Working for birds in Africa

Starlings and Mynas

Sat, 12/22/2012 - 00:22 -- abc_admin
C. Feare and A. Craig. Illustrated by B. Croucher, C. Shields and K. Komolphalin. 1998. 285 pp, 32 colour plates and many distribution maps. A & C Black, London, UK. UK£32.
pages 80-81

This book makes a pleasing addition to the Helm Identification Series, following the by now well-established and well-known format of earlier volumes. It covers the 114 species of the family Sturnidae recognised by the authors, of which 51 (including introductions) are wholly or partially African in the sense that the word is used by this bulletin, and to which the comments that follow are almost entirely restricted.

The first 30 or so introductory pages provide a concise review of aspects of the taxonomy, biogeography, ecology, behaviour and reproductive biology of the family, concluding with a section on the interactions between starlings and Homo sapiens. The longest of these sections ('The Starling family') is devoted to a review of generic limits within the group and, importantly, presents a re-assessment by Adrian Craig of the African forms as a result of analyses by him and others of the struclure of melanin granules in leathers, which are the cause, rather than pigments, of the wonderful iridescent colours shown by many species, as well as of skeletal characters. This review has subsequently appeared in more detail in Ostrich(2). A phylogenetic tree of relationships among the genera is proposed. The main novelties arising from this work are i ) Sharpe's Pholia sharpii and Abbott's Starlings P. femoralis are transferred from Cinnyricinclus (which therefore retains only Amethyst Starling) to the genus Pholia; i i ) Ashy Starling Spreo unicolor is moved to Spreo while the hitherto congeneric Golden-breasted Starling Lamprotornis regius becomes a Lamprotornis as a consequence of which Cosmoparus is sunk (another consequence, the authors' anticipate, is the debate this is likely to provoke): iii) Lamprotornis is further reinforced by the addition of the four 'glossy' members from Spreo (Superb L. superbus, Shelley's L. shelleyi, Hildebrant's L. hildebrandti and Cheslnut-bellied L. pulcher), which leaves Spreo with just four grey or grey and white birds - Pied S. bicolor, Fischer's S. fischeri, White-crowned S. albicapillus and the aforementioned Ashy; iv) Lamprotornis does, however, lose two species - Purple-headed Glossy Hylospar purpureiceps and Coppery-tailed (Glossy) H. cupreocauda which are now placed within the genus Hylopsar.

With nothing more to go on than some relatively casual experience of at least some of these species in the field, my gut reaction is that many of these changes appear plausible and are worthy of further investigation. Certainly, Coppery-tailed and Purple-headed Glossy Slarlings have never struck me as 'typical' Lamprotornis while the proposed separation of Pholia from Cinnyricinclus 'feels' right.

Turning to the more tangible matter of the plates that follow, it is quickly apparent from the diversity of styles that they are the work of more than one artist. To my eye, the quality of these varies from the uninspiring to the excellent, with the African species coming off well. Many species are only given an illustration of a single individual while sexually dimorphic species and those with obviously different juvenile plumages get two. There are also smaller flight illustrations of those species with distinctive wing colorations. The stunning metallic plumages of the glossy starlings often seem, along with those of male sunbirds, amongst the hardest to reproduce accurately. Here, however, the artist responsible (we are not told which of the three) is to be congratulated as he has captured them extremely convincingly. Neither these nor the others appear regimented, but are presented in a variety of poses and against a variety of backdrops; some of the former are extremely evocative, some of the latter odd. Thus, the habitat that Long-tailed Glossy Starling Lamprotornis caudatus is set against looks like no part of the Sahel I have ever seen, while Chestnut-winged Starling Onychognathus fulgidus hopping amongst leaf-litter looks downright peculiar (the text correctly states it is confined to forest canopy). There are a few inaccuracies, too, in the birds themselves: the eye of Purple Glossy Starling Lamprotornis purpureus isn't as large or as yellow as it should be, nor is the strange bulge in the forecrown at the base of bill sufficiently pronounced, suggesting that the artist had trouble believing the bird looks as wonderfully weird as it does. (And why, on the same plate, has the exquisite Emerald Starling Lamprotornis iris been reproduced to a different, smaller scale from the other three species shown?) Still on eye colour. Bronze-tailed Glossy Starling L. chalcurus is shown with a yellow eye (as it is also said to be in the text) when it should be orange-red (see Barlow et al (1).

Distribution maps, together with brief descriptions of the distribution and of the birds themselves, appear on the pages facing the plates. The maps, at least for those species with which I am most familiar, seem relatively accurate (with an exception mentioned below). It is noticeable here that those species which are restricted to the southern third of the continent are shown on a base map limited to Africa south of the Equator and their distributions are hence shown in more detail than those species confined to East or West Africa for which the base map is the entire continent, plus Arabia, even if the bird concerned is confined to Principe or Socotra!

The species texts are divided into sections entitled Field Identification, Description (which includes treatment of subspecies), Measurements, Voice, Distribution and Population, Habitat, Food and Feeding, Behaviour and, in some cases, Principal References. For the Common Starling Sturnus vulgaris this runs to over six pages; for Coppery-tailed Starling it is not much more than half a page (while for a number of Asian taxa it is not even that), illustrating how little is known about some species. The authors appear to have mined the literature well (there are over 20 pages of references at the end of the book) with facts and observations thoroughly referenced in the text.

The species treatment adopted here for African taxa is, unlike the generic one, conservative. There is one exception to this; the West African forms (from western Sudan westwards) of Red-winged Starling Onychognathus morio are separated as Neumann's Red-winged Starling O. neumanni. We are not told why the authors have made this decision, nor how the two species differ from each other. Indeed, the entire treatment of O. neumanni appears strange. It is given species number 104 while O. morio is 94 so they appear remote from each other both in the text and on the plates. One has to dig deep into the paragraph on Onychognathus at the beginning of the book to be told that neumanni was formerly treated as a race of O. morio but for the reasons why it is treated so no longer, one is referred to Craig (1988). This reference proves to be to a paper published in Bonner zoologische Beitrage. Now, at the risk of accusations of chauvinism, I would have thought this source was not so widely available that a repetition of the justification for this split was unwarranted. It has certainly not, in the 10 or so years since publication, been adopted anywhere in the West African sub-region, so far as I am aware. Finally, the map for O. neumanni is at odds with the distribution given for the species in the text; the latter correctly includes Cote d'lvoire and Burkina Faso, while the former omits these.

Nevertheless, this is cavilling and does not detract from the overall depth and quality of the scholarship that has gone into this publication. I certainly think the authors will succeed in their stated main aim, that of stimulating further research and debate on all matters starling. Stunning birds, excellent book.

Lincoln Fishpool
References: 
Barlow, C., Wacher, T. and Disley, T. 1997. A Field Guide to the Birds of The Gambia and Senegal. Mountfield: Pica Press.
Craig, A.J.F.K. 1997. A phylogeny for the African starlings (Sturnidae), Ostrich 68; 114-116.

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