A review by Keith Betton
Waterfowl of North America, Europe, and Asia, by Sébastien Reeber
Princeton University Press, 2016
656 pages, $45—hardcover
This is the latest in the series of Helm Identification Guides, which includes such great titles as Robins and Chats, Woodpeckers of the World, and Owls of the World—and those in just the past two years. The ducks, geese, and swans have been covered before by Helm, in Steve Madge and Hilary Burn’s Waterfowl: An Identification Guide to the Ducks, Geese, and Swans of the World, the third title in the series, published in 1988. That guide described and illustrated every waterfowl species known. The new Waterfowl, in comparison, covers just the birds of the Holarctic—North America, Europe, and Asia—home to 84 of the 170 or so species in the world.
Relatively unknown outside of France, Sébastien Reeber has worked for the Société Nationale de Protection de la Nature since 1994 at the Lac de Grand-Lieu, where he leads the bird monitoring program. His life is very much about waterfowl. He is a member of the editorial board of the leading French journal Ornithos, and has served on the French Rarities Committee since 2006. The creation of Waterfowl was an enormous task, and I was stunned to realize that not only did Reeber write all of the text, but he also painted all of the illustrations and supplied some of the photographs. Reeber’s achievement is a tour de force.
The book weighs three pounds, making it a reference work rather than a field guide, but it is bright, colorful, and easy to navigate. The introductory pages explain how the book works. The 16 pages that follow are devoted to taxonomy and systematics, avian topography, molt and plumages, aging and sexing, and the huge topic of hybridization. That last aspect is one in which Waterfowl really excels. Many authors are wary of discussing any hybrids other than those most commonly seen, but some 100 regularly encountered hybrids are comprehensively covered here.
A work like this always raises the question of nomenclature. Fortunately, in the case of waterfowl, there is relatively little variation in the nomenclature used by the major world checklists. Reeber has not followed any single authority here, but simply uses the names he prefers.
Surprisingly, the geographic scope of the book is unexplained, but it is important to note that it does not cover the entire Asian continent. Species found only in the Indo-Malayan, Sundaic, Wallacean, and Philippine regions are not covered, although those areas are shown on the distribution maps for species that winter there. The same is true for those species that winter in Africa. The Crested Shelduck is included because, although it is possibly extinct, there were unsubstantiated reports from China in the 1980s. Perfectionists will note that the West Indian Whistling-Duck is omitted despite records from Florida, Texas, and Virginia.
The 72 color plates, gathered together into a separate section, mostly depict birds on the water, although geese and swans are shown standing; for each species, there is at least one image of a bird in flight. Every species is illustrated in many images—16, for example, devoted to the Common Eider—and the plates comprise no fewer than 920 individual paintings all told, an impressive tally.
Each plate faces a page of captions, which identify plumages and molts using terms from the modified Humphrey–Parkes system familiar to many ABA birders.
The most extensive section, taking up almost 450 pages, is the detailed species accounts, covering taxonomy, specific and subspecific identification, determination of age and sex, geographic variation, measurements, voice, molt, and hybridization. There is an assessment of distribution and population, including the status of each species in captivity. This part of the book is very well illustrated with some 650 color photos, almost all taken in the wild. The photos are captioned with useful information, including the date and location of each image.
Reeber is conservative in his approach to the Cackling Goose, recognizing four subspecies, and the Canada Goose (seven). In contrast, he admits his astonishment that most authorities lump the four major populations of Brant. There are fairly detailed discussions of the latest taxonomic approaches to the white-fronted and bean-goose complexes, and to the geographically variable Common Eider. In common with most European records committees, Reeber splits the Eurasian and Green-winged teal and the White-winged and Stejneger’s scoters.
Each species account concludes with a list of references, which are also included in the full bibliography of 1,400 publications. The bibliography is followed by an index to illustrations of around 100 known hybrid combinations; there are 13 examples given for the Mallard, from the familiar Mallard x American Black Duck to the surprising Mallard x Wood Duck.
So will this book overtake Waterfowl: an Identification Guide as the prime guide to the family for birders? In North America, I think the answer has to be a resounding “yes.” The level of detail Reeber provides on plumages goes far beyond any other resource I have seen. But the fact that half of the world’s wildfowl species are excluded means that the older book will remain essential.
As a book reviewer, I am always wary of works that have been created entirely by one individual. On this occasion, such caution is misplaced. This is a tremendous piece of work that raises the bar for those who plan to follow a similar path in the future.
– Keith Betton is Vice President of the African Bird Club, Vice President of the British Trust for Ornithology, and council member of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. He is co-author of the book Behind the Binoculars (Pelagic Publishing, 2015), which features interviews with acclaimed birdwatchers from across the U.K. A long-timed member of the ABA, Betton has seen over 7,700 species of birds in 100 different countries.
Betton, K. 2016. A New Classic for North American Waterfowl and Their Watchers [a review of Waterfowl of North America, Europe, and Asia, by Sébastien Reeber]. Birding 48 (2): 68-69.