The Directory of Australian Birds: Passerines.—Richard Schodde and Ian J. Mason. 1999. CSIRO Publishing, PO Box 1139 (150 Oxford Street), Collingwood, Victoria 3066, Australia. x + 851 pp., 5 text figures, 40 pen-and-ink drawings, 342 maps. ISBN 0-643-06456-7. US$180.00 (cloth).
This auspicious tome inaugurates a projected three-volume series covering the systematics and geography of Australia's magnificent avifauna. Rich in endemics, radiations, and challenging patterns of speciation, the perching birds of the continent have long deserved a modern, comprehensive analysis. The enormity of the challenge, however, dissuaded everyone except Schodde and Mason. Admitting that a definitive treatment would require decades of additional research, these authors opted instead to provide an inventory of Australian passerine diversity that, however approximate, “gets information out to biologists, environmental planners and managers, and the public now.” They have succeeded admirably by producing a treatise of remarkable scope and sophistication.
The authors dedicated the series “to the collectors of Australian birds for their foundation data;” this volume was dedicated to Julian Ford, Allen Keast, Ernst Mayr and Shane Parker for their pathbreaking research. I commend Schodde and Mason for respecting the labors of past workers who set the stage for their modern analysis. This elaborate tome describes the detailed appearance and presents careful distribution maps for all 726 forms (342 species) of Australian perching birds. At the outset the authors boldly innovate by proposing a new fundamental unit of analysis, the ultrataxon. Defined as “a taxon at the end of any phylogenetic lineage, at whatever rank,” this category thus includes conventional subspecies plus monotypic species. Importantly, the category thereby bypasses much of the controversy and intellectual baggage surrounding subspecies and “phylogenetic” species while simultaneously retaining the biological species concept in which the authors expressly believe. Conservationists and managers can now deal directly with distinctive geographic forms of species without concern for their taxonomic rank. Likewise, birders can travel about listing such regional entities, a significant number of which are recognizable in the field. As Schodde and Mason clearly appreciate, it is important to note that the designation of geographic forms as ultrataxa instead of subspecies still does not obviate the need for their eventual definition or rejection through objective, quantitative appraisal of morphology, color, voice and genes. To that end we can expect in the future many refined analyses of specific systematic and distributional problems for which the present volume will serve as a launching pad.
A total of 35 families of passerines is treated, each introduced and characterized by a 1–3 page account. Highly readable, with strong, tight prose, these introductory sections provide synopses of foraging behavior, habitat use, reproductive biology, social behavior, distinctive morphological and anatomical features, and sequence and number of genera and species. The family accounts also include many pertinent biogeographic comments, notes on departures in taxonomic treatment from other authors, relevant molecular systematic information, and attractive drawings of representative species. I know of no better overviews for the families covered.
The detailed descriptions of all passerine ultrataxa plus a distribution map for each species comprise the heart of the book. Forty-six previously undescribed ultrataxa, all subspecies, are included. The superb, broad-brush maps portray the regional occurrence of each form by distinctive shades of blue or gray. Zones where taxa abut and intergrade are clearly indicated. In serving as the foundation reference for all future systematic investigations of passerine birds in Australia, this book should stimulate a plethora of revisions in which precise specimen localities can be plotted. The authors candidly admit that “the taxonomic conclusions reached here are only as good as the specimen base from which they were drawn, and must be considered provisional for many species because so many geographic gaps still remain in available material.” Let us hope that regulatory authorities will cooperate with future workers, enabling them to obtain the proper material for the necessary systematic-phylogenetic-distributional studies yet to be undertaken.
An invaluable 27-page glossary, divided into three sections, and with 948 entries, follows the species accounts. Included here are terms pertaining to geography, ecology, and the geologic time-scale; taxonomic, genetic, and evolutionary terms; and definitions of morphological and anatomical characters. Each entry is clearly worded and, insofar as I could determine, accurate. Five text figures identify geographic regions and subregions used in the distributional diagnoses of ultrataxa, barriers initiating geographic differentiation, and anatomical features of the humerus and skull in various Australian perching birds. An exhaustive list of 858 references, and indices of scientific and common names conclude the treatise. Such thoroughness illustrates the uncommon level of scholarship and deep quality seen throughout this work. The encyclopedic knowledge, care, and dedication of the authors is evident on every page.
Baby-sized at 6 lb. 4 oz. (2.87 kg), this book does not belong in a backpack; a field guide it is not. Instead, as a detailed reference work of lasting importance, this volume should be on the shelf of every personal and institutional library. Avian systematists and bioresource managers, especially Australian professionals, will find it indispensable for decades. Biologists on other continents can now look enviously at the kind of volume they desperately need, but do not yet have, for their own region.