Working for birds in Africa

The Birds of Africa Vol. 8: The Malagasy Region

Tue, 07/08/2014 - 13:41 -- abc_admin
Roger Safford and Frank Hawkins. London, UK: Christopher Helm. 1,024 pp, 63 colour plates including one of extinct birds and 15 of vagrants, maps of vegetation, national parks and protected areas, species distribution maps, tables and line drawings. ISBN (hardback, print) 978-0-7136-6532-1, (e-book) 978-1-4081-9049-4.
pp 112-114

This final volume in the eight volume Birds of Africa (BoA) series is a magnificent multi-authored work, scholarly, comprehensive and edited to a uniform standard of easy-on-the eye, excellently presented texts. But before its praises are sung in detail, permit a historical digression. 

In the earlier, biennial, week-long BoA meetings at Academic Press, London, during a period when the original concept of a three-volume work gradually extended to seven volumes, the desirability of an eighth book on the avifauna of Madagascar and its associated islands was repeatedly discussed. Publication of the seven volumes (Brown et al. 1982, Fry et al. 1988, 2000, Fry & Keith 2004, Keith et al. 1992, Urban et al. 1986, 1997) was protracted over 22 years, and at the time when it was becoming increasingly apparent that ‘Madagascar’ was quite beyond the capabilities of the BoA team as then constituted, the names and Malagasy researches of Roger Safford and Frank Hawkins were becoming increasingly well known. That was in the early 1990s. Safford and Hawkins were encouraged by Andy Richford of Academic Press to embark on what ultimately became a colossal enterprise, and soon ‘Africa’ and ‘Madagascar’ were proceeding along slightly different paths. BoA was traded to Christopher Helm in 2002; two years later BoA 7 (which its authors had by then come to think of as the final volume of the series: Fry et al. 2004) was published under Nigel Redman’s capable direction.

At first sight BoA 8 is in the same companion format as vols. 1–7, the jacket with bird portraits against the familiar risen sun, the same fonts, spine and frontispiece logo. But the main text layout differs substantially from that of the rest of the series, as befits an avifauna that is so distinctively different from mainland Africa’s. Page height is 5 mm less than in BoA 1–7; the two columns of text per page have greater line width and spacing, and the distribution maps are presented differently (necessarily so, on account of the Malagasy region’s numerous far-flung islands and archipelagos). Endpapers are the shocking pink of the breasts of the mainland’s Carmine Bee-eaters Merops nubicus - much lovelier on the bird than in the book!

It is no wonder that this tome has had such a long incubation period. It has evolved over a period of exponentially increasing interest in, and consequent knowledge of, the Malagasy region by visiting and home-grown birders, photographers, ornithologists and other specialists. Because of the unusually high degree of endemism and massive habitat destruction, the region is recognised as one of the world’s critical biodiversity hotspots, and it has amongst the highest conservation priorities globally.

Long and informative as the introductory sections are, a review of this remarkable region’s ornithological exploration is unfortunately missing. However, the geological history, geography, climate and vegetation are mapped and discussed at length, island by island: Madagascar, Seychelles, Comoros, Mascarenes, and the many ‘outer islands’, rich in seabirds, in the Mozambique channel and east of Madagascar. We learn that the Seychelles micro-continent rifted from India c.64 millionyears ago (MYA) and that other islands are of volcanic or coralline origin. Separation of Seychelles and Madagascar from Africa started c.160 MYA; the distance between Madagascar and Africa was reduced by falling sea levels 45–26 MYA. Avian biogeography and evolution are addressed at length, with plenty of tabulation. Of 254 resident Malagasy species (other than seabirds), the geographical origin of half can be safely inferred: 84 are from mainland Africa and 33 from Asia. The three vasa parrots Coracopsis are of Australasian origin and the three blue pigeons Alectroenas may be too. Of the two Malagasy families that have undergone classic radiation, the 21 species in 15 heterogeneous genera of the endemic vangas (Vangidae) are of either Asian or African provenance, and the 11 species in eight genera of the endemic tetrakas and similar ‘warblers’ (Bernieridae) originated in mainland Africa. Madagascar itself is endemic-rich but species poor, the poverty discussed but ill-understood. Other endemic Malagasy families are mesites (Mesitornithidae), the beautiful ground rollers (Brachypteraciidae), Cuckoo-roller (Leptosomidae) and asities (Philepittidae), plus the extinct elephant birds (Aepyornithidae).

