Working for birds in Africa

Munias and Mannikins

Sat, 29/12/2012 - 13:10 -- abc_admin
Robin Restall. 1996. 264 pp. 80 colour plates, 145 line drawings, 44 distribution maps. Pica Press.
pages 139 - 140

The line of striking black, chestnut and white munia and mannikin species perched on plant fronds against the white dust jacket of this book provides an arresting cover design, which prepares the reader well for the remainder of the book.

Robin Restall would appear to be uniquely placed to write and illustrate this particular book, having dedicated 45 years of his life to the world of finches. Such dedication involved lengthy research and correspondence with ornithologists, zoologists and aviculturalists from around the world, and Robin himself kept many of these species in captivity, including several poorly known species. A seven-year stay in Hong Kong permitted Robin to observe species in the field in many Asian countries.

The book opens with a couple of pages on taxonomy and relationships of the munias and mannikins. Restall uses the genus Lonchura throughout, which differs from some authors. Sibley & Monroe, for example, recognise four genera. Restall encourages the reader to delve further into the history of these relationships and provides dendrograms of genetic variation of species given by two other authors.

There follows five pages on the natural history of munias and mannikins. which introduces the following topics - general distribution, habitat (chiefly birds of arid savannah and open grassland), morphology, plumage and colour, sexual dimorphism, the effects of captivity, vocalisations, nesting and behaviour.

The 16 plates at the front of the book illustrate all of the world's species of munias and mannikins, and many of the races. Amongst the six African species represented in the book, the only omissions are illustrations of the Somali race of Black-and-white Mannikin Lonchura bicolor minor and, perhaps rather more surprisingly, Southern Magpie Mannikin Lonchura fringilloides pica, given this subspecies' relatively extensive distribution in southern and eastern Africa. This series of plates is rather regimented and stylised, but does allow comparisons between species and subspecies.

The main text of the book occupies 121 pages. The layout and design is attractive and the text itself readable and well-referenced. The breakdown of large chunks of text into appropriately headed paragraphs makes for easy reference.

Each species account is divided into the following sections - field characters, status, habitat, habits and behaviour, food and feeding, movements, call, song, courtship and display, breeding, distribution and a more detailed plumage description. In addition to this compartmentalised and readable text, there is a liberal scatter of Restall's vignettes throughout. The vignettes vary from species to species but typically include a behavioural aspect (eg bird singing, various features of courtship and display), differences in plumage features (eg between male and female or interracial identification feature) and a sketch of some aspect of the ecology of each species eg nest structure, food items, palate markings of nestlings or egg size comparison. Clear distribution maps are given for each species, showing the range for each race; major river systems are helpfully shown, permitting an idea of range to be ascertained through a fairly cursory inspection of each map, provided one has some familiarity with the geography of the range in question. Barely a page passes which isn't broken up by a one or more vignettes. That Robin Restall's research is meticulous and thorough is demonstrated through both text and sketches - for example, one of the more diverting sketches is of a Java Sparrow Lonchura oryzivora attempting to roost under a Barbary Dove.

Following the main text there are a further 62 colour plates! These are measured drawings of each species contained within the book, and for me are one of its highlights. The plates are less stilted and more jizzy than the illustrations at the front of the book. Each depicts the species lying face down with right wing extended to illustrate the upperwing, mantle, rump and uppertail pattern. Similarly, adjacent to this is the bird depicted lying on its back, with right wing extended illustrating underwing pattern, undertail pattern and underside pattern and coloration. This two-diagram feature is repeated at the bottom of each page and depicts, variously according to species, juveniles and/or females.

Additionally, most species are given a sketch map showing the origins of the individuals illustrated. Other informative thumbnail sketches typically include bill shape and size with measurements (eg for male and female) and breast and flank feather patterning and coloration. The accompanying, handwritten text is clear, concise and engineered to be broken up by the individual illustrations, giving this final lengthy section a very personalised, notebook feel.

This book includes the six African species in this genus - Madagascar Mannikin Lonchura nana, Bronze Mannikin L.cucullatus, Black-and-white Mannikin, Magpie Mannikin, African Silverbill L. cantans and Pearl-headed Mannikin L.caniceps (absent from plates at rear of book). The information given for these species compares favourably with the much scantier information provided within Finches and Sparrows'.

With the wealth of information incorporated in such a text, it seems churlish to carp, but one feature which I feel adds visual information to such a book is a modest series of photographs showing the habitats various species are likely to occupy. This certainly helps conjure a 'sense of place' for the reader, and has, for example, been recently used to good effect in Zimmerman el al. I presume inclusion of such photographs incurs additional costs and work pressure upon publishers.

The genus Lonchura has previously been covered by Finches and Sparrows in the Helm series. However, the volume and detail of information provided by Robin Restall far surpasses that included within the latter guide, which is intended more as a ready reference and identification guide. For example, Restall gives a larger number of more closely referenced sources for each species with far more text for each. Throughout, Restall's work offers a more thorough treatment of the genus.

Although the avid Afro-ornithological bibliophile may not see the necessity for this purchase, due to the rather few Lonchura species occurring within the continent, this book really is a tremendous achievement by the author, and provides a remarkable example of just how far the production of specialist bird books has progressed. In terms of content, layout and presentation, this sets a still higher standard for others to emulate. Any birder or ornithologist gradually collecting this series of books will surely want to obtain the latest addition to this series.

Tony Stones
1. Clement, P., Harris, A. and Davis, J. 1993. Finches and Sparrows: an identification guide. London: A.& C. Black.
2. Sibley, C.G. and Monroe, B.L.Jnr 1990. Distribution and Taxonomy of Birds of the World. New Haven & London, UK: Yale University Press.
3. Zimmerman, D.A., Turner, D.A. and Pearson, D.J. 1996. Birds of Kenya and northern Tanzania. London: A. & C. Black.

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