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Allen Jeyarajasingam
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The Birds of the Thai-Malay Peninsula. Volume One (Non-passerines).—David R. Wells, with contributions from Philip. D. Round and Uthai Treesucon. 1999. Illustrated by Philip Burton, Geoffrey Davison, R. David Digby, Dana Gardner, Peter Hayman, Ian Lewington, David Quinn, and Chris Rose with woodcuts by Dana Gardner. Academic Press, London. 684 pp., 69 color plates, regional maps, species distribution maps, and woodcuts. ISBN 0-12-742961-1. $99.00 (cloth).

The Malay Peninsula (the tip of Tenasserim [Myanmar], Peninsular Thailand, Peninsular Malaysia [Malaya], and Singapore, including all associated islands) is part of the avifauna-rich Sunda biogeographical sub-region, with a total of 690 species. The urgent need for a comprehensive, up-to-date, and well illustrated handbook of the birds of the Malay Peninsula has long been awaited by ornithologists and birdwatchers alike. This volume has finally filled in the niche long left vacant by the now out-dated handbook series, The Birds of the Malay Peninsula Vols. I–IV by H. C. Robinson and F. N. Chasen (1927–1939) and Volume V by Lord Medway and David R. Wells (1976). This comprehensive volume is up-to-date, giving a systematic and detailed treatment of the 385 non-passerine species occurring or known to have occurred in the Malay Peninsula up to 31 December, 1995 (with some additions in 1996), and represents a milestone in Malaysian, Thai, and Singaporean ornithological literature.

Sibley and Monroe in their landmark publication, Distribution and Taxonomy of Birds of the World (Yale University Press, 1990) laid the new taxonomic foundation of the birds of the world based on DNA hybridization studies. The taxonomic sequence of this volume, however, follows mainly the traditional Wetmore or Peter’s Checklist (based largely on morphology) with elements of Sibley and Monroe incorporated. This choice is appropriate as most ornithologists are still familiar with the Wetmore Checklist. The scientific nomenclature and English names to a large extent follow An Annotated Checklist of the Birds of the Oriental Region (Inskipp et al., Oriental Bird Club, Sandy, Bedfordshire, U.K., 1996). There are however a few exceptions. All Picus woodpeckers with yellow fringed nuchal crests are collectively referred to as yellownapes, e.g., Banded (Picus miniaceus) and Crimson-winged (P. puniceus) Woodpeckers are thus referred to as Banded and Crimson-winged Yellownapes, respectively. Brown Hawk-Owl (Ninox scutulata) is called Brown Boobook because of its close relationship with the largely Australasian boobooks of the genus Ninox. Although the author appears to have deviated from the standard accepted English names of those species, his choice of the alternative names are appropriate as they not only accurately describe the species, but also form the basis for moving towards a more standardized and globally accepted set of English names. The inclusion of Malay and romanized Thai names is especially useful for readers in Thailand, Malaysia, and Singapore.

The preamble discusses a brief history of ornithological research in the region, the work of some pioneer ornithologists, the scope of this volume as well as its general objectives, and conservation issues in general. The introductory chapter gives detailed and precise information of the area covered (the Malay Peninsula) including geography, habitat categories, species assemblages and biogeographical background as well as implications for conservation. A gazetteer of all sites in the text is systematically linked to relevant maps in the book. Indexes for scientific names, English names, and romanized Thai names occur at the end for quick and easy reference.

The author has painstakingly and meticulously researched the material for this volume. Much of the sources have been from the author’s personal field research and observations during his 30-year sojourn in Peninsular Malaysia as well as from the examination of museum specimens from a number of sources. Unpublished and published field notes of other independent observers have also been included. These are either acknowledged in the main text or referenced to a rich bibliography of over 800 sources. Past controversial records which appeared in Medway and Wells (1976), the previous authoritative text of the region, are excluded from this volume, including Red-tailed Tropicbird (Phaethon aethereus), Saunders’ Tern (Sterna saundersi), and Wood Snipe (Gallinago nemoricola).

