By Richard Sale
HarperCollins, 2016; hbk, 594pp; many colour photographs
ISBN 978-0-00-751141-9, £59.99
A new New Naturalist volume involving birds is almost always a joy and this book is no exception. It is extremely well presented, with colour photographs throughout (many taken by the author) and numerous high-quality colour figures and graphs. We should expect nothing less given the asking price.
It is, in every sense, an in-depth treatment, stretching to almost 600 pages, the bulk of which cover the four British breeding species in separate chapters – essentially four mini-monographs. The rest of the book is taken up by introductory chapters covering the falcon tribe, a summary of population trends and status for the British species, and a detailed account of the use of vision and flight characteristics by falcons when hunting. This last chapter contains some fascinating new insights, including the early results of the author’s own research into hunting behaviour, based on impressive high-tech tags fitted to falconry birds. Falcons, apparently, do not always fly directly towards their prey for reasons that are explained in some detail. By way of a clue, I’ll reveal that fossil ammonites and Romanesco broccoli are deployed as part of the explanation.
I thought that the technical and mathematical aspects were overdone in a few places, particularly in the chapter on hunting where the author’s training as a physicist comes to the fore. Elsewhere, although the text is always readable, there are times when the sheer volume of detailed information presented, from many different studies around the world, threatens to swamp the reader. These sections would have benefited from summaries of the key, take-home, points from the various strands of research, and greater use of tables in order to limit the number of facts and figures within the main text.
Overall, this is an authoritative, comprehensive and well-produced account of the British falcons. It’s perhaps not a book that many will read through from start to finish, but it provides an excellent source of reference as well as a book to enjoy dipping in and out of. It is highly recommended.