The World of Birds

Published on 11 November 2014 in Book reviews

World of birdsBy Jonathan Elphick

Natural History Museum, 2014

Hbk; 608pp; over 1,000 colour illustrations and diagrams

ISBN 978-0-565-09237-5 – Subbuteo code M24177 – £40.00

Birds have exercised a fascination for scientists and lay people alike for centuries. They have been observed, studied, admired and on occasions worshipped by humankind. They have inspired music, art and literature. And they have given rise to the most extraordinary range and flow of publications, which continue in spate. But wherever birdwatchers are on the spectrum from garden watchers through to professional ornithologists, they need at least two books on their shelves which they can turn to for reliable information: a decent field guide and a big book of general reference. Jonathan Elphick has now provided us with the best modern work in the latter genre. This is the definitive ‘everything you ever wanted to know about birds’ book. It covers not only questions you might have been afraid to ask, like which bird has the longest penis (it turns out to be the Lake Duck Oxyura vittata of southern South America), but also a host of others that may never even have occurred to you, like which species of birds have the fewest and largest numbers of feathers (the Ruby-throated Hummingbird Archilochus colubris and the Bewick’s Swan Cygnus columbianus, respectively). But this volume is far more than an inventory of such facts, fascinating though many of them are. These are just thrown out like sparks from this dazzling account of what we now know about this most popular of animal classes.

The work is divided into two main parts. The first consists of a series of thematic chapters summarising for the general reader our current knowledge about almost every aspect of bird biology and behaviour – their evolution, anatomy, flight, diet, breeding and social behaviour, distribution, habitats and migrations – and concluding with a chapter on the interactions between birds and people and the consequent (and increasingly urgent) conservation issues. This part is structured not as a dry encyclopedic treatment of separate A-Z entries, but as a continuous narrative, and one written with sensitivity and style.

The second part is a systematic survey of all the families of birds existing today (195 on Elphick’s count (though, as he acknowledges, the precise number and their taxonomy are still controversial), with boxed panels listing the main features of each family. I know of no other single-volume source where all this basic information can be accessed so easily or is presented so attractively. You drop in with a specific query and then find yourself happily staying around to browse. The work is fully illustrated throughout with over 1,000 superb images, mainly commissioned from David Tipling, and supplemented with explanatory maps and diagrams prepared by the Natural History Museum of London, which has sponsored and published this work. Finally, there is an excellent reference section at the back with a glossary, a guide to further reading, lists of websites and detailed indexes of topics and species. It’s the complete package. Two books in one.

As you would expect from this combination of author and publisher, the information is fully up to date and has been thoroughly researched and checked. I am chagrined to have so far found only one trivial mistake in this very large volume. The page design and layouts have been done with great care and imagination, and text and illustrations are generally very well integrated. But just occasionally one has the feeling that pictures have been introduced for purely ornamental reasons, leaving the author with the task of then writing a relevant caption. In one or two cases too, the sizing of the illustrations seems inappropriate: one would ideally have liked larger images of the wonderful camouflage of the Double-banded Plover Charadrius bicinctus on a New Zealand shore (p. 79) and the massed Red Knot Calidris canutus at their high-tide roost (p. 137); on the other hand, the Red Grouse Lagopus lagopus scoticus (p. 143) perhaps gets a little more than his fair share of space, whatever one’s views on Scottish independence.

Jonathan Elphick will already be well known to readers of this journal as the author or co-author of such successful books as The Birdwatcher’s Handbook (2nd edn 2001), Birds: the art of ornithology (2004, 2nd edn 2014), The Atlas of Migration (2007) and Birdsong (2012). He was also the principal researcher behind two other major compilations, Birds Britannica (2005) and Birds and People (2013). The present work weighs in at over 400,000 words and is wholly his own work, a summation of his long and distinguished career in ornithology.

Jeremy Mynott

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