Working for birds in Africa

Shrikes and Bush-Shrikes

Sat, 12/22/2012 - 00:02 -- abc_admin
Tony Harris and Kim Franklin. 2000. 392 pp, 41 colour plates. Hardback. A. & C. Black, London. ISBN 0-7136-3861-3. UK£35.
pages 70 - 71

This is yet another family monograph in the well-known series published by Christopher Helm. It is a hardback title produced to the very high standards we have come to expect but for the first time the material, or at least one quarter of the material, has been thoroughly surveyed in an earlier, excellent and similar work, Shrikes: a Guide' to the Shrikes of the World, by Norbert Lefranc and Tim Worfolk, published by Pica Press in 1997. Any reviewer is thus obliged to make comparisons between these two books.

As if to stress their main points of difference from the outset, the author has encumbered the new work with the weighty subtitle: including woodshrikes, helmet-shrikes, flycatcher-shrikes, philentomas, batises, and wattle-eyes. Tony Harris is one of the world's leading experts on this group and has cast his nets far wider than Lefranc, who treated just the 31 true shrikes contained in the family Laniidae. Harris has expanded coverage to include 114 species and, in addition, to the true shrikes has tackled members of 18 other genera of shrike-like birds, most notably the 30 species of bush-shrike and boubou.

Harris' treatment of the entire group makes the book in many ways more coherent and of particular relevance lo ABC members. Whereas just two thirds of species treated in Lefranc and Worfolk occur in Africa, of those tackled in Harris and Franklin only 14 of the 114 total occur outside the region. In fact 92 species are African endemics.

The taxonomy of the group is Harris' principal focus and his 34-page introductory section is devoted almost exclusively to this subject. This amounts to a précis of the author's extensive work on specific-mate recognition (which roughly translates as an individual bird's ability to locate and select a mate of the same species). This is concisely treated and admirably laid out with numerous graphs and accompanying illustrations. Yet, since specific-mate recognition depends principally on visual and acoustic cues, the section tends to break down into a rather repetitive mass of detail on call and songs interspersed with other workers' taxonomic conclusions. If you are not really excited by knowing the physical characteristics of a bird such as the 'nostril ossification and a double foramen condition of the ectethmoid plate' in the genus Eurocephalus. And, if you are equally unconcerned whether its roosting call is a 'ka-ka-kakakkrrrr' or a 'skea-skea-skea-skea', then I suspect you will find little to delay you in your search for the species accounts.

In short, I suspect Harris' technical, material aims way over the head of most ordinary birders. For me, Lefranc's more conventional introduction, where he tackles subjects such as Habitat, Social Organisation, Food, Foraging Behaviour, Population Dynamics and Conservation, wins hands down, if only in terms of simple accessibility.

However, I should also stress that the bulk of the new book, amounting to 300 pages, is occupied by the 41 plates and the species accounts. These are based on almost 1,100 references, which underlines the thoroughness of the authors' approach and authoritative character of the book's contents. The individual accounts are broken down by a now conventional set of sub-headings: Field Identification, Comparisons, Geographical Variation, Moult, Range, Habitat and Status, Movements, Social Organisation and General Behaviour, Sounds, Breeding Biology, and Measurements.

Since Lefranc and Worfolk cover just 31 species in 191 pages the depth of coverage for each of the true shrikes is clearly greater in their book. However Harris has had to fit in material on an additional 80 species so perhaps direct comparisons between the two are not quite fair. The other important point to make is that the two books reflect the differing concerns of their respective authors. While geographical variation and movements are often exhaustively covered by Lefranc, Harris has given additional weight to subjects such as Sounds and Breeding Biology. Perhaps a more relevant comparison to make in relation to this text is with the last two volumes of The Birds of Africa. All but 14 of the world's shrikes and shrike relatives have been treated and, with the exception of the 13 African true shrikes, each species generally receives more detailed coverage.

But let's now consider that part of the new book which is most appealing and probably has the major role in determining sales - Kim Franklin's plates. This is his largest body of published work to date and establishes him as an extremely gifted bird artist. His plates of the true shrikes are easily as good as Tim Worfolk's earlier illustrations and particularly pleasing are those paintings where he places birds in a natural setting (take a look at the delightful behaviour studies of Magpie Shrike Corvinella melanoleuca on Plate 1) which, sadly, is something of rarity in other Helm family monographs, and almost entirely absent from Pica titles. One less satisfactory aspect is the fact that some of the plates seem to be slightly too dark, which was probably determined in their reproduction. Although a characteristic more within the artist's control is a tendency for some birds to look rather attenuated and too strongly cigar-shaped. The boubous Laniarius on plate 24 and the puffbacks Dryoscopus on Plate 26 are good examples of this bias.

The ratio of plate space to number of species means that Franklin has had sufficient room to illustrate the sometimes extreme variability within a species. There are, for instance, ten paintings of the Great Grey Shrike Lanius excubitor and nine of Southern Grey Shrike L. meridionalis. This comprehensive coverage is also especially important when it comes to highly complex and varied African species like the batises Batis and wattle-eyes Platysteira and Dyaphorophyia.

The depth of coverage and quality of Franklin's plates, added to the authoritative text and comprehensive coverage of both true shrikes and shrike relatives, are the four cardinal virtues of this excellent book. However the more difficult question to answer is do you really need to buy it? If you are simply a collector of the Pica and Helm series', a shrike lover, or a specialist in this branch of ornithology then it is undoubtedly an essential text. However, I suspect the general African birder who owns or has access to all volumes of the indispensable The Birds of Africa may decide they could allocate their £35 to larger gaps in their ornithological library.

Mark Cocker

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