Working for birds in Africa

Finches & Sparrows. An Identification Guide

Sat, 12/29/2012 - 14:36 -- abc_admin
Peter Clement, Alan Harris and John Davis. Christopher Helm. A&C Black, London. 500pp. 73 colour plates, includes distribution maps. £29.99
page 60

When the ABC asked me to review this book, I hesitated because I am only familiar with the southern African species. As luck would have it, however, I took the book with me to Texel in the Netherlands, and was able to use it to distinguish the difference between the Common Carduelis flammea and Arctic Redpolls C. homemanni. Nonetheless, this review is based on the birds from southern Africa described in the book. From my study of their descriptions and illustrations, I presume that the treatment of all species is thorough and that the illustrations are well executed. The book follows closely the familiar format used in previous volumes in this series. They have proved to be valuable and workable tools in the field and this volume should be equally successful. I like the various introductory chapters, particularly the one on 'How to Use This Book', although I would prefer to see the systematic section start with a summary of the most important features useful in identifying the group. This would be in addition to the chapter on how to identify finches and sparrows. I feel that the use of outlines, as used in the shorebirds' book, would be appropriate in this volume too. This book illustrates very clearly the problems associated with describing habitat preferences of different species of birds. One is inclined to think that most birds are 'habitat specific' but this is not often the case. The author states: 'Far more needs to be learned and appreciated before we can fully understand the complex needs of birds in their occupation of habitat niches'. This profound statement is abundantly illustrated by the finches and the variety of habitats they occupy. If we use the pytilias as an example, we find that the Golden-backed Pytilia Pytilia afra occupies open Brachystegia woodland in eastern Zimbabwe, while further west it may be found in open country with thorn scrub. Conversely the Green-winged Pytilia (Melba Finch) P. melba is a bird of the open areas with scattered bushes in the Marondera area and prefers the thorn thickets along rivers in the west of Zimbabwe. It is also widespread in Mopane and other open woodlands in Botswana and the Transvaal. Both species may occur in gardens in both the rural and urban environments! The plates are generally good. Looking to those I know well, I found they were well executed and show the salient field characters clearly. Thus, my criticisms are only of a minor nature. I am aware that artists are often constrained by the need to get a certain number of illustrations on a plate. As a result, some plates birds appear awkward because they have been painted to fit into the available space rather than in a natural pose. Some species are illustrated sitting on the ground when the text states clearly that they rarely or infrequently feed there. For example, the Yellow-throated Sparrow Petronia superciliaris would have looked better on a stout branch. The throat of the breeding male Black-throated Canary (Yellow-rumped Seedeater) Serinus atrogularis is not nearly dark enough - it shows black in the field. The illustration of the Black-eared Canary Serinus mennelli does not show the breeding male's black ear dark enough, nor indeed light enough in the non-breeding male. In my home area, the only certain distinction between the Black-eared and Streaky-headed Canaries in the non-breeding season is the heavy streaking on the breast of the former. It is a pity that the northern race of the Brimstone (Bully) Canary Serinus sulphuratus has not been illustrated. The race found in Zimbabwe is much smaller and the birds have a very much smaller bill than does the nominate subspecies. People visiting from South Africa often have difficulty identifying our birds as Bully Canaries. I would say that for the serious birder this is an essential book. For all members of the ABC planning a trip in Africa it is a useful field book and should be carried if space/weight is not too much of a problem. It will help you sort out a host of confusing species in many parts of the world where a variety of finches occur. If used correctly, it may even help to make us all better observers!

Peter Ginn

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