Working for birds in Africa

Pipits of Southern Africa

Fri, 12/21/2012 - 12:10 -- abc_admin
Faansie Peacock, 2006. Pretoria: privately published by the author, www.pipits.co.za. 296 pp, seven colour plates, 32 maps, many line drawings and diagrams. Softback. ISBN 0-620-35967-6.
pages 140-141

At nearly 300 pages this work is considerably thicker than might be expected for a book that covers a 'mere' 16 species. An initial flick through its pages reveals a vast patchwork of line drawings, diagrams, tables, maps, keys, plates and text, suggesting that Pipits of Southern Africa is not so much an identification guide, but an encyclopedia of information about its subjects and, as such, not quite like any bird book I had encountered before. The first of two contents pages is on p. 13, but to reach it, the reader must navigate a quick reference index replete with thumbnail paintings, the title page, a frontispiece, a dedication, a poem, a plug for the accompanying website, and a dictionary definition of'pipit'. Following the second, more detailed, contents page is a section entitled 'How to use this book', which is 19 pages long and includes, for example, at least four different glossaries. It is, quite simply, brimming with information, sometimes near-overwhelmingly so.

The bulk of the book comprises four chapters: 'Introduction to the Pipits', 'Pipit Identification', 'Field Guide' and 'Species Accounts'. The first offers an overview of the family Motacillidae, with sections on each of the six genera. One might easily argue that a page and a half of information concerning the exclusively Asian Forest Wagtail Dendronanthus indicus is unnecessary in a book about just one subgroup of the genus Anthus, but I found the text absorbing nonetheless. There is also a general discussion of vocalisations, breeding biology and pipit systematics. I find the author's attitude to taxonomy pragmatic and refreshing. There is no attempt to forge a definitive classification, but Peacock outlines the various current opinions as well as highlighting the great need for further research.

The chapter treating 'Pipit Identification' commences by explaining how to separate pipits from virtually any other passerine that might conceivably cause confusion. The text moves on to examine all the features and factors that need to be taken into account when starting to identify pipits to species.

The Field Guide chapter is perhaps the most conventional in this rather unconvential tome, with colour plates of each species appearing opposite concise text and maps. The plates (and indeed all the illustrations) are by the author, in general well executed, and are very thoroughly labelled. I feel that many show excessive contrast in tone, though how much this might be a result of printing vagaries is unclear. Furthermore, I was surprised that in a work of such depth, many species are still only represented by one or two figures. I had expected at least one plate per species and it would have been very useful to include some photographs as well, even if many pictures can be found on the author's website.

The species accounts represent the 'meat' of the work, constituting almost exactly 50% of the book's whole. Most species are covered in eight or nine pages (range 7-14), and each account covers synonyms, field identification, structure, description, bare parts, behaviour, vocalisations and displays, distribution, habitat, status and movements, and geographical variation. My initial worry that these would prove to be long, dry, marathons of reference material was soon forgotten, and I was swiftly lulled by the author's readable prose. Nonetheless, I was surprised to find nothing concerning breeding and only a small amount of dietary information, despite the book's generally exhaustive nature, but this perhaps highlights its ultimate aim, namely identification.

In addition to all of the above, scattered throughout are separate boxes of information covering a very wide selection of topics. These include tips on how to see certain elusive species, evolution, taxonomic debates, bird flocks, jizz, tail-wagging, and even how the author painted the colour plates. This format is increasingly common and seems to be one that has evolved in parallel with the internet. Books such as this are more web-like than linear, and one cannot help feeling that the entire project will eventually become web-based as sound-recordings and videos become a crucial part of our approach to identification and overall improved knowledge of birds.

For now though, this book represents a wonderful step in a new direction for African birding. It exudes much spirit, character and passion, and hopefully these attributes will assist the author to succeed in one of his main goals, to enthuse people about pipits.

Many years ago, I was repeatedly advised that 'everything [should be] in moderation', but advances are rarely made by moderate people, and we must hope that Faansie Peacock sustains his obsession, develops it further and expands his horizons to the entire continent. Afrotropical pipits have long needed a champion and in Peacock they appear to have found one.

Pete Leonard

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