The Handbook of Bird Identification for Europe and the Western Palearctic.—M. Beaman and S. Madge. 1998. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ. 868 pp., 357 color plates, 625 maps. ISBN 0-691-02726-9. $99.50 (cloth).
This long-anticipated handbook (hereafter “HBI”) is a profusely-illustrated compendium of information on field identification of some 900 western Palearctic bird species and numerous component subspecies. The number of species treated is roughly equivalent to the North American bird species total, and about 400 of them are on the American Ornithologists' Union checklist, giving broad (>40%) applicability to our continent.
Most species accounts are about a half of a two-column page, but occasionally longer—one to one and a half pages for difficult species, e.g., several raptors and gulls, the “Arctic Redpoll” (Carduelis hornemanni), and Blyth's Reed Warbler (Acrocephalus dumetorum). Range maps are adjacent to species text accounts, and plates are found in 13 groups throughout the book, along with numerous other color figures (including many species added after original plates were painted) within the text pages. An introduction describes the plan of the book and of the species accounts, then provides a dense and very useful 17 page primer on the field identification of birds. Numerous paintings here illustrate topography, effects of lighting, aberrant plumages, feather wear, etc.
The main plates illustrate a broad range of plumages and subspecies. Six artists (Hilary Burn, Martin Elliott, Alan Harris, Peter Hayman, Dan Zetterström, and the late Laurel Tucker) contributed paintings, and the results are generally stunning. It can occasionally be hard to tell which figure belongs to which species, as figures are not always logically organized on plates, nor always well labeled. I was frustrated by unlabeled winter flight figures on the Semipalmated/Common Ringed Plover (Charadrius semipalmatus/C. hiaticula) plate, for example, until I realized that the color of the subtle background wash was the key. Even the background color failed me on the Pacific/American Golden-plover (Pluvialis fulva/P. dominica) plate. The raptors are beautifully painted, but the explosion of figures on each plate can be confusing in the few cases (e.g. “Common” and Lesser Kestrel, Falco tinnunculus and F. naumanni) where more than one species is depicted on a page. At times it seems one almost has to know how to identify the bird to know which figure is which on the plate! The new Collins Bird Guide for the Western Palearctic by Mullarney, Svensson, Zetterström, and Grant (HarperCollins, 1999) uses a more logical and standardized plate organization. Closer to home, certain shorebird plates by Alderfer and Mullarney in the 3rd edition of the National Geographic Society Field Guide to the Birds of North America (1999) are exemplary in terms of logical plate organization. Despite the occasional confusing plate layout, the general quality of the artwork is excellent, with difficult groups such as raptors, gulls, chats, and thrushes handled particularly well. I found a number of minor problems with the North American species (trans-Atlantic vagrants), perhaps because these are the birds I know best: the Wilson's Warblers (Wilsonia pusilla, p. 817) are too short-tailed, the red of the male Summer Tanager (Piranga rubra, p. 799) is far too dull, and the Red-eyed Vireos (Vireo olivaceus, p. 794) simply look wrong.
A third to two-thirds of the text for each species is devoted to an “Identification” section discussing distinguishing characters from similar species. Criteria for determination of sex and age in the field are presented but lack the precision to be useful in banding. Most remaining text involves appearance, voice, habitat preferences, and (to a lesser extent) behavior. HBI provides a good overview of geographical variation, and multiple subspecies are often illustrated, but it is by no means a thorough compendium of characters of all named subspecies. Maps show breeding, resident and winter ranges and seem detailed and accurate, as one would expect from the well-studied western Palearctic, although the Lesser Flamingo (Phoenicopterus minor) was inadvertently given a repeat of the Greater Flamingo (Phoenicopterus ruber) map. There is little text information on status and distribution, however, and the book should be used in conjunction with distributional checklists.
This is a thorough and well-executed work, but the reviewer (and potential purchaser) is left wondering about the niche it fills. A book such as HBI is squeezed into a rather small niche in the competitive Western Palearctic identification guide market. Excellent field guides abound (e.g., Jonsson's Birds of Europe published by Christopher Helm in 1992, and the new Collins Bird Guide), many of which are up-to-date, remarkably thorough given the format, and beautifully and accurately illustrated. In addition, there is the encyclopedic treatment of the Birds of the Western Palearctic series (“BWP”), which contains nearly as much identification information as does HBI (and far more detail on plumages, molts, vocalizations, and behavior). The BWP is liberally illustrated, although plates in the older volumes are perhaps below today's standards, and it is available now in a condensed format that, while still massive, is far more portable than the entire nine volume set. Another genre, “An Identification Guide to the [fill in blank] of The World” now covers many bird families and provides extensive identification detail, further compressing the niche of HBI. It is therefore difficult to tell what role HBI will play—at 18 × 25 cm and 2.2 kg it is certainly not designed to be carried in the field. I imagine it is envisioned as that next source one checks (after pocket field guides) upon returning to the car or home; perhaps its strongest point is its inclusiveness—species marginal in the western Palearctic as well as all vagrant species are treated in some detail. Most of the difficult field identification problems covered in the guide have been treated in more detail in papers in journals such as British Birds, Birding World, Alula, and Dutch Birding; HBI does an admirable job, however, of distilling all of that detailed information into a reasonably compact volume.
Ironically, the niche for HBI is considerably less constrained in North America. A new generation of guides at the end of the millennium (e.g., 3rd edition of National Geographic Society guide and the soon-to-be-released Audubon Society Master Guide by David Sibley) should admirably fill the “field guide” niche in multi-dimensional ornithobibliospace, but the North American equivalent of BWP (the excellent Birds of North America series, or “BNA”) is fundamentally different in matters of field identification. Field identification receives cursory treatment in most BNA accounts and there are no color illustrations showing age/sex/geographical variation or comparisons with similar species; most marginal and vagrant species are excluded. Identification information for North American birds at the level of detail provided by HBI is simply not available in any single volume.
North Americans concerned with field identification skills will find much to like in this massive volume, particularly those living along the east or west coasts where Palearctic strays are more regular. Those who travel only occasionally to the western Palearctic will be better served by the latest field guides, but those who are (or long to be) immersed in the western Palearctic avifauna will want to own this volume. University and museum libraries already owning BWP and other major regional handbook series will gain little by adding this volume.—KIMBALL L. GARRETT, Section of Vertebrates, Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, 900 Exposition Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90007, email@example.com