Canaries to Turkey

December 25, 1998

The Complete Birds of the Western Palearctic on CD-Rom. Edited by David Snow & Christopher Perrins. Oxford University Press, +44 1865 267979 ISBN 0 19 268579 1 - Pounds 199+VAT. Windows 3.1, 95 or NT4 CD.

When a team of ornithologists at Oxford University began the 17-year publishing marathon that was to become the Birds of the Western Palearctic in 1977, they had no idea of the sheer bulk of information on the 1,000 or so European and Mediterranean species that would eventually be assembled.

But even if they had predicted the nine volumes densely packed with descriptions, distribution and population data, behavioural patterns, sonograms and illustrations, they would have been at a loss to accept that it could be squeezed on to three plastic disks and read on a computer screen. Or that in addition to the colour plates, video sequences of many of the species could be watched on the screen and clips of song and calls could be played.

Such developments have come with a rush in the past five years or so, and now almost all university departments and libraries, and many homes, have the technology to run the Complete Birds of the Western Palearctic on CD-Rom.

The three CDs hold not only most of the text of the nine volumes of the original BWP but this year's two-volume, 1,700-page Concise edition - the equivalent of 9,000 pages of printed material. The text and 600 paintings, 200 photographs, 1,500 figures and 650 egg plates are all easily accessible. Even owners of the near-Pounds 1,000 BWP or the Pounds 150 Concise Edition may be induced to part with extra cash by the 500 video clips, 500 recordings and especially the 650 interactive maps which can be superimposed to compare distribution of species or cross-refer to habitat and climate.

Each order has a general text description taken from both BWP and the Concise Edition. The BWP is necessarily fuller but not so up-to-date. What the Concise Edition's text lacks in detail is compensated for by its more recent revision. This slimming down of the text has made it far more accessible to the general reader.

Each of the 960 species is described in the briefer form from the Concise,or in greater scope and detail from the original BWP. A useful touch is the provision of hot links to definitions of terms used in the text. There are also links from the BWP text to the bibliography.

Icons on the window lead to sections of the text and offer a choice between original and concise editions. Distribution maps can be selected with a range of base maps - coastline, rainfall, temperature, land use and altitude.

It is possible to compare the distributions of more than one species and thus gain important insights into the links between geography and species differentiation. For one sample species, black-necked grebe (Podiceps nigricollis), the section on social pattern and behaviour text has been substantially expanded and presumably updated, making the CD-Rom an extremely useful way of revising information which was committed to print more than 20 years ago. But the raison d'etre is the additional multimedia material, and the video clips are first class. For some species, including the black-necked grebe, there is just one sequence of an adult in breeding plumage, while for others there is a greater variety. Some are silent; others may be accompanied by sound. The plates, taken in the main from the significantly-improved Concise, are accurate and show a range of ages and plumages. The egg plates are an acquired interest, especially those in monochrome.

Ease of use is exemplary. Species can be listed taxonomically or alphabetically. The user history can be displayed and bookmarks created. It is even possible to construct a personalised log of species seen on field trips. The drawback of the printed edition, even the Concise, is its bulk and weight, which preclude use in the field. The CD-Rom version opens the prospect of taking a modern laptop computer into the field and consulting the ultimate reference work on the spot without having to use intermediary guides and notebooks.

For those few libraries and zoology departments that lack the original BWP, a copy or two of the CD-Rom would make an excellent cost-effective alternative, given its ease of use and additional features. The application ran faultlessly on a Pentium 166 MMX with a standard x24 CD-Rom drive and sound card. The video clips in particular were free of the annoying jerkiness experienced with some other similar if less ambitious products.

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