Lynx Edicions, Barcelona, 2010; hbk, 880pp, 61 colour plates, 495 colour photographs, 614 maps; ISBN 978-84-96553-68-2; Subbuteo code M19935 £185.00 The marathon is entering the final straight. This is the penultimate volume in the monumental HBW venture that is scheduled to conclude later this year after two decades of peerless publication. Volume 15 covers the Ploceidae (weavers), Viduidae (whydahs and indigobirds), Estrildidae (waxbills), Vireonidae (vireos), Fringillidae (finches), Drepanididae (Hawaiian honeycreepers), Peucedramidae (Olive Warbler) and Parulidae (New World warblers). From a superficially Western Palearctic perspective the only family of interest would appear to be the finches, with marginal interest in the vireos and New World warblers, representatives of which have occurred in the Western Palearctic as vagrants. But few birders are that insular nowadays and there is much of interest to be gleaned from the accounts of the other families, including the monotypic Olive Warbler Peucedramus taeniatus found from southwestern USA to Nicaragua. The weavers of Africa and Asia construct some of the most elaborate and complex nests in the bird world while the whydahs and indigobirds, which brood-parasitise estrildids, are fascinating examples of co-evolution. And the Hawaiian honeycreepers are a sobering case study of evolution in isolation that has become an ongoing series of extinctions. Unusually for HBW, there is a plate of extinct honeycreepers within the main species accounts, the eight species illustrated complementing a further eight that appeared in Errol Fuller's foreword to HBW Vol. 7 (2002) that described extinct birds of the world. Of the remaining 23 honeycreeper species, at least 18 are threatened and a third of those may already be extinct. Appropriately, the foreword to this volume is a 55-page essay by four BirdLife researchers (Stuart Butchart, Nigel Collar, Alison Stattersfield and Leon Bennun) entitled 'Conservation of the world's birds: the view from 2010'. This is a timely overview (2010 was the UN's International Year of Biodiversity) that lucidly summarises the myriad threats to avian biodiversity but also recounts some of the gleams of light among the gloom, the success stories (e.g. White-headed Duck Oxyura leucocephala in Spain and Kirtland's Warbler Dendroica kirtlandii in the USA) set against the ongoing global decline in bird populations. The foreword is comprehensive and up to date, taking the reader from deforestation for palm-oil production to climate change and to the newly identified hunting threat to Spoon-billed Sandpipers Eurynorhynchus pygmeus in Myanmar. But there is hope. BirdLife has costed recovery plans for Critically Endangered species: for the Hawaiian Crow Corvus hawaiiensis it would be $14m over five years. If the same figure was spent on all Critically Endangered species across the world, the bill would be $2.7bn. A huge sum but, so the authors inform us, it amounts to what the USA spent every four days during the war in Iraq... From this daunting, if not depressing, account of the challenges confronting global bird conservation, one turns with justifiable anticipation to the family accounts. Within these pages is a riot of colour and range of adaptations that remind us once again why birds are the flag-bearers for the natural world and its survival. While the plates are a prerequisite of any handbook, and those in HBW 15 are of a consistently high standard (the artists are Norman Arlott, Hilary Burn, H. Douglas Pratt, David Quinn, Brian Small and Tim Worfolk), it is the photographs that elevate HBW to another plane. The 500 photos in Vol. 15 not only illustrate many species rarely (if ever) photographed, but crucially they portray characteristic behaviours that define the species under review. The photos of weavers constructing their nests are particularly educational as are those of the resultant structures, such as the Social Weaver's Philetairus socius colonial construction that can weigh up to one tonne! Another photo illustrates how this successful African species spreads to treeless habitats by utilising telephone poles and electricity pylons to form linear colonies. Staying in sub-Saharan Africa, the whydahs and indigobirds are an intriguing family which are either extravagantly adorned with tail plumes (male whydahs) or virtually indistinguishable from each other (indigobirds), yet both sides of the family are brood parasites of a specific host in the waxbill family. This would suggest that the Vidua parasites have evolved alongside their estrildid hosts. But DNA analysis does not support this; instead it seems that there have been quantum leaps, or 'host shifts' by female viduids choosing a new waxbill or firefinch host nest in which to lay her eggs. Male birds reared in that nest mimic their foster parents' song and females similarly reared by the 'wrong' host will respond to them. The seedeaters in this volume most familiar to a Western Palearctic audience, the Fringillidae, have also developed a wide diversity of forms and lifestyles in their adaptive radiation across the world (apart from Australasia). And there are plenty of enigmas within this family too, many beautifully photographed. My especial favourites are Himalayan specialities: Gold-naped Finch Pyrrhoplectes epauletta, Scarlet Finch Haematospiza sipahi and the rosefinches Carpodacus. One enigma that remains within the Fringillidae in HBW taxonomy is Przewalski's Rosefinch/Pink-tailed Rosefinch/Pink-tailed Bunting Urocynchramus pylzowi that lives on the Tibetan Plateau. As a consequence of its different bill structure and possessing a tenth primary (unlike all other finches), many authorities assign this bird to its own monotypic family. HBW taxonomy largely follows the major authorities, although it is now an established authority in its own right and not afraid to plough its own furrow. Vol. 14 upgraded Italian Sparrow Passer (domesticus) italiae to species status, for example (as did that other iconic publication, the Collins Bird Guide second edition). As the HBW project has unfolded over the past 20 years, taxonomy has undergone several major revisions. And many new species have arisen through taxonomic decisions or actual discovery during this period. My fervent hope for Vol. 16 is an appendix that contains a definitive world checklist in 'HBW order'. But that may be beyond the scope of the final volume and we can expect supplements and updates either in hard copy or online in the years to come. Like every single volume of HBW reviewed in this journal, there are insufficient superlatives to commend it. Roll on the final volume! Adrian Pitches Buy this book from the British Birds bookshop which is run by Subbuteo Natural History Books This means that 5% of all sales generated by British Birds subscribers, whether it is books reviewed in the journal, featured on its book page or listed on the Subbuteo website, will be paid to British Birds - and will directly support the production of the journal. To browse the British Birds bookshop, please click here
Issue 4

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