Book Review: Birds of New Guinea

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Birds of New Guinea by Thane K. Pratt & Bruce M. Beehler Princeton University Press, 2014. Second Edition.

“What a pleasure it is to review this amazing book covering an amazing place. The first edition came out in 1986, and it was always essential for birdwatchers in this remote region. Brian Coates, Clifford Frith and other experts have published on New Guinea avifauna, but this was the only modern field guide, and a good one at that. It was a shame when it went out of print in 2006, since then new birders could only look for used copies on the usual mail-order sites … where they were offered at exorbitant prices.

“Fast forward to this year, and the new book is finally out, after many years in preparation. Because that is really what it is, a new book, not just a new edition. Look at this summary on the left.

“As Dale Zimmerman from the 1986 edition left the project, Pratt and Beehler are now credited with the text, while a new artist, John Anderton of Birds of South Asia fame, did most of the plates; Szabolcs Kokay did the shorebirds, fruit-doves, and birds of paradise.

“Virtually everything in this Second Edition is new. The Introduction chapters have been tightened up and re-edited to fit today’s shorter attention-span audience. A new brief How to Use This Book section has been added. Personally I like the way the chapters Natural History and In Search of Birds deal with the basics of the natural history and travelling conditions of the area, not too much and not too little. There is no information about specific sites to visit; but then, this is not why you would buy this book, stuff like that you can find easily on the Internet. What you want to know is how to ID the birds you see, plus as much about their ecology as can be included.

“That is exactly what this book provides. Other compatible modern field guides, such as the Helm guide to the Birds of East Asia, manages to fit in all text opposite the plates. However, the authors in this book have (correctly in my opinion) decided to split out some of the text and put it at the back behind the plates. This way you have name, size, description, habitat and local distribution map for each species facing the plates, and behind additional secondary information such as voice, extralimital range, and habits. While this structure involves a bit of repeat info and makes the book slightly thicker and more cumbersome to use, it means that the book doubles up as both an ID guide and a small handbook with more substantial information. Each family section and major genus starts with a useful box about the group.

“Where the authors do NOT split so often (again, correctly so in my opinion) is in the taxonomy. Birders in this region will have noticed how some bird book authors (for Borneo, SE Asia and the Indian subcontinent) split out 10 or 20 subspecies into full species in each new edition. Pratt and Beehler however, appear to be in the ‘lumper’ category of scientists, they state in the Introduction: “We have made an effort to reduce a swarm of thinly designated … subspecies to a minimum”. I think most field birders and conservationists trying to explain the finer art of taxonomy to the general public will thank them for that. The conservation community comes out looking silly in the eye of development decision-makers, when we cannot even agree amongst ourselves from month to month what a bird is, let alone a threatened species.

“In my lifetime, South-east Asia has gone from a region with enormous expanses of rainforests and wilderness to a heavily populated zone with small fragmented pockets of natural habitat, usually over-run with ecotourists. In this environment, New Guinea is still unique. It is like the Alaska of the equatorial belt, a place where you can still fly for hours in a small bush-plane and see nothing down there but trees and mountains. Go now, while you can still experience this ‘away from it all’ feeling in the tropics. And bring this book. Or better still, buy a few copies, they will be worth a fortune when this edition goes out of print as well.

You can pick up a copy from this LINK.

Morten Strange
(Author of A Photographic Guide to the Birds of Indonesia and A Photographic Guide to the Birds of Southeast Asia)
Singapore
26th November 2014

One Response

  1. Daisy O'Neill

    Morten,

    Yes, I have been looking for this book to purchase to prepare my Papua New Guinea trip some moons ago and unfortunately it wasn’t available yet and I had to get the second best by Brian J.Coates. This book is highly recommended for those planning a trip.. its a Mecca bucket list place to go for those so…..lovely Birds of Paradise to observe their wooing behaviours.

    Will be nice to have a copy to add to my collection ya? Now,any reader contributors to provide me a Xmas gift copy and give some business to Morton?

    Cheers!
    Daisy

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