The Birds of China including Hong Kong (John Mackinnon & Nigel Hicks (2011) New Holland Publishers) is a fully updated edition of the book previously published in 1996 and 2007. The publishers state that the target audience comprises experienced birdwatchers, beginners and tourists with a casual interest in birds of the region. The book is filled with a wealth of useful information considering its size and retail price (RRP £7.99) and contains many excellent and eye catching photographs of a range of species including Silver Pheasant, Collared Scops-Owl, Long-tailed Broadbill, White-browed Shortwing and Orange-headed Thrush to name but a few.
The book consists of the following chapters: introduction, how to use this book, parts of a bird, glossary, China’s avifauna, key to corner tabs, bird habitats of China, administrative units of China, how to watch birds, where to find birds in China, species descriptions, further reading and index.
The introduction sets out clear aims of the book and puts the country into global perspective. The authors state that a book of this size cannot be a complete or exhaustive guide to the birds of China but that it does serve as a broad introduction to the families of birds in the country. Over 1300 species have been recorded in China, this book scratchers the surface of the regions avifauna by presenting approximately 300 species – mainly the most likely to be encountered, with a few more unusual ones thrown in the mix and includes representatives from the key families such as Pheasants, Cranes, Laughingthrushes etc.
The front section of the book is generally well written and contains a great deal of useful information, however it is let down by a couple of publisher/formatting errors, for example:
- The map for the administrative units comes before the chapter heading and looks a bit out of place on its own; and
- On page 13 within the ‘Where to find birds in China’ section there appears to be an error at the page end where the text finishes with a comma but there is no more text on the next page and you are straight into the species accounts left wondering if there is some text missing.
It may also have been useful on one of the maps in the front section of the book to include the locations of several of the major cities to help people unfamiliar with the region to get their bearings. These small errors/omissions should not however detract from the useful information contained within this section of the book, information that will be particularly useful for the first times visitor to the region.
The inclusion of Taiwan is potentially controversial, although the island is biologically linked it is not (as far as I understand) technically part of China. Taiwan has at least 15 endemic species, 4 are included within this book, Mikado Pheasant, Swinhoe’s Pheasant, Rusty Laughingthrush and White-eared Sibia. A quick internet search shows there is little in the line of currently available ornithology titles describing and illustrating Taiwan’s avifauna. My feeling is that more of the countries endemic species could be added to this title with some globally common and easily recognised species currently included been dropped to make way for them (e.g. Little Grebe, Great Crested Grebe, Grey Heron, Mute Swan, Mallard, Common Kestrel, Rock Dove, Eurasian Magpie, Common Starling). It may also be more “politically correct” to call the book ‘Birds of China including Hong Kong and Taiwan’.
The species accounts cover a wide range of species and have some very impressive photographs. The accounts include a distribution map, status information, description of overall appearance, characteristic behaviour, calls and habitat use and this generally provides useful tools to aid identification in combination with the photographs. However there are few things that, in my opinion, could have been made a bit better, and there are a few things that are errors, I’ve highlighted a few of these below.
- The photographs mainly illustrate adult males, this is understandable, for in most species the adult male is the most photogenic and most recognisable of the pair, however in many species the male attains his smart breeding plumage for only a short period and for the majority of the year may be in an alternative plumage, there is also the problem of trying to identify the female/immature birds of some species;
- The range maps are all presented in one colour and as they stand do not allow differentiation in seasonal distribution to be shown. These could be easily improved to utilise different colours for different seasons, e.g. green for year round range, red for summer range and blue for winter range etc., this sort of mapping is incredibly useful and fairly commonplace in a number of bird books on the market;
- The Taiwanese endemic Mikado Pheasant range map (which should be restricted to Taiwan) covers an area within southeastern China – which is incorrect, it looks like the range map for Elliot’s Pheasant has been reproduced for Mikado Pheasant in error (the Elliot’s Pheasant distribution map also looks to be slightly incorrect); and,
- The raptor pictures are pretty much useless for identification purpose and look like several of them are captive birds perched up. Most people, if they are going to see Lammergeier, Griffon Vulture or Northern Goshawk at all will see them in flight, not sat 10 ft away! The Common Kestrel photograph is pretty much pointless due to terrible backlighting.
Four potential changes that may be useful for future editions of this book would be:
- Move the ‘key to corner tabs’ section from page 7 to inside the front cover, this may make it easier and quicker to locate family groups by using this potentially useful tool which in its current location gets a bit lost;
- The ‘parts of a bird’ section could be enlarged and placed on the inside back cover (changes 1 and 2 would allow for almost 2 extra pages of text);
- Labelling of the photographs may prove useful, for example date taken, age of bird and subspecies (where relevant) where possible; and,
- I think it would also be worthwhile updating the taxonomy and family sequence throughout the book to keep it in line with much of the current literature and to keep the whole book to the same classification system rather than a mix of old, new and potential future classifications. The taxonomy used throughout the book is generally old and outdated in many respects but some species, e.g. Rusty Laughingthrush have come about through ‘splits’ post Sibley and Monroe (1989) as recently as 2006, with other potential future splits, not widely recognised to date (e.g. Eastern Cattle Egret) also included.
My overall opinion of this book is that it will be of little/moderate interest to the serious birder visiting the country but that it will form an important aid to the beginner and casual tourist due to its eye-catching design, lightweight, small and portable size, cheap price and generally good photographs and I think with a few minor tweaks this book could be made into a really useful book for a range of visiting birdwatchers.
Personally I love having reference books in my home and field guides in my bag when I’m out birding, however I’m not sure of the future for photographic guides in this format in the rapidly evolving hi-tech world. In these days of instant knowledge and portable compact media it is possible to gather images of birds of various ages, sexes, races, plumage, their distribution maps, their songs and calls (with downloadable clips), past trip reports etc and have this all at a touch of a button at your fingertips anywhere in the world, potentially negating the requirement for a small book that may only present the males of 20% of a regions avifauna.....
Andrew Walker February 2011.