Sunbirds is an excellent addition to the burgeoning stable of Helm family monographs. It covers the 176 species of sunbirds, flowerpeckers, spiderhunters and sugarbirds which comprise the Nectariniidae, of which almost exactly half (the two sugarbirds, the remainder sunbirds) occur in the African region. The format of the book is the by now familiar one. Thus, there are some 30 pages of introduction, here divided into 12 sections, the longest of which discuss morphology, behaviour, breeding and physiology, with some enlivened by helpful black-and-white line drawings. These are followed by 48 colour plates, the species accounts with distribution maps and 15 pages of references.
Richard Allen's plates, which illustrate as a minimum the adult male and female of each species but also immature males, where relevant, and often more than one form of polytypic species, are of an extremely high standard. They are both pleasing to the eye and generally accurate, to me, in both jizz and coloration, the latter no mean feat given the brash subtleties of many male sunbirds. One satisfying touch is that many are depicted in a variety of typical feeding poses on carefully illustrated flowers and flowering stems, the identities of which are given on the legend to the plate on the facing page. The temptation to show pectoral tufts on perched birds has, I am pleased to say, been resisted, except in cases where the bird is shown eg alighting, wings raised, on a branch.
Sensibly, unrelated but superficially similar sympatric species are illustrated together. Full marks, therefore, for placing Little Green Sunbird Anthreptes seimundi, Bates's Sunbird Cinnyris batesi and Western Olive Sunbird Cyanomitra obscura on the same plate. Some marks have to be deducted, however, for not doing this consistently; it would have been preferable to have had Purple-banded Cinnyris bifasciata and Pemba Sunbirds C. pembae on the same plate as those species they most resemble and whose ranges they overlap or approach, Tsavo Purple-banded C. tsavoensis and Kenya Violet-breasted Sunbirds C. chalcomelas, rather than on Plates 32 and 39 respectively.
The taxonomic treatment adopted is similar to that used for the group in Vol 6 of The Birds of Africa (BoA), except that Cheke & Mann recognise one more genus (Drepanorhynchus for (Nectarinia) reichenowi, Golden-winged Sunbird) and two more species; Prigogine's Double-collared Sunbird, Cinnyris prigoginei, treated as a subspecies of C. stuhlmanni in BoA and Grey-headed Sunbird Deleornis axillaris, considered specific from Scarlet-tufted Sunbird D. fraseri.
The species accounts, ranging in length from one to three pages, follow a sequence of subject heading similar to that employed in previous volumes in the series. Although in a few places the style and the layout are such that one has to read the text closely to be certain of the meaning this is, in fact, an indication of the enormous amount of information and detail the authors have managed to pack into a small space. An example of this comes in the accounts of the Eastern Cyanomitra olivacea and Westem Olive Sunbirds C. obscura, treated here, as in BoA, as separate species. The geographical variation sections of these accounts discuss evidence for the intriguing, not to say bizarre, possibility of the occurrence of both on the island of Zanzibar!
The distribution maps. I appreciate it is extremely difficult to make such maps accurate in those parts of species' ranges for which no atlas has been published - which means most countries - and, further, that in cases where one has personal experience of countries or parts thereof that lack published atlases, one's own knowledge of distributions is likely to be more detailed or up to date than the information that appears in the literature, the major source of these maps. For these reasons, and others, allowances must be made, but especially for widely distributed species, one has to treat the maps as indicative only. So, for example, Copper Cinnyris cuprea and Superb Sunbirds C. superbus are shown as not occurring in south-east Cote d'lvoire where both do, whereas Variable Sunbird C. venusta is shown as being widespread throughout the forest zone in the country where it is not. Other instances could be given. Or maybe it is indicative of the overall level of scholarship that this book (and indeed others in the series) have achieved that one has such high and, perhaps, unrealistic expectations?
If you have bought the recently published Birds ofAfrica Vol 6, which includes sugarbirds and sunbirds, will you also want to own this book? If you like fine bird books and/or have an interest in this group of birds, oh yes definitely!