Working for birds in Africa

Oiseaux du Katanga / Birds of Katanga

Wed, 07/09/2014 - 11:05 -- abc_admin
Michel Louette & Michel Hasson, 2011. Tervuren: Royal Museum for Central Africa. 404 pp, 400 colour photographs, four maps. Hardback. ISBN 978-9-0817-9400-8 (French edition); 978-9-0817-9401-5 (English edition).
p 114

Lying in the heart of the continent, the Democratic Republic of Congo, or Congo-Kinshasa, Africa’s largest country, has a rich avifauna comprising some 1,100 species. Of these, 693 have been recorded in south-easternmost Katanga province, among them some local forms of ‘masked’ weavers, variously treated as distinct species or subspecies. Although many contributions on its avifauna have been published, mostly during the 20th century, a handbook or atlas that synthesises and updates the ornithology of this diverse area is still lacking. Having resided in the country many years ago (RD) and in Katanga for the last four years (NV), we thus eagerly anticipated the publication of this work. Does it live up to our expectations?

It is a large (21 × 30 cm) hardback lavishly illustrated with colour photographs but with comparatively limited text. At first sight, it therefore looks more like a coffee-table book. The introductory part of 30 pages includes brief notes on geography, climate, vegetation types, ecology and biogeography, illustrated with 25 photographs of different habitats. A short history of ornithology in Katanga, based mainly on Schouteden (1971), outlines various historical collecting expeditions and other observations dating back to the late 19th century.

The main body of the book deals in systematic order with those bird species occurring in the province. For each family a list of species reliably recorded in Katanga is given, with occasional notes on rejected species and vagrants or species with few records. Also mentioned are species that may occur, typically based on Dowsett et al.’s (2008) excellent work on the birds of neighbouring Zambia. Species accounts then provide information on distribution and status, ecology, breeding, movements and, where relevant, conservation concerns. Curiously, only those species illustrated by photographs, mostly taken by the second author, are given an individual account. This results in some families being relatively better treated than others. For example, both jacana species receive an individual account, each illustrated with two large photographs, totalling four pages. In contrast, of the 12 falcon species occurring in Katanga, only two are treated individually, each with a single photograph, the whole family Falconidae thus receiving just two pages. This is disappointing, especially as a large proportion of the scarcer and arguably more interesting species are not covered. It would have been interesting to learn more about Black-necked Eremomela Eremomela atricollis, Margaret’s Batis Batis margaritae and Chestnut-mantled Sparrow Weaver Plocepasser rufoscapulatus, to name but a few, but these have been left without an account, whilst many common and widespread species get one. It seems that the choice to include individual species accounts has been dictated principally by the availability of photographs taken by the second author. Fortunately, these have all been taken in the field and depict free-living birds, unlike those in Lippens & Wille (1976), which are from trapped birds in unnatural poses. Species are illustrated by up to four photographs of generally good quality, although some are rather poor ‘record shots’. The information given in the species accounts varies in extent and, although generally useful, is nowhere as detailed and precise as in Dowsett et al. (2008).

The absence of detailed accounts for all species is the main disappointment concerning this work. Distribution maps would also have been welcome. The Royal Museum for Central Africa, publisher of the book, possesses >14,000 bird specimens from Katanga (Schouteden 1971), which could have provided data for the production of these. However, despite its shortcomings, this is an important volume for anyone with a keen interest in the birds of Katanga. In their acknowledgements the authors state that the decision to produce a colourful, well-illustrated book (made possible via sponsorship) was deliberately made to attract a wider public. We hope they’ll succeed in their aim and that the book will represent the first step towards a comprehensive atlas and handbook of this under-explored region.

Nigel Voaden & Ron Demey
Dowsett, R. J., Aspinwall, D. R. & Dowsett-Lemaire, F. 2008. The Birds of Zambia: An Atlas and Handbook. Liège: Tauraco Press & Aves.
Lippens, L. & Wille, H. 1976. Les Oiseaux du Zaïre. Tielt: Lannoo.
Schouteden, H. 1971. La Faune ornithologique de la Province du Katanga. Tervuren: Mus. Roy. Afr. Centr., Ser. Doc. Zool. no. 17.

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