Working for birds in Africa

Rails. A Guide to the Rails, Crakes, Gallinules and Coots of the World

Fri, 12/28/2012 - 11:27 -- abc_admin
Barry Taylor. Illustrated by Ber van Perlo. 1998. 600 pp, 43 colour plates, many distribution maps and several line drawings. Pica Press, The Banks, Mountfield, Nr. Robertsbridge, East Sussex TN32 5JY. UK£35.00.
page 150

For most birders the secretive habits of many of the Rallidae mean that encounters with members of this family are often fleeting and unsatisfactory. The publication of this book allows us to gain a much greater insight into the complex life history of the 150 species that comprise the family Rallidae. This total includes 133 extant species, two of which — Talaud Rail Gymnocrex alaudensis and Talaud Bush-hen Amaurornis magnirostris — were described as recently as 1998, 15 that have become recently extinct (since 1600) and two others that are almost certainly extinct. Many of these extinctions have, of course, been as a direct or indirect result of man's activities, and so the inclusion of these species is to be welcomed, as it illustrates just how much we have lost over the past 400 years.

The format follows the familiar style of these publications, with introductory sections dealing with taxonomy, phylogeny, distribution and general biology of rails, and briefly discusses some of the conservation issues associated with the family. These sections provide fascinating reading and despite the large gaps in our knowledge of rails are usually more comprehensive than similar sections in some other titles in this series.

Ber van Perlo's 43 colour plates depict all living species and 12 of those that have become recently extinct. They are well executed and whilst they will perhaps not be to everyone's taste, van Perlo's bold style works well with this family. The inclusion of more background vegetation makes for a more attractive overall effect than is the case in some other titles. All species with which I am familiar appear to be accurately illustrated, with many but not all of the various subspecies being included. Helpfully, those subspecies not illustrated are described on the facing page with reference to subspecies that have been depicted. The provision of a scale on each plate is a useful feature.

The species accounts vary in length from just under one page for little-known and extinct species such as the White Gallinule Porphyrio albus, to over 11 pages for well-studied species such as the Moorhen Gallinula chloropus, All the accounts are well written and the treatment, especially of habitat, food and feeding, habits, social organisation, social and sexual behaviour, and breeding and survival is more comprehensive than has often been the case in the other titles in this series. With a secretive family such as this, there are of course many gaps in our knowledge. However, the number of undescribed or unknown aspects of many species' life histories should act as a spur for future researchers to plug these gaps. The distribution maps are clear and easy to comprehend and significant efforts have been made to clearly depict the ranges of the sometimes large numbers of subspecies involved.

Taxonomy follows the treatment of Olson's 1973 classification, modified by more recent studies where relevant. Areas where taxonomy is poorly understood are clearly indicated. Doubtless Taylor will disappoint some readers with his cautious approach toward the adoption of some recently proposed splits. For example, although there are recent studies of Purple Swamphen Porphyrio porphyrio indicating that the forms madagascariensis, pulverulentus, melanotos, poliocephalus and indicus may warrant specific status, all are retained within a single species pending further study and evaluation.

Throughout the entire volume, the text appears to be very thorough and, in addition to the large number of correspondents listed in the acknowledgements section, has been compiled using over 1,800 references, which are listed in the comprehensive bibliography. The author states in his introduction that this book is designed to be a comprehensive guide and handbook to the rails of the world. He certainly appears to have succeeded in his aim, and has produced what will doubtless become a standard work on this fascinating family for years to come.

Chris Bradshaw

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