Saturday, November 6, 2010

Parrots of The World

I was very interested in getting a chance to review the new Princeton Field Guide “Parrots of the World” by Joseph Forshaw because I found the concept of taking a large-format comprehensive identification guide on one cosmopolitan family of birds and turning it into a field guide format intriguing. Part of the mystique of the large-format is the ability to cram in life-history and ecological information that serves as a convenient reference. The field guide format on the other hand is forced to use abbreviated text and rely on the strength of the illustrations.

Fortunately for this book, Frank Knight’s illustrations are excellent and the subject matter lends an exceptional amount of colour. Of course, with only 356 species to illustrate this book could afford the luxury of well-spaced and artistically laid-out plates, which further add to the aesthetic appeal. Best of all, a genuine effort has been made to illustrate all the visually distinct subspecies; for example, 13 subspecies of Rainbow Lorikeet are illustrated over 3 plates! So, with a total of 146 high quality color plates, this book is indeed a visual delight.

I had wondered how useful this book would be as a field guide since, let’s face it, not many birders are likely to carry it into the field! One useful feature is the organization principle based on biogeographical realms — Australasian, Afro-Asian, and Neotropical — which makes it useful as a “post-field” reference guide, i.e. to confirm identifications of species, subspecies, sex or age based on one’s field notes or photographs. After perusing this book and reflecting on its purpose (identification primarily) and presumed target audience, I was surprised to conclude that it works well an identification guide, rather than a comprehensive natural history guide. This is due to the lay out and the considerable detail provided in the illustrations (including perched and the all important flight illustrations showing both dorsal and ventral views), along with a concise text that focuses on field identification and discusses similar species. In addition, the full-colour maps, which illustrate the ranges to the subspecific level (excellent information to have at one’s finger tips), greatly increase the utility of this book.

There were a few aspects that I did not like about this book; for example, I find the nomenclature rather arbitrary and Forshaw’s explanation of the naming principle employed unconvincing. I would have greatly preferred a standard global nomenclature were adopted in its entirety (e.g. IOC or Clements) and alternative names also given. In general, I prefer it when an artists makes an attempt to illustrate the habitat of a species in some way, although this can be tricky and if done poorly can negatively influence the utility of the drawings for identification (if done well it enhances this!). Most of the plates in this book are birds on a tiny slither of a perch against a white background. This works well for the book’s purpose but I prefer the few plates, like some of the Pygmy Parrot plates, that show a little more “interaction” with plants (looks less “bleached”)! The paired flight illustrations that show a dorsal view with one wing outstretched left and a ventral view with one wing outstretched right look terribly unnatural, but it should be noted that they are a practical way to illustrate a lot of information while greatly reducing the space required and it would be hard to show this much detail any other way. My biggest objection is that some of the illustrations are drawn as though the bird were a museum study skin, i.e. ventral and dorsal view with wings folded and legs “suspended” as though the bird was dead and lying on a table… to me, whenever this style was used, it strongly detracted from my enjoyment of the plates and I really see no reason for it at all – perched views from front and back would show exactly the same detail!

Although the text is minimal, as necessary to reduce the book to field guide size, I was glad to see a few other points added to the text such as each species’ status (conveniently and cleverly in red) and a few locations provided where one might see each species, which increase the book’s usefulness. Overall, I consider this book to be a very useful addition to my library and I am sure I will find occasion to use it when struggling with an ID of a colourful family of birds that can sometimes pose surprising identification challenges, for example with flight views only.

An example of one of the plates is shown below, where you can see the features discussed above (click on image for larger view)…

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