04/05/2011
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The Status of Birds in Britain and Ireland

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A thorough, up-to-date volume on the avifauna of these islands has long been overdue, the last being published in 1971, so the arrival of this book is welcome. The fact that it has been compiled by two long-serving stalwarts of the British Ornithologists’ Union’s Records Committee, and yet has been published by Christopher Helm, hints at some unhappy wranglings behind the scenes. The authors are now ex-stalwarts of the BOU, while the organisation itself has a collection of modern checklists which includes the likes of Angola, Barbados and Togo, but not Britain – an unfortunate state of affairs.


Irrespective of that, this book very much tows the BOU line for Britain’s birds, and that of the respective bodies for the Isle of Man, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The scene is set for this collective overview with a 23-page introductory section covering geography, vegetation, the ‘structure’ of ornithology in Britain and Ireland (including comments on English names, which are something of a mixture here), evolution and taxonomy, migration and movement, biogeographical affinities and conservation. Some of this is useful background, particularly the outline of progress in taxonomic research.


The meat of the book is the species accounts. While the order of families begins with wildfowl and gamebirds, as is increasingly the case, it descends into unfamiliar territory in the passerines, with tyrant-flycatchers followed by vireos and orioles, then shrikes and crows before kinglets, which are separated from the warblers by tits, larks and swallows, and so on. There may be taxonomic justification for this further rewriting of accepted family groupings, but it makes navigating the book arduous.


Each species (and subspecies where relevant) is summarised in three key paragraphs covering taxonomy, distribution and status. The taxonomy section sets out the rationale for the treatment adopted, but for a general audience the level is pitched high and, unless you’re comfortable with discussion of multivariate and bootstrap analyses, microsatellite loci and haplotype frequencies, the text can occasionally seem impenetrable.


The distribution section is essentially a two- or three-line summary of world range, whereas the status section is a well-distilled summary of mainly current knowledge in Britain, Ireland and adjacent islands. Although largely informative it is much briefer than, for example, the same publisher’s 2005 volume Birds in England, which costs less but has more than half as many pages again just on England (compare BiE’s two and a half pages on Dotterel to half a page here for all of Britain and Ireland).


Strangely, precise dates are omitted for rarity occurrences, so you will have to look elsewhere to find out if the only Green Warbler, on St Mary’s, Scilly, in “Sep-Oct 1983”, stayed for two days or up to 61. All such mega-vagrants are also bizarrely coded SM for scarce migrant, which is patently inappropriate.


Another minor grouch is that referencing within the species accounts is rather arbitrary. Taxonomic entries are typically referenced extensively, but there are few clues given as to sources used in the status sections; accounts of the first British Yellow-nosed Albatross and Red-billed Tropicbird which appeared exclusively in Birdwatch, for example, are omitted.


I have yet to pinpoint the exact number of species regarded as accepted in the authors’ view (“over 580” is the closest I’ve come so far), and also the precise period covered, but pleasingly the book includes an account for the 2008 Yorkshire Amur Falcon (noted as subject to acceptance) and a photo of last year’s Eastern Crowned Warbler, even if one or two other rarities are missing (like the 2008 Norfolk Black Lark).


As an up-to-date summary of avian distribution, status and especially taxonomy for all our islands, this comprehensive book deserves an audience, though with a high £50 price tag it may be rather limited.

Tech spec

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   The Status of Birds in Britain and Ireland by David T Parkin and Alan G Knox (Christopher Helm, London, 2010).

    440 pages, 86 colour photographs.

    ISBN 9781408125007. Hbk, £50.

 
Available from Birdwatch Bookshop


First published in Birdwatch 218:54 (August 2010)