Handbook of the Birds of the World. Vol. 5. Barn-owls to Hummingbirds.—Josep del Hoyo, Andrew Elliot, and Jordi Sargatal, eds. 1995. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona. 762 pp., 76 color plates, 405 color photographs, 756 distributional maps. ISBN 84-87334-25-3. $185.00 (cloth).
Now that volume 5 is published, the Handbook of the Birds of the World is nearly half complete (12 total volumes are projected in the series). For the first time, ornithologists and others interested in birds have all the species of 85 out of 176 families at their fingertips. While all the volumes in this series have been outstanding, what is more remarkable about this volume is that all of the groups included are difficult to study and photograph. Nevertheless, this volume does a fine job illustrating and summarizing the biology of the following families: Tytonidae (barn-owls), Strigidae (typical owls), Steatornithidae (oilbird), Aegothelidae (owlet-nightjars), Podargidae (frogmouths), Nyctibiidae (potoos), Caprimulgidae (nightjars), Apodidae (swifts), Hemiprocnidae (tree-swifts), and Trochilidae (hummingbirds). In addition to covering the species in these families, this volume opens with a good summary by Nigel Collar on factors that may cause bird species to be at risk. In addition, the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) system for identifying threatened species is outlined. In his summary, Collar reminds us that although we may celebrate the fact that all birds of the world can be illustrated and described in a single collection of books, this is possible only because increased human activities have made the habitat of all species at least somewhat accessible.
As in the previous volumes, the spectacular photographs are one of the main attractions of this book. Many of these show the various species in their natural environment and also often illustrate important aspects of their natural history. Standout examples include a Spectacled Owl (Pulsatrix perspicillata) ejecting a pellet, a Bee Hummingbird (Mellisuga helenae) going into torpor, a Sundra Frogmouth (Batrachostomus cornutus) brooding its young, and an Antillean Crested Hummingbird (Orthorhyncus cristatus) with its wings spread, illustrating details of the molt of its secondary feathers. In addition to the photographs, the book includes color plates that range in quality from good to outstanding. All of them do an excellent job of illustrating species differences as well as sexual dimorphism and in some cases geographic variation. Interspersed with the color plates are standardized accounts for each species including information on taxonomy, subspecies, distribution, descriptive notes, habitat, diet, movements, and conservation status. Perhaps as important as the information included in these accounts are the gaps in our knowledge that the accounts identify. Each family included in this book also has a well-written essay summarizing the general biology of members of that family.
In evaluating the usefulness of this book for scientific research, I must echo a criticism of previous reviewers of this series and point out that citations are not incorporated within the text of either the family summaries or the species accounts. This makes it extremely difficult to use the Handbook series as a starting point for other research. For example, the family summary of Trochilidae provides specific data on site fidelity for several species of hummingbirds (p. 520). At the end of the Trochilidae account is a general bibliography of 179 references (without titles), any of which could be the source of this information. One could search through the main reference list at the end of the book (which provides titles) with the hope of identifying the relevant papers. However, such a search would be incredibly time-consuming and still might not reveal the relevant sources. The authors of the family and species accounts obviously have compiled this information when writing the accounts, and it is unfortunate that it is not incorporated in the book itself. If space is a concern, color plates for each family could be arranged together, followed by all the species accounts for that family. So far in the series, color plates and species accounts are interspersed, resulting in many partially or entirely blank pages. I would prefer to have all the color plates of species in each family together anyway, as this would allow easier between-species comparisons in plumage.
Despite this shortcoming, the many attributes of this volume and all the other volumes in this series make it well worth the purchase price. Anyone who is serious about birds should have access to this series.