Three volumes in the new OUP series, 'Bird Families of the World' have thus far appeared: The Penguins, The Megapodes and The Hornbills. Twelve others are in preparation, including (for those with a keen interest in African ornithology): wildfowl, honeyguides and swifts. The stated aim of the project is to produce authoritative family monographs, covering general biology and providing detailed species accounts, which are accessible to amateur ornithologists (one wonders how many people would bracket themselves in such a group?).
Given that a review of this new publishing venture has not yet appeared within these pages, it seems worth giving an overview of the layout. As is typical with such monographs the first part of the book is a general overview of the family. Seven chapters and an appendix discuss the hornbill's world, their anatomy and design, non-breeding behaviour, feeding ecology, breeding biology, relationships and evolution, conservation and guidelines for captive breeding. Kemp has studied hombills for over twenty years, largely in southern Africa, and has field experience of 31 of the 54 species he recognises (two fewer than Sibley & Monroe, 1990). The text lives up to the standards set by the series editors: it is readable yet does not sacrifice accuracy, knowledgeable but not high-brow.
The species accounts are clear and uncramped. Taxonomy; description (all sexes and ages, moult, measurements and weights are included); field characters; voice; range, habitat and status; and feeding and general habits are typically described for each species in three to four pages. There are also clear monotone, half-page range maps of all species. These are particularly good examples of quality design. Sandwiched within the species texts are 15 colour plates, two of which illustrate all 54 species in flight, and two pages of colour photographs illustrating various aspects of hornbill habitats, morphology, nesting habits and social organisation. Each plate is accompanied by brief descriptive notes on the facing page. The majority are excellent, meeting the high standards now expected within the arena. A glossary, index and reference list complete the work.
I have no hesitation in recommending this work to students of African ornithology, but one does wonder how many people will buy it. Attractive and well designed as it is, there are many better value bird books on the market. The giants of the ornithological publishing world should perhaps re-evaluate their philosophy. Time was when relatively few books which appeared in the course of the year were necessary purchases. How things have changed! Can the majority of birders afford to keep digging deeper in order to buy every 'essential' new work as it appears, seemingly at the rate of one per month? I suspect many birders will use the information contained within their regional fieldguides and the relevant volume of Handbook of the Birds of the World, when it appears, rather than purchase this new work.