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A Bird List with Pictures: Why?

A review by Rick Wright

HBW and BirdLife International Illustrated Checklist of the Birds of the World, by Josep del Hoyo and Nigel J. Collar

Lynx Edicions, 2014-2016

2 volumes, 1916 pages—hardcover

ABA Sales / Buteo Books HBWCSET

In their preliminary remarks to this tally of all the world’s birds, the authors take the compilers of earlier lists to strident task for what we might call a lack of transparency:

Checklists of birds of the world are not particularly strong on introductions…. The modesty with which they have announced themselves to the world is notable. There are usually some extremely simple statements of intent, usually some explanation of the taxonomy followed and associated issues, and various items of house-keeping related to such matters as ranges and sources; and then the list begins.

True or not, fair or not, no one would level the same accusation at Josep del Hoyo and Nigel J. Collar, who preface the two volumes of their own checklist with a total of almost 75 quarto pages of prose explaining—justifying—the taxonomic principles behind the thousands of decisions they were obliged to make in producing the list. Just a scant half dozen lines, however, are devoted to the question that arises before the reader has even opened the book: Why should a work like this be illustrated in the first place?

It wasn’t that long ago that nearly all bird books were global, their subject not the birds of a country or a continent but the planet’s entire known avifauna. In a time before photography and largely before public museums, the engravings in early systematic works were the only source of visual information available to the “birding” public. For example, John Ray’s 1676 edition of Francis Willughby’s Three Books of Ornithology—the first truly modern systematic list of birds of the world—was illustrated by 77 plates, each depicting as many as nine species; seventy years later, George Edwards would prepare 189 watercolors to accompany his Natural History of Birds. In France, Mathurin Brisson’s 1760 Ornithology, treating nearly 1500 taxa worldwide, was accompanied by 261 plates depicting some 500 individual birds. His rival the count de Buffon illustrated his monumental Natural History of the Birds with nearly a thousand engravings, prepared by a team of more than 80 artists and technicians.

Reading those illustrated lists and handbooks was an experience entirely unlike that of consulting what would ultimately become the authority for all bird lists, the Systema naturae of Carl von Linné, the zoological portions of which went through thirteen editions between 1735 and the end of the eighteenth century. Starting in 1748, those editions proudly proclaimed themselves “illustrated with copperplate engravings,” but the ornithological images in the Systema never comprised more than a single plate showing a representative head, foot, or wing for each of the Linnaean orders. I have never seen a copy of any edition in which these engravings were colored. In function and in execution, the single bird plate is completely ancillary to the text, from which it is separated in the seventh edition, for example, by more than 200 unillustrated pages. The simple pictures make no claim to illustrate species, but merely provide a reference and a reminder for the terms used in the ordinal summaries; the real work—naming, counting, and diagnosing species—takes place in the text, which is concise almost to the point of bleakness. Illustrations would only distract the reader from Linnaeus’s point, the relentless demonstration of nature’s system.

Such extensively, even lavishly illustrated works as Brisson’s or Edwards’s not only tolerate but invite a more discursive, less direct kind of use. Flipping from text to image, birders and ornithologists find their attention seduced by the picture of an odd or attractive bird on the plate, and soon slip into not simply consulting the work but reading it, letting the pictures guide them to species they had perhaps not even known existed.

But it was the less colorful Linnaean tradition that proved the way of the future. Not all of the world checklists of the nineteenth century were exclusively textual; for example, some of the finest ornithological illustrators in history contributed plates to the Catalogue of Birds in the British Museum, published in 27 volumes over the entire last quarter of the century. Those plates, however, appealing as many of them are, were never intended to illustrate every species—they are devoted instead to the depiction of a few newly described taxa, often with the type specimen itself sitting as model. Most such works of the past two hundred fifty years, including the great Birds of the World by James Peters and his colleagues and successors, have been published without illustrations; some have tick boxes and blank spaces for the use of birding listers, but most are serious reference works designed for taxonomists and historians. With no pictures to draw us deeper into the text, the user’s “reading”—if it can be called that—of Peters, Clements, the excellent Howard and Moore, is centrifugal; these checklists are essentially taxonomically ordered indexes leading outward to the descriptions and authoritative accounts they cite, and are meant themselves to be laid aside as soon as they have served that important but limited purpose.

The very title of the new Illustrated Checklist announces a return to the older, more colorful model. Incredibly, these two large volumes contain pictures of the adults of virtually every extant and recently extinct avian species and a vast selection of well-marked subspecies. Most of these images are taken over from the species accounts in the sixteen volumes of the Handbook of the Birds of the World, but hundreds—representing newly recognized species and species not adequately illustrated in the Handbook—have been painted anew for the Checklist.

At an average of approximately ten species per plate, the figures are not especially large. The most lavishly dimensioned, at a good 9.5 inches, is the male lyre-tailed nightjar, while the ostriches stand 3.5 inches tall and the bee hummingbird an inch and a quarter. The birds on most plates are drawn to a single scale, but it is impossible to avoid a visual jolt when a single opening depicts, for example, a dozen gigantic turacos and five diminutive loons, or when a page turn leads from tiny skuas and jaegers to great hulking auklets.

The reproduction of the paintings on the printed page is breathtakingly good, such that even the smallest figures preserve important feather-level detail. There is little to quibble with here as to the accuracy of the paintings, and many are nothing short of beautiful on the page. The small maps beneath each species image mar the plates only slightly—and are often helpful in quickly distinguishing among a page full of near lookalikes.

