Working for birds in Africa

Raptors of the World

Fri, 12/21/2012 - 12:54 -- abc_admin
James Ferguson-Lees and David A. Christie, illustrated by Kim Franklin, David Mead and Philip Burton, 2001. 992pp, 112 colour plates, 312 colour distribution maps (equal number in black and white) and 60 line drawings. London, UK: A. & C. Black. UK£49
p 160

This must be the most long-awaited book in the bird families series. The first author freely admits that it has taken 18 years to write, and it must have possessed more rumoured 'due dates' than most works. It is a big book in every sense of the word, it has 992 pages and 112 colour plates and is definitely not one to take into the field with you. The sheer size must go some way to explaining why it took so long to produce.

Despite the time it has taken to appear, or perhaps because of it, Raptors has commendably managed to keep up with current thinking on a number of issues—particularly taxonomy (not always the case with books that have taken a long time to reach fruition). Although the taxonomic decisions taken by the authors will doubtless leave some people cold, there is evidence that they have not just maintained the status quo with regards to species limits. Indeed, recognition that some taxa treated here as subspecies might actually be species is made very clear in the 'List of Species' section. The authors consider there to be 313 species of raptor and include within that definition the New World Vultures, now considered to be more closely allied to storks.

As well as the species accounts and other expected sections, there are chapters on moult and ageing, vision, hearing and smell, plumages and external structure by Carl Edelstam. Other sections cover topography, migration, sex and age differences, size and shape in raptors, and how to approach identifying a raptor in the field.

Three generic plates show typical examples from each genus. Helpfully they are divided geographically into Old World, New World and those found in both. They are also divided roughly by size, and each plate has two scale silhouettes to permit size comparison between each of these plates.

The 109 remaining plates are used to illustrate all of the species in detail. On average there are three species per plate with a minimum of one (several of the falcons, with Peregrine Falco peregrinus requiring two plates), and a maximum of nine (Indo-Malayan serpent-eagles Spilornis spp, for which there are no flight illustrations for most of the species). Some of the plates are too crowded and have images that overlap - which I personally find irritating - though it doesn't prevent them being useful. That three different artists are responsible is immediately obvious. In my opinion the plates by Kim Franklin are the best and more realistic, given the slightly dishevelled appearance of the birds so typical of the larger raptors that you see in real life. They appear more true to life than the immaculate birds painted by David Mead and to a lesser extent those by Philip Burton. Unfortunately the shapes of some of birds, which can be so important to the identification process with raptors, do not help at all. Lesser Kestrel Falco naumanni and Common Kestrel F. tinnunculus in flight are disappointing and both have the wrong wing formula on some of their flight illustrations. This comment also applies to some other figures. None of the plates is useless but some definitely fall short on some of the fine detail.

Previous books in the series have seen the maps placed opposite the plates or within the main text. Here we have both, a small colour map opposite the plate and a larger greyscale map with the main text. This is a good idea and makes the book more user-friendly than some of the previous books in the series have been.

The species accounts typically concentrate on aspects useful for identification. They also cover distribution, habitat, movements, breeding, population and socio-sexual behaviour. The well laid out text is easy to read and follow, permitting swift reference to the relevant section. The field characters section, which covers the plumages in detail, starts with a general identification synopsis and then detailed information covering identification when perched and identification in flight. Each of the detailed sub-sections is then further broken down into distinct plumages by age and sex. This treatment makes perfect sense for raptors and could probably be usefully employed for other bird groups. Most species have an extensive list of references, which are fully documented in a huge 55-page bibliography - presumably testament to the huge amount of research needed for this book. Obviously a work like this cannot hope to present the same level of detail per species as a more specialist book, such as Dick Forsman's The Raptors of Europe and The Middle East, and indeed it doesn't. However, the authors have included more than sufficient detail to adequately identify most raptors. Some species remain too challenging to be reliably identified, except under exceptional conditions, and thankfully the authors have acknowledged this fact and not been tempted to offer speculative solutions to possibly insurmountable problems. Serious raptorphiles and the more scientifically minded may find this work does not meet all their needs but its extensive bibliography will be an invaluable springboard to more specialist works.

Doubtless it is possible to find the occasional mistake in the text but this would only slightly diminish a truly monumental work. Though some of the illustrations are disappointing and not as useful as they could be, this book is still a must have for anyone interested in raptors and in establishing which species they are looking at, wherever they are in the world.

Roy Hargreaves

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