Six down, one to go! It is now 18 years since the first volume of this work appeared but only three since volume 5, a consequence, we are told, of the publishers 'having put their foot down and insisted that operations be accelerated.' Which is good news for all those who read this journal.
Volume 6 treats 19 families, from the Picathartidae to the Buphagidae, and in so doing covers, among others, the babblers, shrikes, sunbirds and starlings, 324 species in all. At 724 pages it is the largest volume yet, being some 50 pages longer than the previous one, which was the largest then produced. The greater size is not immediately apparent, however, because one of a number of innovations in this volume is a change in paper to a thinner, higher quality, gloss art paper that is a pleasure to handle. Different printers have been used, too, for both text and plates, resulting in a marked improvement, particularly in the quality of the plates, which are crisp and, I suspect, faithful to Martin Woodcock's original artwork. There have been changes, too, in the plate legends. The latest design, the third to be used, has the full page facing the plate now reproducing the plate itself, faintly and in black and white, across which pale pink overlays indicate to which illustrations the names printed in them apply. Whether this is more effective than the previous system, which showed mere silhouettes of the birds with grey overlays, I am unconvinced, but it is certainly more pleasing. Greater attention has been shown to the production of the distribution maps too. This hasn't resulted in any changes of design but is apparent in many cases - not all - in the precision with which ranges have been mapped. Rather than generous swathes of territory being covered in red, more effort has here been made to plot actual localities or well-defined areas, as appropriate, and show disjunct populations as being such.
All these improvements presumably ensue from the aforementioned increased downward pressure from the publisher's corporate foot, which has also resulted in changes in the editorial process for this volume. These see Stuart Keith assume responsibility for virtually all of the sections on 'voice' (treated at greater length in this volume) and 'field characters' while David Pearson has written most of the 'description' sections. The lion's share has, however, fallen to Hilary Fry who has compiled the remaining sections for most of the included species. As in previous volumes, the help of a number of specialists of particular groups has been called upon to compile some of the species accounts. These include, but are not limited to, Adrian Craig and Roger Wilkinson for some of the starlings and Michael Irwin, some of the sunbirds.
Martin Woodcock probably had to buy a entire new range of colours for his palette in order to illustrate this volume. At the very least it must have come as a welcome change, after the browns and greys of the previous volume (Cisticola, Bradypterus, Acrocephalus, Muscicapa etc.) to turn to sunbirds, bush-shrikes and starlings. The metallic colours of the sunbirds and starlings are often, it appears to me, among the hardest for artists to capture accurately or pleasingly. I think here, however, MW is to be congratulated on his sunbirds in particular, which are of an extremely high quality and amongst the best I have seen of this group. The only minor cavil I have is the, I suppose unavoidable, obligation to show the pectoral tufts. Field experience of the group can easily lead one to the impression that these are figments (pigments?) of artists' imaginations.
It is also a treat to be shown such confusing genera as Illadopsis, Speirops and Dryoscopus all on one plate for the first time, rather than to have to juggle two or more different books or, worse, to have to try to deduce the appearance of a bird from a series of statements which start with the words 'differs from the previous species in...', especially when the same formula of words also appears under the previous species!
From earlier volumes of Birds of Africa one has come to expect one or two taxonomic innovations in treatment of taxa and this one doesn't disappoint. The most obvious here is, I suppose, the (tentative) transfer of the Ethiopian Bush-Crow Zavattariornis stresemanni from the crows to the starlings. This on the basis of its similarities with the Wattled Starling Creatophora cinerea - size, proportions, stance, bare skin around the eye, foraging behaviour, nest structure and pearl-grey and black plumage. Others include the transfer of the Rosy-patched Shrike, conventionally placed in Rhodophoneus, to the bush-shrikes of the genus Telophorus, and splitting Red-billed Helmet-Shrike Prionops caniceps into two, with rufiventris (plus mentalis) from Lower Guinea being separated, as the Rufous-bellied Helmet-Shrike, from the Upper Guinea (including Nigeria) nominate form.
