Two in the bush for twitchers

The Birds of the Western Palearctic
September 11, 1998

In 1994, publication of the ninth and final volume of OUP's Handbook of Birds of Europe, the Middle East and North Africa brought a 17-year marathon of ornithological publishing to an end. Since the first volume of The Birds of the Western Palearctic appeared in 1977, countless academic researchers and committed amateur ornithologists have regarded it as a cornerstone of ornithological knowledge.

Conceived as the definitive review of the state of ornithology, BWP was always going to be a massive undertaking. The first volume had some 720 pages, and later volumes matched or exceeded its size. The speed with which information about the region's bird-life came to light was almost impossible to predict. One volume planned for the later part of the cycle had to be split into two to make binding practicable.

Despite being outpaced by the explosion of facts and an avalanche of practical and financial problems, BWP, when it was completed, was the unrivalled and essential reading it was intended to be. It contains a mass of information on the near-1,000 bird species in this diverse region. BWP is full of taxonomic and behavioural detail, fascinating for the professionally involved specialist but sometimes frustratingly bewildering for the general reader. The Concise Edition is aimed at this less-specialised section of the bird book-buying population.

The essence of BWP has been distilled into two bulky volumes by some of the original editorial team under the supervision of Christopher Perrins, director of the Edward Grey Institute of Ornithology at Oxford University, including David Snow, who has condensed the original text while retaining essential information. Nevertheless a large amount has had to be heavily summarised or simply left out. Even so BWPC, the editors' recommended short title, is still bulky. Together its two volumes weigh 13lbs, relegating it to back-at-base reference, impracticable for field use.

From 1977 to 1994 there was considerable progress towards eliminating many identification pitfalls. Political events in Eastern Europe have opened that part of the continent's avifauna to more scrutiny. To reflect these advances, much significant new material has been included in BWPC. Accounts of more than 80 species subsequently recorded in the region have been added, and the descriptions of field characters have been revised. The taxonomic "splitting" of several species since completion of BWP are also recognised. For the most part, the information has simply been precised from the original, except for the sections for each species' field characters, distribution and population. The field characters section, which could run into several pages per species in BWP, is condensed into two to three paragraphs, only a little more extensive than in popular field guides costing a tenth of the price. Much detail has been left out. The population and distribution sections have been rewritten to take into account information that has become available since BWP was published. Distribution maps are clearer, with full colour and hill shading to indicate relief.

Other sections familiar to BWP users are reduced to a skeleton. The sonograms used to present birds' songs and calls scientifically have been left out in favour of descriptions of the main features. Comparing the text for species described in BWP and in the Concise Edition shows how the slimming of the text has made it far more accessible to the general reader. While there is new information on the distribution and population of the black-necked grebe (Podiceps nigricollis), the lengthy section on social pattern and behaviour in BWP has been slashed to a tenth of its length for BWPC. The section on voice is only a quarter of that in BWP. It is these two sections that are likely to hold the greatest attraction for research scientists, and their treatment reinforces the view that while the slimmer version will be enough for most users, professionals are better catered for in the original while obtaining their updated information from other sources. Similarly the treatment of one of the more challenging species for birdwatchers in the region, Arctic redpoll (Carduelis hornemanni), shows a distinct bias towards the amateur field observer's concerns for verbal guidance on visual identification rather than the zoologist's thirst for data.

The question is whether the BWPC has advantages over the many good, considerably cheaper and much more portable, field guides available. Many amateurs who enjoy birdwatching as a recreation rather than as a scientific study will probably spend their money elsewhere.

For research scientists, it is the very detail that has necessarily been left out that made BWP's nine volumes an essential tool, despite the rapidly ageing body of knowledge published in the earlier volumes. For this readership, OUP is bringing the detail of the original BWP up to date and additionally publishing the material on CD-Rom, rendering BWPC unnecessary.

The Concise Edition should be seen for what it is - an authoritative and comprehensive guide to the region's avifauna for the lay reader. For those amateurs who take their birdwatching seriously, to the point of even having contemplated the full set of BWP at nearly Pounds 1,000, BWPC will make a rewarding purchase, not least for the illustrations. BWP's rather dated plates have been drastically revised. In its two volumes BWPC has 594 plates, 19 more than BWP has in its nine volumes. Of these, 231 are new: they illustrate species recorded for the first time since the publication of the relevant volume of BWP or replace earlier paintings. Indexes in seven European languages are included in addition to the indexes of English and scientific names. BWPC is a brilliant exercise in revising and repackaging a publication into a completely different one aimed at a distinct market. OUP has already decided that that market lies outside the research community.

David Jobbins is assistant editor, The THES.

The Birds of the Western Palearctic: Concise Edition

Editor - D. W. Snow and C. M. Perrins
ISBN - 0 19 854099 X
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £150.00 (set)
Pages - 1,697

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