Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Review: "Birds of Europe, Russia, China, and Japan" by Norman Arlott

I recently acquired a copy of Princeton University Press's "Birds of Europe, Russia, China, and Japan" by Norman Arlott (copyright 2007), a two-volume illustrated checklist (7.5x5 inches, ~240 pages each, one for passerines and one for non-passerines). I have loved most of Princeton's line of bird books, but my review of this one may come across as a bit harsh.

First off, I'm not a fan of "illustrated checklists," whatever those are. Generally when I see that term, I picture a checklist with a single crummy representative photo per species. But that is not what you'll find here. Amazingly there isn't a single checklist to be found in either book. I don't know what to make of that exactly, given the sub-genre to which these books supposedly belong.

Basically we're dealing with a low-end field guide here. I will explain.

Here is the format: text on left page, plate on opposite page. See photo below:


This quote from the Introduction is telling: "I did not want to produce just a coloured checklist or the ultimate field guide..." So what we're left with is a hybrid of those two...except that there is no checklist, and the identification info is severely lacking.

The text is limited to just a few lines for most species, and most major field marks are excluded! Perhaps this is to avoid redundancy with the illustrations for the purpose of saving space, but the result is rather weak and uninformative text. Here is the description of Stilt Sandpiper: "In flight has inconspicuous white bar on upperwing and white rump, feet project well beyond tail." That's it! The remaining text describes the bird's call and preferred habitat.

Range maps are in a separate section at the end of the book - old Peterson style. That format has always driven me crazy, all the flipping back and forth...

I will say something positive though - the illustrations are of fairly high quality. They are, for the most part, detailed, accurate, and pleasing to the eye. The problem is that only adult plumages are illustrated. That's right...no juvenile shorebirds or immature gulls! Good luck identifying those groups with these books.

Unfortunately those illustrations that are included on each plate are often poorly organized. The images are crammed together with numbers to represent each species, and they are packed so tightly on some plates that you have to look closely to figure out which numbers refer to which illustrations. Too much work for too little information.

So, overall, I would not recommend this two-volume set to most birders. If you want a checklist, buy or print a two-page checklist for little/no cost (because you won't find one here!). If you want a field guide, invest in a comprehensive one. These hybrids just don't do it for me (that's something you won't hear me say often!).

To whom might this book be useful?
Perhaps for a beginning birder? I have heard it argued that simplicity is desired for beginning birders; that less can be more. But I generally disagree with this because I believe this leads to more misidentifications than anything. Withholding certain complicated information may be beneficial to the novice, but to leave out illustrations of immature birds is just making things more confusing IMO.

These books may work for a traveler to the region who does not plan on birding but still wants a small reference with basic ID information for whatever they see along the way. Their small size makes them easy to travel with.

Please read more reviews on these books before you judge them. I was surprised to see that the reviews on Amazon were generally favorable. So obviously they work for some folks, just not this one.

 - Nick

3 comments:

  1. I don't think these can work for anyone.

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  2. Hi Nick, Thanks for the review. I was just wondering if there's a guide for the regions covered that might be more useful; having done some birding in China and Russia, I've been hoping to invest in one, but never really found anything quite satisfactory. Thoughts?
    Hope to see you out at Lighthouse Point in the fall.
    Sulmaan.

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  3. Hey Sulmaan, nice to hear from you. Unfortunately I've not ventured to Asia at all, so I can't offer up any insights on other field guides. I'm sure that better options exist, but I'm just not aware. Perhaps start with a Google search, or head to Birdforum, and take it from there? Maybe some of our readers can suggest something for you?

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