What wonderful birds! What a magnificent book about them! Roger Safford and Frank Hawkins are the principal authors, editors and compilers of a compendium ‘based on the consolidated efforts and knowledge of field workers, scientists, birders and other observers’, no fewer than 58 of whom are co-authors. They have been given full reign to write species accounts at whatever length is needed to provide exhaustive details under the headings of Distribution (accompanied by large bicoloured range maps for the 382 regularly occurring species), Description (of every subspecies, with weights and measurements), General Habits, Food, Breeding Habits (as studied in the region, with some information from mainland Africa for shared birds), and an informative and up-to-date final section on Status and Conservation. The last four sections are particularly heavily referenced.

The admirable colour plates, by John Gale and Brian Small, encompass 47 near the front of the book of regular occurring birds, with a 48th of extinct species, and a group of 15, of vagrants, near the end. All major plumages and distinctive subspecies of regular species are portrayed. Style is similar to the plates in Birds of the Western Palearctic and of another acclaimed work, the Handbook of the Birds of the World, with birds in profile, unidirectional, most images numbered, identified in a legend at the foot of the plate. It sometimes takes a moment to work out which is what - for instance, the eight images (seven numbered) of Yellow-bellied Neodrepanis hypoxantha and Common Sunbird-asities N. coruscans in Plate 34. I have found it helpful to enclose the various images of each species in pencil boundaries. It is good but sad to see the portraits of extinct birds in Plate 48, including four parrots, two starlings, two rails, two pigeons (the Dodo Raphus cucullatus of Mauritius and Solitaire Pezophaps solitaria of Rodrigues) and a huge elephant bird, one of 7–8 species of Mullerornis and giant Aepyornis, all of Madagascar.

The reviewer is not conversant with Malagasy birds (apart from a 1976 visit to Seychelles and Jeff Watson’s Seychelles Kestrel Falco araeus project), and if there are any factual errors or questionable assertions in the book, he has failed to spot them. The work exudes authority in every sentence and is apparently quite free of the shortcomings of earlier BoAs (Fishpool 2001, Leonard & Demey 2006). To give a taste of species texts: in a five-page account the endemic White-throated Rail Dryolimnas cuvieri is ‘believed to be close to Lewinia of Australasia’, has a race throughout Madagascar lowland and up to 2,450 m and another on Aldabra which is flightless; sings in duet and also has a ‘solo song...of increasing loudness and complexity, continuing for up to 4 min’; forages ‘...while wading, turning stones and probing...sometimes submerging head’, kills crabs ‘with powerful blows from bill’, shakes geckos and skinks in its bill and beats them against the substrate, and ‘reportedly gleans ectoparasites from Aldabra Giant Tortoises [Aldabrachelys gigantea]’; does not have helpers at-the-nest as formerly thought; has 12 ‘formal behavioural postures and displays’ which are described and illustrated with line drawings; and the Aldabra race is of much
interest ‘as the last surviving flightless bird in the Malagasy region (many such species occurred on at least Mascarenes and Madagascar but are now extinct...overall density of 1.5 birds/ha in open scrub and 3 birds/ha in dense scrub’ with a total Aldabra population after birds reintroduced to Picard have ‘reached equilibrium, expected to be c. 13,500’.

Finally, there are 92 pages of References to original scientific descriptions, Bibliography and Indexes. The bibliography cites no fewer than 1,340 references.

What a monumental work. What a magnificent achievement, the authors, collaborators and publishers are to be warmly congratulated.

Brown, L. H., Urban, E. K. & Newman, K. 1982. The Birds of Africa. Vol. 1. London, UK: Academic Press.
Fishpool, L. D. C. 2001. Review of The Birds of Africa. Vol. 6. Bull. ABC 8: 142–143.
Fry, C. H., Keith, S. & Urban, E. K. (eds.) 1988, 2000. The Birds of Africa. Vols. 3 and 6. London, UK: Academic Press.
Fry, C.H. & Keith, S. (eds.) 2004. The Birds of Africa. Vol. 7. London, UK: Christopher Helm.
Fry, C. H., Urban, E. K. & Woodcock, M. 2004. All The Birds of Africa. Bull. ABC 11: 59–66.
Keith, S., Urban, E. K. & Fry, C. H. (eds.) 1992. The Birds of Africa. Vol. 4. London, UK: Academic Press.
Leonard, P. & Demey, R. 2006. Review of The Birds of Africa, Vol. 7. Bull. ABC 13: 231–233.
Urban, E. K., Fry, C. H. & Keith, S. (eds.) 1986, 1997. The Birds of Africa. Vols. 2 and 5. London, UK: Academic Press.

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