On the average, one species is covered in 1.5 to 2 pages or more, reflecting the detailed information packed in this volume. Species accounts are written in contemporary handbook format and are systematically categorized under subject headings. Group relations is very useful as it shows the close relationship between different species within a genus. The terms commonly used are Free-Standing, Conspecific, and Superspecies, to explain degree of relationship, e.g., Large Green Pigeon (Treron capellei) is Free-Standing, showing no close relationship with its other congeners, whereas Yellow-vented Pigeon (Treron seimundi) forms a superspecies with Sumatran Green-Pigeon (Treron oxyura). Detailed plumage description as well as bare part coloration are given for adults (male and female) and juvenile as well as breeding and non-breeding. A range of measurements is also given. The inclusion of weights where available is especially useful for zoology students and researchers. Under Habitat and Ecology, details of habitat types as well as the altitudinal distribution of the species is given. Under Survival, the known longevity in the wild is given based on retrapping of ringed individuals. Social Interactions gives information on known courtship activities. Under Voice, different vocalizations, as well as circumstances in which they are uttered, are given and explained in detail. There is also current and detailed information on breeding, covering nest, egg and brood, cycle, and seasonality. Under Conservation, the status is discussed in both global and local terms, whether it is now currently threatened or what would be the long term implications on its conservation if suitable habitats are lost. This volume reveals a wealth of new information on the biology of many species and fills in the information gaps present in Medway and Wells (1976).

For each species account, a distribution map is given. Bold lines indicate both current and historical distribution of the species within the Malay Peninsula. The lines are drawn based on currently available data on species distribution, and so may not necessarily show the exact distribution, given that due to insufficient research and observations in certain areas, especially the montane rainforests, the distribution maps may still have gaps. They are however on the whole reliable and it is hoped that this will stimulate people to supplying more up-to-date field observations to fill in these gaps and keep these maps up to date. Question marks (?) on the map indicate unconfirmed sightings. This is definitely one of the stronger points in the book as cartographical representation of the distribution of resident and migratory birds in the Malay Peninsula is almost non-existent, making this volume the only authoritative source.

All but 6 species are illustrated, 370 in full color, and 9 in black-and-white woodcuts. The color plates are all grouped together in the center of the book between pages 296 and 297, and are separate from the main text. This position facilitates quick and easy reference. Being illustrated by eight different artists has resulted in different individual styles. The plates are on the whole excellent with a high standard. The birds are well spaced out with an average of 7–9 species per plate, sometimes more for the smaller shorebirds and seabirds. Most plumage types (adult, subadult, juvenile, breeding, and non-breeding) are illustrated. Where flight patterns are key identificatory features, these are illustrated as in the case of the seabirds, and some raptors, particularly the harriers (Plate 22). Plate 1 for example is very useful because it shows the juvenile plumages of most species of pheasants and partridges, which are rarely ever illustrated. Plate 4 gives good illustrations of the male nuptial displays of some of the pheasants. The works of Chris Rose, David Quinn, Peter Hayman, Philip Burton, and Ian Lewington are among the best in the book. In addition to capturing the correct jizz of the birds, both while perched and in flight, there is also near accurate color as well as attention to detail. Dana Gardner’s works, although lacking the detailed treatment of some of the other artists, accurately show the jizz and color of most birds. There are however some obvious weaknesses in some of the illustrations, e.g., Red Junglefowl (Gallus gallus; Plate 3) lacks the characteristic slim and streamlined appearance, looking rather plumpish, whereas the neck of the adult Purple Heron (Ardea purpurea) (Plate 10) should be slimmer and proportionately longer with a more prominent ‘S’. The plate captions at the foot of the plate should ideally have the number preceding the name of the bird to make reference easier.

Despite the few shortcomings, this is an important textbook because the detailed treatment of each species will be extremely useful in the study of the avifauna of not only the Malay Peninsula but South and Southeast Asia as well. The detailed background information on the physical and biological information of the Malay Peninsula together with the high quality color plates adds to its value. This volume also serves as a forum to address vital conservation issues, which previous publications have had limited success. It will be an ideal addition to the libraries in high schools, colleges, and universities. While a plethora of new publications on the birds of the region continue to flood the market, this volume (and hopefully Volume II—Passerines, in prep.) will establish itself as the most authoritative standard reference work on the birds of the Malay Peninsula for many years to come.—


Allen Jeyarajasingam "BOOK REVIEWS," The Condor 102(2), 476-477, (1 May 2000).[0476:BR]2.0.CO;2
Published: 1 May 2000

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