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1 July 2007 Roberts Birds of Southern Africa, 7th ed
Emil K. Urban
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The following critiques express the opinions of the individual evaluators regarding the strengths, weaknesses, and value of the books they review. As such, the appraisals are subjective assessments and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the editors or any official policy of the American Ornithologists' Union.

P.A.R. Hockey, W.R.J. Dean, and P.G.Ryan, Eds. 2005. Trustees of the John Voelcker Bird Book Fund, Cape Town. 1,296 pp., 81 color plates, 2 text figures, 3 tables, numerous maps. Standard Edition ISBN 0-620-34053-3. Distributed by Wild Dog Press, 3 Palm Springs, 100 Johannesburg Road, Lyndhurst 2192, Gauteng, South Africa ( Cloth, Rand (ZAR) 795.00.—Since the publication of Roberts’s The Birds of South Africa in 1940, “Roberts” has been a favorite for anyone interested in birds of southern Africa. In the 20th century, this book went through five editions (McLachlan and Liversidge 1957, 1970, 1978; Maclean 1985, 1993). These editions retained a similar format, enhanced in the later editions by some new plates, sonograms, and keys. All were about the same size, and served thousands of bird enthusiasts as both a field guide and a handbook. Because of the appearance of several field guides and the accumulation of much new information about birds of southern Africa in the 1980s and 1990s, those involved in the preparation of the seventh edition decided to make major changes to its format. This edition became a comprehensive handbook with a different taxonomic sequence, entirely new art work, enlarged species accounts, detailed reference sections and the use of common English names approved by the International Ornithological Congress (IOC). The seventh edition is large, more than twice the overall size of the sixth edition, weighs 5.25 kg, and has nearly 1,300 pages.

Roberts Birds of Southern Africa begins with two forewords, acknowledgements by the John Voelcker Bird Book Fund, a section on how to use the book, and and a table of contents with the book’s new sequence of orders and families. The main body of the book is divided into the following sections: Introduction; Families and Genera; Species Accounts; Escapees, Unconfirmed Records and Incorrect Reports; References; and Indexes.

The Introduction starts with essays on the history of southern African ornithology, on the Percy FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology, and on Norman Lighton, the artist for the first Roberts, along with the reproduction of his frontispiece used in the first edition. Following these essays is a major section on evolution and classification of birds in which the editors present their rationale for adopting a sequence based largely on Sibley and Ahlquist’s (1990) “tapestry of avian evolution,” with some modifications. Many major changes have been made, including placing penguins, shearwaters, and petrels in the Order Ciconiiformes at the end of the nonpasserines. Some are still tentative, and one wonders whether a more conservative approach to changes in the taxonomic sequence would have been preferable, given that this handbook will be used for years to come.

The Introduction includes biogeography of southern African birds, with maps of habitats and recent political boundaries, tables on endemism status of southern African birds, changes to common names of birds and splits of species since the sixth edition, a glossary of terms, and an illustrated glossary of the external parts of birds.

The section on Families and Genera is new and excellent. It covers common structure, biology, and behavior of families and genera found in southern Africa and recent taxonomic changes with their citations. Also, it has black- and-white sketches of a representative of each family and derivations of generic names.

The 951 species accounts, prepared by more than 50 ornithologists, make up the bulk of the book. Soon after each account was completed, it became available on the FitzPatrick Institute website ( so that anyone who wished could comment on an account before it was published. The accounts vary from 500 to about 2,000 words, each beginning with the Roberts number from the sixth edition, the page reference to the color illustration of the species, and a small black-and-white sketch of the species. Typically, only the IOC-approved English name is given; common names in other selected languages are available on the FitzPatrick Institute website. Along with the original scientific name are comments on its derivation. The maps, updated from Harrison et al. (1997), have been expanded to include Mozambique north to the Zambezi River and ranges of subspecies. The accounts are much enlarged from those in the sixth edition and include new subjects such as confusing species, movements, conservation, social behavior, and molt. The accounts are divided into Identification, Voice (no sonograms, but many details on behavior), Distribution, Population and Demography (total numbers, breeding age, ringing records, life span), Movements and Migrations, Habitat, General Habits, Foraging and Food, Breeding (courtship behavior, nest, laying dates, eggs, incubation, development and care of young, and breeding success), Conservation, Molt, Geographic Variation (with subspecies), Taxonomic Note (if there are differing views), Measurements, and References. The account ends with the name of the author. These accounts cite facts in text with superscripts, and then list them with author and date at the end of the account. Details of these citations can be found at the end of the book, in the large References section. The accounts are informative and written in a concise style, though the amount of information varies somewhat, reflecting the many authors involved.

Eighty color plates are scattered among the species accounts. All are new, and larger than the plates in the sixth edition. A team of seven bird artists from southern Africa, with widely ranging styles, prepared them. Opposite each plate are shadow images of the birds with the species’ names and page references to the accounts. The use of these images is new and welcome. The plates are artistically pleasing, some more so than others. Although they add to the overall attractiveness of the book, most are not especially helpful in bird identification. Often only a breeding male or female is illustrated, and to find details on other plumages one must go to the text account.

Following the species accounts is “Escapees, Unconfirmed Records and Incorrect Reports,” another new section. Each entry covers range, where and when recorded in southern Africa, comments on plumage, and reasons why the species was not accepted. All records are cited in text with superscripts, and details on the citations are included at the end of this section. Next is the large References section (pages 1145–1278). Under the entry for each species are complete details of all citations in the species account. The book ends with a list of sponsors and indexes for scientific and common English names.

In any work of this kind, especially one with many contributors, users will find errors and omissions. The editors are aware of this and have structured the FitzPatrick Institute website so that one can report errors and omissions and see those already reported.

I have a few concerns about the book. It is not easy or convenient to handle a book this size. Also, I would prefer to see all plates numbered and listed in the table of contents along with the names of the artists who painted them. It would help if the plates were included in the index as well. The only place to find reference to an illustration is at the start of the species account, and the only place to find the page of the species account is in the index. Also, short of checking at the end of each account, one cannot discover which accounts were written by which author.

The References section at the end of the book is impressive, but to include all the references required small print, probably smaller than most readers would wish. Because of its many pages, the References section is difficult to use. To find a reference, one first must consult the species entry in the index, where only two pages are listed: one for the account, the other for the references associated with it. Listing this second page in the abbreviated reference section at the end of a species account would have been helpful. Also, the inclusion for many species of the same major references results in much duplication and increases the number of pages in the References section. A separate general section at the beginning of the References, listing the major references, would have saved considerable space.

This is an impressive book, and it will be a key book for southern Africa and sub-Saharan Africa for years to come. Everyone associated with its production are to be congratulated. All serious birdwatchers and professional ornithologists interested in Africa should have a copy in their libraries.

Literature Cited


J. A. Harrison, D. G. Allan, L. G. Underhill, M. H