More extensive changes have, following work by Michael Irwin, been adopted in sunbird taxonomy. Recent 'conventional' treatment has been to ascribe all African sunbirds either to Anthreptes or, the majority, to Nectarinia. Irwin has, on the basis of detailed studies of biological and morphological characters, including those of bill structure, proposed that African taxa hitherto placed in Anthreptes be divided among three genera and those formerly in Nectarinia seven. To illustrate the changes with Anthreptes, removed from it to the genus Hedydipna are collaris (Collared), platura (Pygmy), metallica (Nile Valley) and pallidigastra (Amani), while Fraser's or Grey-headed Sunbird becomes Deleornis fraseri. The placement of fraseri within a monotypic genus does not seem at all unreasonable, as it does not behave like any other sunbird I know. As the anonymous author (Deleornis having apparently been omitted from the list of authorship on page vii) points out, its behaviour, which includes foraging as an insectivore within mixed-species flocks in forest understorey, is much more that of a warbler (Sylviidae) than a sunbird. This means that one is able to follow and watch it for relatively extended periods, something 'normal', volatile sunbird behaviour usually renders impossible.
At the species level, there are - thankfully - relatively fewer changes. However, the Olive Sunbird in West African forests that I have hitherto known as Nectarinia olivacea, here becomes Cyanomitra obscura because, in addition to being moved to this restored genus, it has been separated from the nominate form of eastern and southern Africa. Lastly, the Purple-banded Sunbird, here Cinnyris bifasciata, has been considered specifically distinct from the form tsavoensis, which is here raised to species level as the Tsavo Purple-banded Sunbird. This arrangement, admitted to be provisional, is made mainly on the basis of differences in the width of the eponymous purple band, broad in bifasciata, narrow or lacking in tsavoensis.
One further split to mention is the separation of the Velvet-mantled Drongo Dicrurus modestus (together with coracinus and atactus) of the Guineo-Congolian forests from the Common Drongo D. adsimilis of the surrounding savannas and beyond. In areas where two or three species are possible. I have always found the drongos a frustratingly difficult group to identify, an admission which has sometimes induced pitying looks from others. However, having examined the family account and plates here, I feel reassured - they still appear a group difficult to identify in the field! The number of taxonomic notes at the end of the description section stating that a form may belong to that species etc. reinforces my belief, while the distribution map for Square-tailed Drongo D. ludwigii, in Upper Guinea at least, informs me that others do not find them so easy to identify either. The map indicates that ludwigii occurs throughout much of the forest zone of Cote d'lvoire, Ghana and Nigeria. This is incorrect: atripennis is here the species of the forest interior while ludwigii is in galleries etc skirting true forest. This is also an instance of where the text and map do not coincide; the map would have us believe that ludwigii occurs throughout Ghana, except the extreme north, whereas the text states only that it is 'local and common in S Ghana, north to Yegi, sporadic Mole Game Reserve'.
Another error is in the account of Monteiro's Bush-Shrike Malaconotus monteiri. Here, Eddie Williams' recent suggestion' that M. monteiri and M. gladiator may be conspecific isn't really given a fair shake, I feel, probably in part because he has been misquoted. The species account states that he found M. monteiri in the Bakossi Mountains of Cameroon when the point was he didn't! The birds he saw were M. gladiator, but their calls were those attributed hitherto to monteiri.
This error was noted partially because Williams' purported observation of M. monteiri in Bakossi in the 'Range and Status' section is referenced. Which raises the question, why are some such localities here so referenced and others not? Another question, what determines the sequence of subspecies treatment in the 'Description' section? It appears to be neither geographic, alphabetic nor, as the nominate is not always the first, historical. I think we should be told.
However much the editors have striven to avoid omissions and inaccuracies (another example of the latter is the eye colour of the gonoleks which, in Laniarius mufumbiri and L. erythrogaster at least, is shown in the plate as being too yellow; it should be white or nearly so), these are inevitable in a work of this scale and one which covers what remains, for the most part, a very imperfectly known avifauna. Consider, after all, how many iterations it has taken guide books of the birds of Europe to achieve a level of accuracy with which the majority of informed and demanding users are happy. It is no surprise therefore that one can here find fault in places (and so provide stimuli for further investigation, advances in understanding and papers to this journal!). It would, however, be very wrong to dwell on these and thereby ignore or denigrate the enormous amount of scholarship, skill, determination, expertise and sheer hard work that has gone into the production of this book. It is stunning and absolutely essential for anyone with a serious interest in the subject. My congratulations to all concerned and let's have Volume 7 no later than 2003, please. The trouble is, as a result of the time interval and the increase in standards and depth of coverage as the series has progressed, Volume 1 is now looking seriously outdated and outclassed.