Working for birds in Africa

Pittas of the World. A Monograph on the Pitta Family

Fri, 12/28/2012 - 14:27 -- abc_admin
Johannes Erritzoe and Helga Boullet Eritzoe. 1998. 240 pp, 32 colour plates, several black-and-white photographs. The Lutterworth Press, Cambridge, UK. UK£30.00
pages 71 - 72

Until the publication of Pittas, broadbills and asities (see review in Bull ABC. 4: 140-141), no comprehensive review of the pitta family had appeared since Elliot's A Monograph of the Pittidae or Family of the Ant-thrushes, of which the second edition was published in 1893-1895 (now a very rare and extremely valuable collectors item). This new title, therefore, is only the second monograph dealing exclusively with pittas to have ever been published. It is, in style and method of presentation, more like the classic monographs of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and, given the relative uniformity of many modern-day bird books, struck a favourable note with the reviewer on this basis alone. The book can be considered to comprise three sections: the plan of the book and family introduction; the 30 species and 67 subspecies accounts (two fewer species are recognised here than by Sibley 1996 and Lambert & Woodcock 1996); and the plates and appendices. The family introduction comprises much the greatest part of the first of these sections and discusses a gamut of topics: classification, origin, description, sex ratio, body mass changes in adult birds, colour patterns, distribution and sympatry, geographical variation, movements and migration, habitat, behaviour, vocalisations, food and feeding behaviour, breeding biology, longevity and mortality, moulting and abnormalities, captivity, parasites and diseases, museum diagnosis, hybridisation, status, and conservation. A little-known feature, dusky stripes which appear in many species and is unique to pittas, is described in detail for the first time. Researchers will find this section alone of significant value. Each species is covered in great detail and the accounts are obviously the result of many hours in the museums and ornithological libraries of the western world. In a departure from the trend in other recent monograph series, references are presented within the text as well as at end of each species account, and this, to my mind, is a welcome attribute. A typical species account includes: French, German, Italian and other English names, etymology and synonyms, description (subdivided into adult male, female, nestling, juvenile, immature, bare parts and photographs of live birds), presence of dusky and glossy streaks presented in tabular form, allied species, distribution including a map showing either broad range or, for less widespread and common species, all localities traced by the author, recent records (post 1975), movements, habitat, behaviour, vocalisation, food and feeding behaviour, breeding biology, moulting and abnormalities, captivity, general notes, parasites and diseases, museum diagnosis, subspecies information (including synonyms, range, localities from specimens, identification, size, presented in tabular form, and museum holdings), hybridisation, status and conservation, references, and details of the specimens used in preparing the relevant colour plate. Although it is unclear whether Erritzoe has much field experience of pittas it is unquestionable that his research has been near-exhaustive. Nonetheless, I noticed the occasional lapse. Two of the seven records from Hong Kong of Fairy Pitta Pitta nympha have been missed and no post-1975 records of this species are listed for China, although a review of its status, based on observations in 1984-1996, in the south of the country has recently been published. In addition, the specific name of Necklaced or Blue-banded Pitta P. arquata is incorrectly cited as arcuata, although arquata has precedence. Completing the work are a key to the synonyms and new proposed names, a glossary, appendices listing museum acronyms, pitta species by island and their status on each, world inventories of pitta egg and nest collections, skeletons and fluid preserved specimens, a list of contributors and correspondents, and an extensive bibliography. Sandwiched within this section are the 32 colour plates: 30 single species plates, usually of a pair within habitat, and two others illustrating eggs of 21 species and nine subspecies, and a comparative, and rather cluttered, illustration of 29 species (Rainbow Pitta P. iris is not included), the caption to which has P. elliotii oddly named Bar-bellied Pitta, when Elliot's Pitta has been preferred throughout the rest of the work. I suspect many will find Woodcock's illustrations more vibrant than Helga Erritzoe's, but hers do, nonetheless, possess a certain charm. Of course, Woodcock's also illustrate a range of subspecies and, for the field birder, I assume that this will be considered a significant advantage. In many ways, the work under review and that by Lambert & Woodcock complement each other. The earlier book is written by a field ornithologist who has travelled extensively in South-east Asia, where the majority of taxa occur, and is illustrated by an artist well-versed in the requirements and constraints of field guide and identification handbook work. The Erritzoe's work is rather different, stemming as it does from seemingly exhaustive museum study, and contains a number of innovative features, the recent records section to name but one. Their conservative approach to taxonomic questions is also interesting in these times of near-revolutionary upheaval; for instance, the author considers 13 subspecies recognised by Peters to be unworthy of recognition. Pitta fanatics, of whom there are more than a few, and researchers will find this work essential, but those who need only an identification guide and less detailed synopsis of the pitta family will probably find that the Lambert & Woodcock volume fulfills at least the majority of their requirements.

Guy M. Kirwan
References: 
Lambert, F. & Woodcock, M. 1996. Pittas, broadbills and asities. Robertsbridge: Pica Press.
Lewthwaite, R. W. 1996. Forest birds in southeast China: observations in 1984-1996. Hong Kong Bird Report 1995: 150-203.
Peters, J. L. 1931-1979. Checklist of the Birds of the World. Vols 1-15. Cambridge, Mass: Museum of Comparative Zoology.
Sibley,C.G. 1996. Birds of the World. Version 2. Cincinnati: Thayer Birding Software.

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