo, he merely mentioned in passing that habitat suitable for the species existed there; Reichenow did not list Luscinia luscinia, he listed Erithacus luscinia which (as stated on page 434 in Bannerman Birds of West and Central Africa volume 4) is a synonym for L. megarhynchos, Reichenow did list Sylvia hortensis without authority in his 1897 paper but in a later paper (1902) included the specimens under S. simplex Lath., which, like S. Hortensis auct nec. Gmel., is a synonym of S. borin. So Garden Warbler yes, but no need for raising a story about Orphean Warblers. The list for the Ivory Coast also has readily identifiable quirks. Emin's Shrike Lanius gubernator is missing,: although first recorded by Balchin (1988, Malimbus 10:201-206; see also 1990, Malimbus 12: 52-53), it was also listed by Demey and Fishpool (1991, Malimbus 12:61-86) in a paper quoted by Dowsett. No doubt every specialist will find something to carp about in each list, especially as Dowsett rejects some records, with associated comments, and the choice of targets often seems arbitrary. Similarly, the taxonomic scheme will raise some hackles. Nevertheless, everyone will benefit from the existence of the lists and all African birders should have access to them. The authors deserve very substantial congratulations for these books which are invaluable and will probably become as well thumbed as White's lists. Nevertheless, readers will need to be aware of some short-comings. The presentation is disappointing and would have benefitted from careful editing eg why order the country lists by region instead of alphabetically? Why have different sizes for the companion volumes? The references in the country lists refer to the species' occurrences, but when breeding status is claimed we are not told the source. There are some inconsistencies with incorrect citations and omissions from papers referred to for other reasons. The taxonomic changes may not all be popular, but they are justified with evidence and discussion. Although final verdicts must await the publication of the details of the subspecies, any reprints or second editions would benefit from re-arrangements. Why not place the taxonomic chapter with the systematic list and the distribution tables with the country lists? If the authors had done this, then twitchers and listers would have bought the latter book without the need for purchasing the finer taxonomic points, and taxonomists could have acquired one volume with the parts of interest to them without the necessity for paying for pages of distributional data. This and other criticisms aside, both groups and ornithologists in general will save much time and avoid frustrating searches in libraries by possessing both texts, as they provide a ready entrée into knowledge of the avifaunas of so many territories. They will remain so for many years as I doubt if other authors will have the patience and dedication required to repeat the feat. Roll on the subspecies volume!