Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Review: Birds of India

Northern South America is known among North American birders as a hotspot of avian diversity, and for good reason. Four of the world's birdiest countries – Colombia, Peru, Brazil, and Ecuador – are located there, each of which harbors numerous endemics of its own. However, South America is not the world's only major avifauna hotspot. Another such hotspot is the Indian subcontinent. The most densely-populated country in the world – soon likely to be the most populous – is also one of the most biodiverse. India and the six other countries of the subcontinent have a range of habitats from desert to tropical rainforests to the snow-capped peaks of the Himalayas. Within those habitats, 1,313 bird species have been documented, and more species keep being discovered there.

To help birders learn and identify the birds of the subcontinent, Richard Grimmett, Carol Inskipp, and Tim Inskipp present a newly revised Birds of India: Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives, published by Christopher Helm Publishers in the U.K. and Princeton University Press in the U.S. This book is a major revision of an earlier field guide, Pocket Guide to the Birds of the Indian Subcontinent, published in 1999. The guide is compact enough to be carried in a bag, comparable in size and weight to Birds of Europe and the most recent edition of the National Geographic guide.

I have not seen previous versions of this guide, so I cannot evaluate the changes myself. According to the introduction, the major changes were the addition of over 100 species documented since the last edition and substantial reformatting of the plates. The latter included both reducing the number of species per plate and putting the species accounts on the page facing the plate where a species is depicted. This is the way a field guide should be organized, as opposed to the older style of putting plates in one section and text in another (and perhaps range maps in a third). The birds depicted include an additional 62 identifiable populations that could be split from existing species, which brings the total number of illustrated forms up to 1,375.

The illustrations were of the high quality that I have come to expect from a Helm/Princeton field guide. As I paged through the many plates, I am struck by the degree of diversity. I am also struck by the species we in North America share in common with the subcontinent – not just the expected urban species like Mallard or Rock Pigeon but also more specialized birds like Black-crowned Night-Heron or Buff-bellied (i.e., American) Pipit. In the species that I do recognize, the illustrations look true to life, so I trust that the same is true of the many more species that I am not familiar with. Unfortunately not all distinct plumages are shown for each species; for many species only one plumage is shown. Apparently this was a concession to save space.

I would recommend Birds of India: Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives for any birders who live in or will be traveling to visit India or one of its neighbors. It may also prove useful for anyone who is interested in learning more about the region's birds.

This review is based on a review copy provided by the publisher.