Working for birds in Africa

Collins Illustrated Checklist: Birds of Eastern Africa

Sat, 12/29/2012 - 14:18 -- abc_admin
Ber Van Perlo. HarperCollins 1995.
pages 57-58

A quick flick through this long-awaited and much-discussed book reveals plates crammed with colour illustrations, all very small and often in neat regimented rows, and the briefest of text to accompany the plates. The book's main attraction is, without doubt, the fact that it illustrates all the species of the region, many of which have never been illustrated before, and the author is to be applauded for taking on such a mammoth task single-handed. Indeed it is this comprehensiveness that will guarantee its popularity.

The scientific and English names used come from a mish-mash of sources. Although this includes the first four volumes of The Birds of Africa the overall result is a bit messy, throwing up a few anomalies such as the name 'Sylvietta' instead of the much more widely used Crombec. There is a bibliography at the end of the book listing the taxonomic sources but this does not appear to be complete. We are told, for instance, that the race orientalis of Black Saw-wing is treated as a full species by Young, but I could not find any subsequent reference to this author anywhere in the book.

The text is extremely brief and ranges from a few lines to a few words per species. Given the varying quality of the plates this lack of text greatly detracts from the usefulness of the book. The entry for Denham's Bustard for instance simply says, 'More or less wooded habitats'. Firstly I have to confess that I have no idea what this is supposed to mean. Secondly, after finding a Denham's Bustard displaying on a plain totally devoid of trees for several kilometres, I tried to imagine the confusion for a first time visitor to the region doing the same armed only with this book.

On plate 78 we are treated to six races of Yellow White-eye that all look the same and are just told to note the greenish flanks on most of them and the yellow belly. It is in instances like this that more text is greatly needed. What makes this particularly annoying is that the book design is so poor that there are many pages left partly blank. In fact, I counted thirty pages of nothing which could have been given over to enlarged text or less crowded plates.

This brings us to the plates. In general the style is crude but sufficient and it is possible to use the book in the field with positive results, despite the small and often overcrowded illustrations. The quality of the plates is variable. For instance, I found the sunbirds very useful, with the illustrations containing all the necessary plumage features to enable one to make a correct identification of the males. In fact, overall the more brightly coloured species probably fare better (with a few notable exceptions such as Somali Bee-eater). Plates of more cryptically marked groups such as the nightjars, larks, pipits, greenbuls, Acrocephalus warblers and cisticolas are not so successful.

There are inevitably a few glaring errors such as Lesser Masked Weaver shown with a dark red eye on the plate and described as having a 'brown (not pale yellow)' eye in the text, when in fact the bird's obvious pale eye is a very useful feature in the field. On the next plate male Grosbeak Weaver is shown as having a reddish-brown head and breast with brownish wings when in fact the bird appears a fairly uniform slaty black.

The distribution maps are all grouped together at the end of the book and use a system of pale to dark monochrome shading to indicate status. The explanation of this is mainly at the front of the book. The relevant map is identified by the number of the plate and the species number on that plate. This information is to be found at the back of the book. Dark shading means that a species is common, with a 60 - 100% chance of being seen, while the mid-grey shading indicates a species to be frequent, with a 10 - 60% chance of an encounter. No indication of what these percentage chances are based on is given. In addition the status is further defined by the colour of the number of each species on the plate and by a series of arrows to denote migration. Confused? Well it gets worse.

The explanation of how the maps work (the bit at the back of the book) uses as an example Black-bellied and Hartlaub's Bustard. We are told that it is the latter species we will see in Nairobi National Park because the dark shading on the map indicates that Hartlaub's is more common in the Kenyan Highlands. When you look at the maps however it would seem that Black-bellied is the one we should expect to see because this species has the darkest shading (remember this means a 60 - 100% chance of being seen) in the Nairobi area. In my experience both occur there. The maps for Red-throated and White-fronted Bee-eater have also been transposed while other maps are very generous in their interpretation of the available information. Lesser Jacana for instance apparently is 'frequent' over a large area of southern Kenya, which I am sure will come as surprising news to resident birders and frequent visitors alike.

It is obvious to anyone using this book that despite the best efforts of the author it is really let down by an appalling lack of proof-reading and editing. If this is to be the start of a series I only hope that HarperCollins get their act together and do something about it. They could also make the book more substantial. Pages on my copy and the one of a fellow birder started to come out after two weeks in the field. For the time being, the book will have a place in the luggage of anyone birding in the region. However, I suspect that the two new full field guides to Kenya and adjoining regions currently in preparation (one due later this year) will greatly diminish its importance.

Steve Rooke

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