Lynx Edicions, 2011; hbk, 893pp, 77 colour plates, 496 photographs, 766 distribution maps; ISBN 978-84-96553-78-1 Subbuteo code M19932, £185.00

For me, one of the most memorable birding moments of the early 1990s was the realisation that HBW was going to be the ultimate bird book in the world – in fact the ‘book’ that you would keep if all others had to go. Many of us had wanted such a thing, but little did we expect an unknown publishing house to deliver this product – and now the doubters are looking rather silly. HBW is the first work ever to illustrate and deal in detail with all the living species of bird in the world. Over the 16 volumes, HBW has brought in over 200 specialist writers to publish 12,555 pages and describe 9,903 species, supported by 1,030 plates created by over 30 artists, together with over 1,000 photographers who contributed some 6,644 photographs!

The quality has remained high throughout and this latest volume concludes all of the bird families in the world. This is also the last of the nine passerine volumes and (as in the case of the last non-passerine volume) it comes with a practical plastic-coated reference card. This is designed to act as an index to all of the families covered in these nine volumes, enabling readers to locate any of the families in this second part of the series.

Taxonomically, this volume is potentially one of the most interesting because the families featured have been the subject of disagreement for many decades. The latest molecular analyses clearly indicate that traditional classifications have placed several groups of species in the wrong families. That said, HBW has generally taken a conservative approach, placing species into families where birders would traditionally expect to find them. As a consequence, there are a number of species in this volume that many people feel should be treated differently, and the Emberizidae would look very different had the IOC approach been taken. Within the Thraupidae there are many species that research has shown should have been included in the earlier volumes. This is inevitable unless research is to stand still, and Lynx has plans for an online solution. So to devalue the project on this aspect would be wrong given the really high quality of the production.

The families featured here are Tanagers (Thraupidae, 283 species), Cardinals (Cardinalidae, 42 species), Buntings and New World Sparrows (Emberizidae, 326 species) and New World Blackbirds (Icteridae, 111 species). Each of these benefits from an extensive chapter explaining the family’s traits, and these have been written by Steven Hilty, Ronald Orenstein, James Rising and Rosendo Fraga respectively, with additional input on the species accounts by David Brewer, Alvaro Jaramillo, José Luis Copete, Steve Madge and Peter Ryan.

Many people follow HBW’s taxonomy and for them the various splits are the most important aspect of the book – so they will be interested in the decision to recognise three new species split from the ‘old’ Savannah Sparrow Passerculus sandwichensis. These are Belding’s Sparrow P. guttatus, Large-billed Sparrow P. rostratus and San Benito Sparrow P. sanctorum. Also newly recognised are four forms of what has traditionally been known as Fox Sparrow (the nominate race becomes Red Fox-sparrow Passerella iliaca, and the splits are Slate-coloured P. schistacea, Thick-billed P. megarhyncha and Sooty Fox-sparrow P. unalaschcensis).

Other splits I recorded (with the original species often adopting a new name) are: Lilian’s Meadowlark Sturnella lilianae (split from Eastern Meadowlark S. magna), Pale Baywing Agelaioides fringillarius (from Greyish Baywing A. badius), Bronze-brown Cowbird Molothrus armenti (from Bronzed Cowbird A. aeneus), Moriche Oriole Icterus chrysocephalus (from Epaulet Oriole I. cayanensis), Fuertes’s Oriole Icterus fuertesi (from Orchard Oriole I. spurius), Amazonian Oropendola Psarocolius yuracares (from Para Oropendola P. bifasciatus), Scarlet-rumped Cacique Cacicus microrhynchus (from Subtropical Cacique C. uropygialis), Northern Mountain Cacique Cacicus leucoramphus (from Southern Mountain Cacique C. chrysonotus), Nightingale Finch Nesospiza questi (from Inaccessible Finch N. acunhae), Sage Sparrow Artemisiospiza nevadensis (from Bell’s Sparrow A. belli), House Bunting Emberiza sahari (from Striolated Bunting E. striolata), Olive Tanager Chlorothraupis frenata (from Carmiol’s Tanager C. carmioli), Northern Hepatic-tanager Piranga hepatica and Highland Hepatic-tanager P. lutea (from Lowland Hepatic-tanager P. flava), Yellow-tufted Dacnis Dacnis egregia (from Black-faced Dacnis D. lineata), Bolivian Mountain-tanager Anisognathus flavinucha (from Blue-winged Mountain-tanager A. somptuosus), Lemon-rumped Tanager Ramphocelus icteronotus (from Flame-rumped Tanager R. flammigerus), Piura Hemispingus Hemispingus piurae and Western Hemispingus H. ochraceus (from Black-eared Hemispingus H. melanotis) and White-browed Hemispingus Hemispingus auricularis (from Black-capped Hemispingus H. atropileus). A number of these are not currently split by the other major checklists, but all are supported by recent research and are likely to be fully recognised before long.

These chapters are huge in their own right – that for the Cardinalidae runs to over 41,000 words, with 89 photographs, for example. This is a lot of text for just 42 species! Each family chapter has sections on systematics, morphological aspects, habitat, general habits, voice, food and feeding, breeding, movements, relationship with man, status and conservation and general bibliography. The plates are accompanied by species texts, which generally run to around 1,500 words, with information on names (alternatives are given, as well as French, German and Spanish names), taxonomy, subspecies and distribution and descriptive notes, plus specific information on the more general topics covered in the main family chapter. Each species has a colour distribution map.

Each of the past volumes has featured an essay on a specific issue, and in this last volume the editors invited Anders Pape Møller to give an overview of the ways that climate change is affecting birds. This is a young science and amazingly the first paper to address its affect on birds appeared only in 1991, while almost 300 papers on the subject were published in 2010 alone! Having explained the effects of climate change – such as altering birds’ migration dates, distribution and nesting season – this chapter looks at the conservation challenges that are created by it.

If you thought you had finally bought your last volume of HBW, you need to think again. Plans are underway for an additional volume providing a comprehensive index to the entire series by both scientific and English names for all taxa. This will also feature all of the 55 species described after the closing dates of their respective volumes. Beyond that there are plans to make the whole series available online on a subscription basis. That will present the perfect opportunity for Lynx to reshuffle the pack and present all the birds of the world in an order that can change every year. Everyone involved in the project should feel proud of what they have achieved.

Keith Betton

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