Working for birds in Africa

Oiseaux de la Réunion

Sat, 12/29/2012 - 13:04 -- abc_admin
N. Barré, A. Barau and C. Jouanin. 1996. Les Editions du Pacifique, Paris. 208 pp, colour plates.
pages 137 - 138

This is a greatly updated edition of the book published under the same title in I982 by Nicolas Barré and Armand Barau. The well-received 1982 volume has been out of print since 1990. Following the death of Barau, Christian Jouanin joined Barré to produce this new edition, which incorporates much new information. This excellent book is essential for anyone interested in the birds of the Malagasy region, and birdwatchers visiting Réunion must get a copy.

The 75 pages of background make fascinating reading, starting in the preface with a quick résumé of recent ornithological developments on the island. The physical background and vegetation of the island are described and illustrated with very well reproduced photographs and figures. Accounts of the early visitors (since the 17th century), along with recent interpretations of sub-fossil material, are summarised. These include the discovery of the extinct ibis named Borbonibis latipes, the descriptions of the mysterious "dodo" or solitaire of Réunion (Ornithoptera solitarius), and the realisation that the two were one and the same: the solitaire was not a dodo at all, but an ibis. Finally, the ibis has been considered congeneric with the Sacred Ibis Threskiornis aethiopicus, so the bird is now called Threskiornis solitarius: a lesson in scientific nomenclature as well as in detective work! The present avifauna and its conservation, including the developments since 1982 (such as the slaughter of Barau's Petrels Pterodroma baraui - quickly stopped, thank goodness - and the progress towards protected area establishment) are then discussed.

In the species accounts, the authors have sensibly included only species of regular occurrence, but mention in the text other species that have occasionally turned up, or might do so in the future. The species texts are generally of one or two pages, and are not intended to be comprehensive. They contain sections on identification, behaviour, nesting and status - distribution. Key identification points are usefully in bold type, but calls are very sketchily described. In traditional field guide fashion, the plates are irritatingly scattered through the text section; they should all be together. The quality of the plates does not quite match those of many recent guides, but most features are satisfactorily shown (although the Réunion Bulbul Hypsipetes borbonicus has lost its startling white iris), and visitors with this book should be able to identify all they see. The notes opposite the plates are only in French and Creole; it would be useful to have scientific names there too (and perhaps even English).

Errors and inconsistencies are few. A table of native birds on the Mascerene islands contains several, such as referring to the Rodrigues Warbler as Bebrornis rodericanus (it has long been placed in Acrocephalus) and linking it to Nesillas typica of Madagascar (where A. newtoni is surely the closest relative). In the same table, the Hypsipetes bulbuls of Mauritius and Réunion are lumped; in the rest of the text, they are rightly split. No mention is made of the recent sightings at sea of the Réunion (Black) Petrel Pseudobulweria aterrima; nor of the rumours and reports about a surviving owl (see Bull. ABC, 2: 54 and 3: 36). However, thanks to the history section we can deduce that if the latter exists it is probably Mascarenotus grucheti. One final complaint to the publishers: the tough, one-piece plastic cover of the 1982 edition was far more practical than the dust-jacket and imitation canvas of the new edition.

Roger Safford

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