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A New Look at New Guinea

A review by David Bishop

Birds of New Guinea, 2nd ed., by Thane K. Pratt and Bruce M. Beehler

Princeton University Press, 2016

528 pages, softcover

ABA Sales / Buteo Books 13578

Birds of New Guinea: Distribution, Taxonomy, and Systematics, by Bruce M. Beehler and Thane K. Pratt

Princeton University Press, 2016

668 pages, hardcover

ABA Sales / Buteo Books 14584

I should disclose at the start that I am listed among the contributors to both of these important new volumes. My review is nonetheless meant to be critical and balanced, and I hope that it is helpful to readers who, like me, find the tropics to be an endless source of fascination.

When I first went into the field in New Guinea in January 1977, under the tutelage of the great Harry Bell, there was no field guide available at all, just Austin L. Rand and E.T. Gilliard’s 1968 Handbook with its simple keys and mere handful of illustrations. The publication ten years later of the first edition of Bruce M. Beehler, Thane K. Pratt, and Dale Zimmerman’s Birds of New Guinea was a massive step forward, and the ragged state of my original field copy of the guide is a true testament to its value. Now Pratt and Beehler have prepared a brand-new second edition, for all intents and purposes a completely new production that is essential to anyone with even the remotest interest in the continental island of New Guinea and its satellites.

The new field guide is almost twice the length of its predecessor, and thanks to the higher-quality, more robust paper used for this edition, quite a bit heavier. The increase in size mirrors the increased interest in New Guinea birds over the past three decades, an interest due in no small part to the success of the first, 1986 edition. Birding, especially international birding, has come of age since the 1980s, and the much greater depth of our knowledge about New Guinea’s birds is reflected in the new guide.

Those who keep lists—and don’t we all, to some extent?—will be pleased to see that the field guide carries out splits in a number of taxa. Some, such as the split of the Flame and Masked Bowerbirds and splits among the Megapodius scrubfowl, are also made by other authorities, while others appear to be the authors’ innovation. The White-bibbed Fruit-Dove is here considered to comprise three species, and the Spice Imperial Pigeon and Papuan Lorikeet are treated as each containing two species. The oddly named and seemingly little-known Oya Tabu White-eye of the D’Entrecasteaux cloud forest is also accorded full-species status, as are the Broad-billed and Campbell’s Fairywrens.

The pitohuis (among them the famous “poison birds”) have been redistributed across different families, and the Variable Pitohui is split into three species. The massively differentiated group of birds formerly known as the Golden Whistler has been split into many different species, two of which, the Baliem and the Louisiade Whistlers, occur in the area covered by the field guide. At the same time, the authors continue to treat as single species the Purple Swamphen, the Collared Kingfisher, and the Red-bellied Pitta, all of which have seen substantial splitting in other recent works.

More striking than these changes in species status are the re-assignments of some birds to different genera or even families. Some of these changes will already be familiar to some readers, especially those who manage to keep up to date with the seeming tsunami of biochemical analyses. Others, including me, may well be thrown off by certain of what seem like quite radical taxonomic shifts.

Never fear. In their volume Distribution, Taxonomy, and Systematics, Beehler and Pratt provide clear and detailed explanations of every change made in the field guide, an effort deserving of the heartiest congratulations. This massive volume, essentially a thoroughly annotated checklist to the region’s birds, is an appropriate tribute and successor to Ernst Mayr’s great List of New Guinea Birdspublished by the American Museum in 1941. At nearly 700 pages, the new book is nearly three times as long as Mayr’s pioneering publication, and deals with almost 150 species more. Beehler and Pratt’s volume differs, too, in having a substantially more extensive introduction, including what is arguably one of the clearest and most succinct discussions ever published of the parlous subject of species concepts and their application. Their discussion of subspecies is equally refreshing and informative, and indicates a clear way forward for future students of New Guinea’s birds.

Each family and each genus are given a succinct introduction, including a discussion of its relationship to other groups. The species accounts are beautifully and clearly laid out, with full bibliographic citations to the original descriptions. The first paragraph is an overview of the species’ distribution and morphology. This is followed by a detailed diagnosis of each subspecies and its geographic range, the product of what must have been a mind-boggling amount of research.

Distribution, Taxonomy, and Systematics concludes with a vast bibliography, a very useful gazetteer, and a thirty-five-page index; I can find no fault with any of those very welcome tools. I have used the index extensively in preparing an app for the sounds of New Guinea birds, and I can personally attest to its completeness and high quality.

For many birders, the plates in the field guide will inevitably be their first port of call. Unfair as it is, field guides stand or fall on the quality of their illustrations. In my opinion, the illustrations in Pratt and Beehler’s new edition are quite simply superb. Most of them are brand new, a relief when some guides today are illustrated with the same old cardboard cutouts derived from the plates in the Handbook of the Birds of the World. Two artists are responsible for most of the paintings, and I greatly appreciate that their styles here are so similar, making it easier for the user to match her field impressions to the illustrations in the book.

It is a plus when the plates in a field guide are also works of art, but the primary function of the book is to help the observer identify birds in the field. The new edition of Birds of New Guinea succeeds admirably here. The species texts are clear and to the point, offering birders the best information available to identify the bird in front of them.

In keeping with what appears to be the trend, the range maps are opposite the plates. They are necessarily not very large, but they are clear and concise, conveying the basic information needed. With the continued growth of eBird, it will be very interesting to see how the maps in field guides evolve in the future, or even whether print field guides continue to include them.

My only criticism of the field guide, and I believe it is an important one, has to do with the description of vocalizations. Notoriously, tropical forest birds are far more often heard than seen, making songs, calls, and other sounds of critical importance in locating and identifying them. Having learned from Jared Diamond to describe bird sounds in terms of pitch, number of notes, phrase structure, duration, etc., I find myself irritated by transcriptions such as “uwee, uweeo or deeyu,” as the call of the Garnet Robin is rendered here. Such “descriptions” are entirely subjective, and are almost inevitably interpreted to mean one thing to one reader and something completely different to another. And if you happen to be a native speaker of Dutch, or Spanish, or Mandarin…. Diagrams representing bird song graphically, such as used here for the Vogelkop Whistler, for example, are less vague, more translatable, and likely to be more useful to the reader.

It cannot be overstated how fortunate today’s birders are to have these two new books, which are as appealing as they are useful. Thane Pratt and Bruce Beehler deserve a salute for the incredible amount of time, scholarly effort, and sheer energy they expended in producing these tomes. With its remarkable birds of paradise, glorious pigeons and doves, and startlingly colorful kingfishers, New Guinea has always been a birder’s and ornithologist’s dream, and these two volumes make these far-off lands an even more exciting, and more accessible, destination.

With 40 years’ experience exploring New Guinea and Southeast Asia, David Bishop is one of the region’s most well-regarded field ornithologists. Bishop coauthored A Guide to the Birds of Wallacea and has written numerous scientific papers. He is the CEO of David Bishop Bird Tours and a regional editor for eBird.

Recommended citation:

Bishop, D. 2017. A New Look at New Guinea [a review of Birds of New Guinea, 2nd ed., by Thane K. Pratt and Bruce M. Beehler, and of Birds of New Guinea: Distribution, Taxonomy, and Systematics, by Bruce M. Beehler and Thane K. Pratt]. Birding 49.4: 67-68.

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Birding Book Reviews publishes Birding magazine's reviews on line. Book reviews are edited by Rick Wright.
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