American Birding Podcast



A New Standard for the ‘Stans

A review by Steve Rooke

Birds of Central Asia

by Raffael Ayé, Manuel Schweizer, and Tobias Roth

Princeton University Press, 2012

336 pages, $39.50—softcover

ABA Sales / Buteo Books 13583



Almost a quarter  of a century after the breakup of the Soviet Union, tourists are flocking to the manmade and natural wonders of the Silk Road. Birders were especially quick to recognize Central Asia’s potential, and Kazakhstan has become a very popular destination in recent years. Up until now, though, we have been hampered by the lack of a good, up-to-date field guide. While V. E. Flint’s 1984 Birds of the USSR was thorough  in its coverage, that book had its limitations, and so we made do with bits and pieces of other guides covering the periphery of the Central Asian region. The new Birds of Central Asia has been long anticipated, and its arrival in the Helm/Princeton series is much welcomed.

Buy It Now! Covering the six “stans”—Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Afghanistan—Birds of Central Asia features 618 species in a relatively slim volume. Constructed on what is now the almost standard field guide format, the book includes the usual introductory chapters, including a brief but useful introduction to the region’s geography and biogeography, illustrated with photos that, if nothing more, serve to demonstrate how  incredibly varied and stunningly scenic Central Asia is. A short section on taxonomy and nomenclature details the authors’ departures from their primary authority in such matters, the third, 2003 edition of The Howard and Moore
Complete Checklist

In the body of the book, the text for each species faces the relevant plate, which is as it should be. Almost every species has a small distribution map giving the reader a reasonably good idea of the bird’s range.

The appendices include a list of old, undocumented, or doubtful records; I am not sure why the Oriental Plover, well photographed in the north of Kazakhstan in 1990, is not included here or described in the main text. There is also a brief discussion of gull identification and of the molts and aging of large raptors.

Overall, Birds of Central Asia is a well-produced, compact guide that lives up to the standard set by Helm and Princeton field guides.

The plates are the first thing anyone looks at in a new field guide. A mix of painters and styles—13 artists are represented here—can compromise the visual unity of a field guide, but Birds of Central Asia maintains a reasonable uniformity across its 143 plates. The quality of the  plates is generally very good; a significant number are taken over from other guides, and some readers will recognize them.

There are a few shortcomings. Some species appear to be very washed out. The illustrations of the Saxaul Sparrow, for example, look very bleached, and do not really convey the smart, snappy appearance of that species, which is much more accurately depicted in the cover illustration. The Wryneck and some of the doves are also unusually pale. In other instances, some of the colors are too strong; look at the very bright red on the grebes, for instance.

I was disappointed to see one of the region’s truly special endemics, the Pander’s Ground Jay, represented by just a small (and out of scale) illustration, almost as if an afterthought. Dwarfed by a huge magpie on the same plate, this species, I suspect, was painted especially for the book and then added to a plate from another source. The text’s account of the ground jay is also disappointingly brief.  Although it does mention the very isolated and hard-to-see Kazakh race ilensis, nothing is said of the plumage differences between the nominate race and the darker, larger ilensis with its more extensive breast mark.

On the first of the sparrow plates, the House Sparrow is much too bright, especially on the cheeks, which are actually quite gray. The female Zarudny’s Sparrow is, to my eye, also much too strongly marked; although the female of this species is patterned basically like the male (unlike her plain North African counterpart),she is much paler and more washed out than shown here. These are small points,  though, in what is generally an excellent collection of illustrations.

These days, after the illustrations, it is the taxonomy of any new guide that is subjected to the greatest scrutiny. In an age of rapid and often radical change, this branch of our hobby inevitably poses challenges for authors—and for us mere birdwatchers as we try to keep up. Birds of Central Asia follows Howard and Moore (2003), with some deviation where the authors found it appropriate. As has long been urged by Central Asian ornithologists, the migratory taxa once assigned to the House Sparrow have now been split as the Indian Sparrow. It is also pleasing to see the Central Asian counterpart of the Desert Sparrow finally accorded full species status and named in honor of the great Ukrainian ornithologist Nikolai Zarudny. This population, which occupies a very restricted range, is in desperate need of the further study that its elevation to species status should encourage.

The Asian Desert Warbler is split from its North African cousins, and the guide includes the recently rediscovered Large-billed Reed Warbler; that species’ breeding range has been placed in the southern portions of Central Asia, but it could be more widespread than currently believed, a good reason for birders to pay closer attention to all those Blyth’s Reed Warblers. The Booted, Sykes’s, and Eastern Olivaceous Warblers are moved from Hippolais to Iduna, an innovation (following Howard and Moore) that may be harder for some of us to come to terms with. The
Indian Golden Oriole, perhaps overlooked by some visitors in the past, is also listed as a full species. Sadly, there is no suggestion of a split for the regional population of the Crimson-winged Finch.

There are some “losses.” Birders who have visited Central Asia in the past will discover that they have “lost” both the Turkestan Tit, placed within the Great Tit complex, and the delightful Yellow-breasted Tit, to be found among the Azure Tits.  Anyone who has birded
the semi-steppe deserts has seen many Lesser Short-toed Larks—or so we thought. Because Howard and Moore assigns the Central Asian taxa heinei and leucophaea not to that species but to the Asian Short-toed Lark, the Lesser does not appear in the book at all, a bit of a shock to those of us who have been entering it on our checklists for the past 20 years. At the same time, the guide’s taxonomic introduction tells us that (frustratingly) unpublished data suggest that heinei and leucophaea are in fact distinct from the Asian Short-toed Lark, either belonging to the Lesser Short-taoed Lark after all—or forming a separate species of their own. In their Birds of Kazakhstan (2007), Arend Wassink and Gerald Oreel call “the status of Asian Short-toed Lark in Kazakhstan…uncertain” and note that “recent trips to the supposed breeding range in Kazakhstan did not result in finding any”; until this complicated situation becomes clearer, it might have been better simply to leave us with the plain Lesser Short-toed Lark.

Birds of Central Asia treats two populations of the Isabelline Shrike as separate species, the Turkestan and the Daurian Shrikes. Over the years, I have seen a bewildering array of Isabelline Shrike plumages in the region, some of which are sometimes referred to as karelini. This guide tells us that such birds are probably the products of hybridization between Turkestan and Red-backed Shrikes, an explanation that I feel oversimplifies the situation: I am not sure that anyone knows for sure the origins of karelini.  Similarly, the treatment of the large gray shrikes will raise a few eyebrows; here too, the book could be accused of simplifying the true picture.

But simplification may, of course, be exactly what is needed in the complex and often confusing world of taxonomy, and perhaps this book is to be applauded for coming down off the fence on some issues—even if it does not happen to land on the side you are on. If nothing else, it will prompt debate.

Whatever your taxonomic views, there is no doubt that this is a valuable and much-needed book, one that very neatly fills a hole in the bibliography of Palearctic birding and has instantly become the standard guide to the region.

Steve Rooke is the Managing Director of Sunbird, and leads tours for that company and for WINGS to Vietnam, Georgia, Cyprus, Central Asia, South Africa, and Ethiopia. Rooke has a wide range of interests outside of birding, not the least of which is cooking.

Recommended citation:

Rooke, S. 2013. A New Standard for the ‘Stans [a review of Birds of Central Asia, by Raffael Ayé, Manuel Schweizer, and Tobias Roth]. Birding 45(2):65.