It is captivating to have so many attractive pictures of so many birds in one place. Captivating—literally so, as the images draw the user in ever deeper. The facing-page text to each plate reinforces the centripetal, universalizing intention of the Illustrated Checklist. The only citations on these pages leading to an outside source are to the Handbook of the Birds of the World; no bibliographic information is offered for the published authorities for species and subspecies names, which are identified only by author and date. Where the text relies for one detail or another on a specific source, the entry in the volumes’ bibliography is indicated by a superscript number so tiny and pale as to require a magnifying glass.

To observe that the text is self-contained is not to suggest that it is not useful. Given the constraints of space, the couple of column-inches devoted to each species offers a fair amount of information. Each mini-account is headed by the bird’s scientific and English names, with a note where the nomenclature used here differs from that in the full species entry in the Handbook; French, German, and Spanish vernacular names are also listed. The species’ conservation status according to the IUCN Red List is indicated by the usual abbreviations, from LC (“of least concern”) to EX (“extinct”).

For polytypic species, the authors list each supsecies along with the author and year of description (but again, there is no bibliographic pointer to the original publication). Colored bullet points link the subspecies into groups, where appropriate; each such group is assigned an English name, some traditional and others newly coined for the purpose. Geographic ranges are described at the subspecies level, often in notable but admirably concise detail and sometimes including a brief indication of preferred habitats.

The most extensive, and for most readers the most interesting, section in each text entry is the taxonomic notes, in which the authors mention such matters as recent name changes, the extent of geographic variation, and relationships to other species. This is also where the authors present their arguments for a number of taxonomic splits they make—many of which represent departures from other taxonomic authorities.

Splits and lumps, no matter which authors or scientific bodies are carrying them out, are an expression of a species concept, a standard for what makes one group of organisms sufficiently different from all others to be labeled a distinct “kind.” Most birders have heard of the biological species concept and the phylogenetic species concept, but there are, or have been, many others put forth over the centuries. Del Hoyo and Collar invoke a concept that I—and, I am willing to bet, most of us amateur birders—had not encountered before, by which species are identified by “quantitative criteria” including mensural characters, plumage, and voice. These differentiating features were set forth in a paper published in 2010 by Joseph A. Tobias and colleagues (among them Nigel Collar), and are referred to in the Illustrated Checklist as the Tobias criteria.

Those criteria and their application have been the subject of devastating criticism in the scientific literature. For the purposes of this review, I would point out only that the Tobias concept as invoked here appears to rely on the dubious assumption that all species differ to essentially the same degree from their closest respective relatives, and that that degree can be “objectively” measured.

The implementation of the Tobias criteria in the Illustrated Checklist involves numerically scoring the differences shown by similar taxa in biometrics, vocalizations, plumage and bare parts, and ecology and behavior; sympatry and hybridization are also scored. Some groups, such as the swifts and some shearwaters and albatrosses, are not susceptible to such scoring, and here the Checklist simply adopts the classifications used in other works.

Where the Tobias criteria are applied here, the process seems oddly retrograde, with its focus on phenotypic characters and its preoccupation with how visually distinct two taxa must be to “count” as separate species; objectivity, it seems, is obtainable using a scheme that recalls the mechanical, calculatory methods of classification that were abandoned three quarters of a century ago when the typological species concept yielded to more modern, more subtle approaches to the history and evolution of bird populations. There is a certain sterile elegance to these methods, but I was reminded again and again as I read of such venerable, thoroughly artificial attempts at classification as Jonathan Dwight’s careful laying out of the juncos a full century ago.

The results here include the surprising resurrection of several “species” an entire generation of birders has never known. Among the North American woodpeckers of the genus Colaptes, for example, the Red-shafted and the Yellow-shafted Flickers are back as distinct species; the justification offered in the taxonomic notes is purely visual, adducing the well-known plumage differences between “pure” individuals of both kinds. A consistent application of the same criteria would separate even more erstwhile species, but such highly distinctive forms as the Blue Goose remain (quite properly) “lumped.” A casual leafing through will reveal many other cases of surprising splits and unexplained lumps, and not a few instances—the Arctic Herring (Smithsonian) Gull, for example—where recourse is suddenly had to the modern molecular studies the authors treat so dismissively in the introduction to their first volume. (The tone is sharper in the second volume, where the widespread criticism of the first is responded to in terms downright aggressive; it does little to captivate the innocent reader’s benevolence to find the authors rebuking one of their earlier collaborators for his “benighted” taxonomic views.)

Some of these splits require the coining of new English names. Del Hoyo and Collar set forth a series of onomastic principles covering capitalization, hyphenation, and the use of eponyms. Their resolve to replace “wholly inappropriate” vernacular names with more delicate labels is admirable, but appears to have faltered when confronted with such traditional names as the Hottentot Teal.

These taxonomic peculiarities make it unlikely that the new Illustrated Checklist should serve anyone, birder or professional ornithologist, as a nomenclatural authority. For that, we have the publications of the American Ornithological Society; the Clements/eBird taxonomy; the indispensable Howard and Moore, now by Edward Dickinson and Van Remsen; and of course the continually updated IOC World Bird List, which includes a marvelous online concordance to other world lists including the Illustrated Checklist.

But none of those so invaluable works has pictures. Any and all of them will be taken more seriously, by birders and scientists alike, but none of them exercises the visual enchantment of the Illustrated Checklist. While other world lists are much more likely to find their way to the wood or the pixels of your desktop, the two massive volumes of the Illustrated Checklist, like its great forebears from the days before the Linnaean triumph, are guaranteed to awaken memories and inspire dreams—just as important for most of us as the latest and most authoritative taxonomy could ever be.

Recommended citation:

Wright, R. 2017. A Bird List with Pictures: Why? [a review of HBW and BirdLife International Illustrated Checklist of the Birds of the World, by Josep del Hoyo and Nigel J. Collar]. Birding 49.5: 70-72.

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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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