Working for birds in Africa

Robins and Chats

Tue, 07/31/2018 - 12:00 -- abc_admin
Robins and Chats
Peter Clement and Chris Rose. 2015. Bloomsbury, London, UK. 688 ppp, 62 colour plates, 600 photos, 175 maps. Hardback. ISBN 978-0-7136-3963-6. UK£60.00.

Fifteen years after Peter Clement published his companion volume on Thrushes, we have this magnificent new work in the Helm Identification Guides series on Robins and Chats. Eagerly awaited for many years, even before Thrushes appeared, to say that it does not disappoint would be an understatement.

It covers an exceptionally attractive, and rather homogenous, group of birds, amongst which are some of the best-loved and most familiar species, as well as some of the very rarest, shyest and most restricted in range. A cursory glance reveals the unsurpassed quality of Chris Rose’s artwork, covering a very comprehensive range of plumages depicting age, sex and racial variation, interspersed with vignettes of tail patterns or flight images. There are no fewer than 23 figures for Common Stonechat Saxicola torquatus, and the exhaustive text for this species runs to 20 pages, with several maps, diagrams and 11 colour photographs. This example indicates the depth of treatment throughout, and aficionados of such groups as wheatears (for which the author is a declared enthusiast) need look no further.

Seven pages of introduction, engagingly entitled ‘What is a chat?’ are followed by 12 pages describing the scope and layout of the book, discussing all of the features of the species accounts, including voice, habitat, breeding, distribution, moult, measurements, etc. There is also a section on taxonomy, which is further elaborated in an eight-page essay—a masterclass on the subject—by Per Alström, which will be especially welcomed by people who may feel somewhat buffeted by the winds of taxonomic change blowing through the avian world. On this subject, concern has been raised because the first eight species with which the text commences—the North American bluebirds (Sialia spp.), Asian cochoas and Fruithunter Chlamydochaera jefferyi from Borneo—have for some years been regarded as more closely allied to ‘true’ thrushes than the chats. However, when Clement was working on the Thrushes book this was not clear, and in his introduction to that volume he envisaged that these species, or at any rate the bluebirds and the Fruithunter, would eventually appear in the present volume.

A total of 175 species is treated and, aside of the bluebirds, almost all of the rest are Old World in distribution; a swift analysis revealed that (omitting the few island forms), no fewer than 74 of 163 species (45%) occur only in Africa south of the Sahara. More interestingly, diversity at the generic level is much higher in Africa than in Eurasia, with 18 genera represented (13 in Eurasia) or an average of four species per genus compared to more than seven in Eurasia.

The species accounts, incorporating range maps and colour photographs, occupy 527 pages, or a mean of three pages per species, though some, as already noted, are very much longer. Great detail is presented on all of the usual subjects: behaviour, breeding, voice, descriptions, taxonomy, similar species and identification. Problems of rendering vocalisations in words are discussed in the introduction, and sonograms are not included; readers are advised to listen to the many excellent recordings on relevant websites.

The colour plates each contain c.12 figures, and my main concern is that the illustrations for some juvenile plumages do not accord with the relevant photographs, which for some of the robins, robin-chats and scrub robins appear to depict subadults rather than juveniles. I take this to be an error with the legends rather than the plates.

The fourth volume of The Birds of Africa containing the robins and chats appeared in 1992, and much has changed since then; these birds are now known to be more closely related to Old World flycatchers than to ‘true’ thrushes. Among changes, some of them established for some years, in the wheatears, Cyprus Oenanthe cypriaca is now split from Pied O. pleschanka and the race bottae of Heuglin’s O. heuglini becomes Red-breasted Wheatear. Confusingly, Kurdistan (or Kurdish) Oenanthe xanthoprymna is the new name for Red-tailed, itself now a full species (split from O. chrysopygia). The alethes have been split into two genera, with Fire-crested Alethe castanea and White-tailed A. diademata remaining in Alethe, while the rest are now in Chamaetylas (Pseudalethe is a synonym); the two genera are possibly not even closely related. The split of Himalayan Tarsiger rufilatus from Redflanked Bluetail T. cyanurus is also recognised. The taxonomic treatment adopted here is thus mostly in line with recent thinking, the exception being Common Stonechat, which is now often split into three species, European S. rubicola, Siberian S. maurus and African S. torquatus, but is here treated as a single, polytypic species, basically on the grounds that more research is needed. Further taxonomic changes are undoubtedly on the way; for instance, of the eight rock chats, here placed in Cercomela, a recent study has proposed that the three sickle-winged chats be placed in Emarginata, with the rest removed to Oenanthe. More recently, and only dealt with in a footnote, Ruaha Chat Myrmecocichla collaris has been split from Arnot’s Chat P. arnotti.

Progress and changes in relationships and nomenclature will continue, but this book will stand as a mine of information for a very long time, especially for those captivated by this charismatic group of birds. It is beautifully produced and designed, and fully maintains the high standards set by its predecessors in the Helm Identification Guides series.

Martin Woodcock

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