Working for birds in Africa

Pittas, Broadbills and Asities

Sat, 12/29/2012 - 13:13 -- abc_admin
Frank Lambert and Martin Woodcock. 1996. 267pp, 24 colour plates, 51 maps, 21 line drawings and 12 sonograms. Pica Press, The Banks, Mountfield, Nr Robertsbridge, East Sussex TN32 5JY.
pages 140 - 141

This is one of the latest additions to the rapidly growing series of 'family handbooks' which have been brought out by a variety of publishers over the last 14 years and is the fourth to have originated from Pica Press. Covering two families, the Pittidae (Pittas) and Eurylamidae (Broadbills and Asities), the author and artist have been privileged to describe and illustrate 51 of the most sought-after species in the Old World. The author has largely followed the classification and sequence in Sibley & Monroe. The addition of a couple of species, such as the re-splitting of the 'wattled broadbills' in the Philippines will not be frowned upon by followers of the Phylogenetic Species Concept and indeed the comprehensive coverage given to subspecies (including illustrations) will prove most valuable if this trend continues. In view of the treatment of the Garnet Pitta Pitta granatina complex, for how much longer will the three vocally and morphologically distinct 'forms' of Banded Pitta P. guajana be treated as one species, not to mention the even more diverse Red-bellied Pitta P. erythrogaster group?

The book follows a similar format to other volumes and can be broken down into three main sections: the introductory chapters; a series of 24 full colour plates by Martin Woodcock depicting all 51 species, and a systematic section with detailed text for each species. Having described the style and layout of the book there is an 18 page introduction to the families, which is both well written and informative, if a little brief in parts, and covers phylogenetic relationships, classification, biogeographic history and distribution, evolutionary ecology of broadbills and asities, distinguishing characteristics of pittas and broadbills, food and foraging, social and breeding behaviour, nesting and care of young, migration and other movements, and threats and conservation.

The 24 colour plates not only illustrate all species but a high proportion of the subspecies, and in most cases depict immature plumages. The overall standard of the plates is extremely high, though at times they lack the precision of some modern artists. There are also a few inexplicable anomalies such as the discrepancies in juvenile and immature plumages of the same species depicted on different plates (eg Blue-naped P. nipalensis and Gurney's Pittas P. gurneyi), the rump of the flying Blue-winged Pitta P. moluccensis is depicted as lilac instead of glistening blue and the 'wry-billed' Mindanao Wattled Broadbill Eurylaimas steerii on plate 22 looks slightly strange! The production of the plates and paper quality are both excellent, bringing to life the stunning colours of the pittas in what are unquestionably the best set plates of these families to date.

The systematic section gives a comprehensive summary of existing knowledge for each species broken down into the following headings: taxonomy (where relevant); field identification; voice; distribution (which includes a detailed map produced at a sensible scale but sadly lacking country boundaries); geographical variation; habitat; status; food; habits; breeding; description and measurements. The species' texts are extremely comprehensive and the wealth of information gleaned by the author from a vast list of references (which run to 13 pages), as well as from a long list of personal correspondents and an impressive personal knowledge is highly commendable. Interspersed in the text are more than 20 line drawings depicting various subjects including nests, detailed head patterns and display postures. Although generally useful, a few of these appear a little rushed.

Of the ten species covered which occur within the African Bird Club region, six have been recently covered in Volume 4 of The Birds of Africa and it seems natural to compare the two. Although the plates in both volumes were painted by the same artist, the plates in this, the more recent of the two, are a significant improvement, especially the two pittas which are far neater and more life-like. Overall, more subspecies are illustrated than in The Birds of Africa. Although the text in The Birds of Africa is adequate for most purposes and certainly more comprehensive than in previous literature, Lambert has managed to expand and update the available information, has filled many of the gaps in our knowledge of these little known species and has provided better, more detailed and accurate range maps.

The final group occurring in the ABC region, the asities, were previously considered to constitute an endemic family in their own right. Being confined to Madagascar, they are not covered in The Birds of Africa and most people's knowledge of this fascinating group will have been gleaned from the coverage given in Langrand. The plate of asities, although by far the best anywhere, is to me a little disappointing and fails to capture the jizz and astounding bare part colours of the species' (see photographs of Schlegel's Asity). Interestingly, the two species of sunbird-asities which occur sympatrically in Madagascar probably present the greatest identification challenge of any species pair in the entire book. The careful analysis of available data and clear presentation of plumage differences between the two species should go a long way toward eliminating misidentifications in the future. I do, however, feel that it is a pity that all four asities are depicted on one plate, inevitably resulting in very small paintings of sunbird-asities which lack some detail.

If I had to rank the 'family handbooks' produced to date, this volume would certainly score highly and be near to the top. The excellently researched and comprehensive text backed up by a very pleasing set of plates, mean that anyone with an interest in these groups, be they amateur birders or serious researchers, should not be without this book and I can highly recommend it.

Pete Morris
References: 
Hawkins, F. 1994. The nest of Schlegel's Asity Philepitta schlegi. Bull. ABC 1: 76-78.
Keith, S., Urban, E. K. and Fry, C,H. (eds.) 1992. The Birds of Africa. Vol 4. London: Academic Press.
Langrand, O. 1990, Guide to the Birds of Madagascar. New Haven & London, UK: Yale University Press,
Sibley, C. G. and Monroe, B. L. Jnr 1990. Distribution and Taxonomy of Birds of the World. New Haven & London, UK: Yale University Press.

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