Working for birds in Africa

Sylvia Warblers: Identification, Taxonomy and Phylogeny of the Genus Sylvia

Fri, 12/21/2012 - 13:49 -- abc_admin
Hadoram Shirihai, Gabriel Gargallo and Andreas J. Helbig, illustrated by Alan Harris, photographic editor and field photographer, David Cottridge, distribution maps by C.S. Roselaar, edited by Guy M. Kirwan and Lars Svensson. 2001. London, UK: Christopher Helm. 576 pp, 20 colour plates, 97 pp of colour photographs, many colour maps, line drawings and sonograms. UK£60.
pages 41 - 42

Natural history gradually moved into the domain of academics once the Linnaean systematic approach had become generally accepted, but it remained the enthusiasm and obsession of countless amateurs, whether well educated or not, simply because detailed observation continued to reveal seemingly endless aspects of animal behaviour and ecology. Today's consumer society and its concomitant technological advances have created a world of hobbies and interests so vast that natural history is often seen as no more than yet another 'specialist activity'. The flood of natural history books and videos in the 21st century paradoxically has seen the demise of the general naturalist and the rise of the specialist, who appears in many guises. We now have huge numbers of biologists (a few of whom are ornithologists) whose worthy papers are incomprehensible to the non-scientist or non-mathematician, and we have huge numbers of birders whose views (if we can accept the content of birding magazines at somewhere near face value) seem limited to compiling lists to arcane and artificial criteria.

Books and magazines produced for birders are often dismissed out of hand by academics as trivial. Of course, there have been many books, such as the Poyser series, that have sought to address the gap between science and birdwatching, but sales have been diminishing. Over the years, I have been encouraged by the publication of 'advanced' books on bird families or groups but their treatment of conservation, taxonomy and biology has been uneven and uncertain to say the least. What was needed was a book that could be regarded as the standard that others must meet; Sylvia Warblers does so, and handsomely.

There is one prime reason for that success; the team who produced it have the ideal, multi-disciplinary balance. They have the field knowledge to cover all the species across the genus' broad distribution; they have intimate knowledge of molecular genetic analysis techniques, research results and their import; they include a superb bird artist and a wonderfully gifted bird photographer; their mapmaker probably knows more about bird distributions across Eurasia than anyone else, and their editorial duo combine excellent field recognition and in-the-hand skills.

The tone is set in the authors', artist's and photographer's prefaces, for these make plain that enormous patience and application, though essential, must be set in the context of their love for the subject, birds. In Sylvia Warblers, the illustrations inspire the mind and impart knowledge to an equal degree. However, it is because the book's text is articulate (For once, let's praise the editors for their often unacknowledged work) that the non-scientist reader can follow the concisely-phrased technical issues; for example the lucid 'Characteristics of the Genus' chapter certainly taxes the brain (as it should), but not because it is turgid! The species descriptions, as always, use a shorthand phrasing that is clear and self-consistent, the component headings being Introduction, Field Identification (very detailed), Voice, Identification in the Hand, Allospecies and Subspecies Taxonomy (where appropriate, which may be more often than you might expect, given the findings during the research for the book), Moult, Age and Sex, General Biology and Ecology, Population Size and Trends, and an Appendix that contains an extensive summary of biometric data. The ease with which the sections can be read whets the appetite for more.

Those with an interest in the Sylvia genus will want to read first about their favourite aspect. For me, subsuming the Parisoma genus into Sylvia on the grounds of morphology, behaviour, vocalisations and mitochondrial DNA sequences is a convincing argument, particularly when the detailed analysis of this evidence reveals that two 'Parisoma species, Brown Sylvia S. lugens and Yemen Warbler S. buryi derive from the Orphean S. hortensis / Arabian Warbler S. leucomelaena group, but the other three, Banded Sylvia S. boehmi, Layard's Warbler S. layardi and Chestnut-vented Warbler S. subcaeruleum, have no close relatives in the genus, although Barred Warbler S. nisoria probably is their nearest relative. Certainly, the calls I have heard and the curiosity I have seen from layardi and subcaeruleum brought Sylvia irresistibly to mind!

The book is a hugely complex undertaking, and it is unavoidable that keen-eyed and knowledgeable reviewers have found points (including production errors) to criticise. However, I think it is more important to try to assess the book in the context of what it sets out to achieve. Accordingly, before writing this review, I listened to many views from birder and professional ornithologist alike. There is but a single complaint, the purchase price of UK£60, but there is general recognition that this is probably a realistic reflection of the outstanding quality of the diagrams, maps and photographs. Even today, UK£60 appears to be a figure that many baulk at (and before you ask, yes, I did buy a copy before I was invited to review it!), given that their budgets often have to cover long-running and expensive series, such as The Birds of Africa and Handbook of the Birds of the World. However, the chief response to the book was one of unanimous praise. Unfortunately, the standards that Sylvia Warblers sets are unlikely to be matched often, because the bird-book publishing world has undergone several major upheavals lately, Pica being taken over by A. & C. Black, Poyser stock being largely sold off to A. & C. Black, Oxford University Press rationalising its titles, and large price increases being in the pipeline.

If you have a fascination for warblers, then buy this book. If you are a birder, refine your skills while appreciating the scientific context, and if you are a scientist, marvel at the contribution that observation has played. If you are both, appreciation of the photography and artwork should be more than enough excuse!

Mike Blair

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