Working for birds in Africa

Owls. A guide to the owls of the world

Sat, 12/22/2012 - 00:03 -- abc_admin
Koning C., Weick F. & Becking J.H. 1999. 462 pp, 64 colour plates and 212 black-and-white distribution maps. Pica Press, Robertsbridge. ISBN-1-873403-74-7. Hardback UK£35.
pages 71 - 72

This addition to Pica Press's excellent series of guides to the world's major avian groups consists of a brief and generalised introduction to the structure and behaviour of owls (19 pages), a chapter on relationships as suggested by DNA studies (19 pages, by M. Wink and P. Heidrich), and for the remainder accounts and illustrations of the 212 species recognised. The text is by someone who has studied European and Neotropical owls (Konig) and one familiar with Asian birds (Becking), the artist (Weick) having a particular interest in owls.

As a world review, this book is perhaps rivalled by no other work, being relatively detailed (averaging more than a page of text per species) and generally up-to-date. But those readers whose particular interests lie in Africa will inevitably compare it to The Birds of Africa, and here this book does not come off too well. The rather old-fashioned illustrations are less successful (try separating the three species of African fishing owls from the plate here). The sections on distribution (to be read in conjunction with the maps) are not always accurate or up-to-date; for example, although the map for Sjostedt's Owlet Glaucidium sjostedti correctly includes south-east Nigeria, there is no mention of this in the text. The map and text for African Barred Owlet G. capense and Chestnut Owlet G. (capense) castaneum are out-dated, and lack any reference to the discovery of these forms in central Africa (published in 1997). Note that the publishers have produced an errata slip with the correct map of Common Scops-Owl Otus scops non-breeding range (the map on p. 228 being that of African Scops-Owl O. senegalensis). However, the new map is also erroneous, omitting the East African records. A number of taxonomic innovations are introduced, but not always with much justification.

Two species of Spotted Eagle Owl are recognised, Bubo africanus and B. (africanus) cinerascens, apparently principally on iris colour (rather than on voice, for which no differences are demonstrated): such action should surely only follow more detailed study. The scops owl on Socotra (socotranus) is here treated as a form of Pallid Scops Owl O. brucei, although Konig et al add 'which we doubt'; if the authors are not always confident of their taxonomic treatment, the reader is unlikely to be either. The chapter on DNA results is of considerable importance, but will not be the last word, and it would have been more appropriate to publish it in the periodic literature.

Special mention must be made of the section on vocalisations. It is notoriously difficult to place bird sounds into words, but as nocturnal species rely so much on vocalisations for species recognition (as do we), the topic is in need of detailed treatment. The written accounts here are no more nor less successful than those published elsewhere; an accompanying CD will apparently cover some 190 species, and this initiative is to be welcomed (though it is not yet published).

To sum up, The Birds of Africa remains the more authoritative source of information on African owls, but this book will be of interest to readers with a broader interest in the owls of the world, and the CD will be essential for everyone.

R. J. Dowsett

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