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Collins Bird Guide
Collins Bird Guide

Collins Bird Guide

By: Dominic Mitchell
Posted on: 15 Jun 2010First Published: April 2010 issue of Birdwatch magazine

The first edition of the Collins Bird Guide is now 10 years old, but doesn’t look it – at least not at first glance. The field guide that we have all taken for granted over the last decade was revolutionary in its approach and coverage when first published, and it has stood the test of time well. But avian taxonomy has moved on since the late Nineties, and this is the primary justification for this extensively revised and enlarged version.


Those who read Killian Mullarney’s personal account of the genesis of this edition in last month’s issue will already have an idea of the extent of the changes. Set out in the new taxonomic order beginning with wildfowl and gamebirds, there is now significantly more detailed treatment for 20 or so of the 33 ‘new’ species deriving from taxonomic progress, including Cackling Goose, Black and White-winged Scoters, Yelkouan Shearwater, American Herring, Caspian and Armenian Gulls, ‘Pharaoh’ (or Desert) Eagle Owl, Seebohm’s, ‘Maghreb’ (or Western Mourning) and Kurdish/Persian Wheatears, Iberian, Canary Islands and Caucasian Chiffchaffs, Taiga and Atlas Flycatchers, and Isabelline/Turkestan and ‘Iberian’ (or Southern) Grey Shrikes.


Still not split, disappointingly, are Tundra and Taiga Bean Geese and the stonechat complex. Curiously, Balearic Warbler also remains lumped with Marmora’s, yet Eastern and Western Orphean and Asian and African Desert Warblers are given full recognition. And intriguingly, Italian Sparrow has also been upgraded from a hybrid to a full species.


Ten vagrants, including Lesser Scaup, Hooded Merganser, Rüppell’s Vulture, White-eared Bulbul, Hypocolius, Basra Reed Warbler and Brown Shrike, have been promoted to the main section from appendices and given the full treatment, while Wood and Mandarin Ducks have been relegated to the introductions and escapes section.


A number of plates have been improved or completely repainted, including the North American passerines, illustrated by Larry McQueen in the first edition in a style that clashed strongly with that of the main artists. Killian Mullarney has reworked and expanded the two spreads to include Yellow Warbler and Northern Waterthrush, and you can easily imagine that the inspiration for these figures may have come from the windswept slopes of a certain Irish island one recent autumn!


Also repainted, this time by Dan Zetterström, are the chiffchaffs, and five taxa from four species are now given a dedicated page rather than half a page. The result is successful and also allows for comparison between nominate collybita and a Willow Warbler vignette, though Siberian Chiffchaff has changed subtly to give it a less grey-and-white appearance. This may be in line with current thinking on the characters needed to identify apparent tristis birds, but what then are those more frosty-looking winter ‘Phylloscs’ previously considered to be classic Siberian Chiffs? There is no clue on the new plate or in the amended text.


But overall, the revisions are spot on. By way of example, among the most comprehensive new treatments is that for Caspian Gull, which is represented by no fewer than 13 figures – there were none previously, when this taxon was still gaining wider recognition. The figures are beautifully executed and convey the species’ ‘jizz’ and plumages very well, though the tendency for winter adults to have dull legs, correctly mentioned in the text, is not reflected in the plate. I actually prefer the depiction of Caspian Gull to that of Yellow-legged Gull, which unfortunately, but unavoidably for layout reasons, does not fall on the same spread.


Another extensively reworked species is Great Grey Shrike, which now has 13 rather than eight figures, and there are two more for the newly split ‘Iberian’ Grey Shrike. Lars Svensson has broken with convention, not just in unilaterally renaming this form Iberian, despite it also breeding in southern France, but in restricting it to the single taxon meridionalis; so all other Old World large grey shrikes here, including the vagrant pallidirostris from Central Asia, are lumped within Great Grey, yet the Nearctic borealis Northern Shrike has been split as a vagrant. Although Svensson has researched the systematics of this complex elsewhere and outlines the need for more research here, I question the wisdom of trying to establish a different grouping of taxa and inventing a new English name as an interim position.


There are other quirks, too. Persian and Kurdish Wheatears have been split, but Persian Wheatear Oenanthe xanthoprymna in the first edition has confusingly become Persian Wheatear O chrysopygia in the second, with O xanthoprymna now reserved for Kurdish Wheatear. A name change too far is Isabelline Warbler for Hippolais opaca; if you are going to split Olivaceous Warbler, why ignore the widely used Western Olivaceous Warbler for this form?


The descriptions are necessarily concise, but field characters and age summaries have been abridged well. Inevitably, with so much text, there are very occasional errors in spelling, the worst example being ‘Nile Walley Sunbird’ in the plate caption on page 359. A few more minor errors can be found in the status codes and distribution maps (for example, no breeding Parrot Crossbills in Scotland), while a glaring design omission in the hardback edition (corrected in the paperback) is the lack of bird topography diagrams on the inside covers. Readers interested in obtaining a full errata list should see the online discussion at ?t=162758.


Where to next for the Collins Bird Guide? Avian taxonomy will continue to change and new identification criteria will be defined, and already there are obvious problems this guide will be expected to solve in any future edition. The artwork for crossbills remains unchanged, for example, and the text has not been sufficiently revised to reflect the wide variation in subspecies, plumages and voice that may potentially lead to new crossbill species being described in future (see Birdwatch 211: 30-35 for more on this).


Work can perhaps also be done to make the transcription of vocalisations more reader-friendly. Part of this may stem not only from the Swedish author’s understandable use of accents and emphasis unfamiliar to the English-speaking reader, but also from the inherent difficulty in accurately putting in words complex, variable and highly fluid sounds. Compare the voice description of Common Chiffchaff, both calls and song, to your own recollection of the same and you might appreciate what I mean.


That is not a complaint, just a suggestion for the future. In the meantime, taken as a whole, this second edition is the most complete field guide to birds anywhere in the world. No matter how much you might like the first edition, there are sufficient additions and improvements to effectively make ownership of the second compulsory. As bird books go, this is the best.

Tech spec

  • Collins Bird Guide  by Lars Svensson, Killian Mullarney and Dan Zetterström (second edition, HarperCollins, London, 2010).
  • 448 pages, more than 3,500 illustrations on numerous plates, many distribution maps.
  • Hbk: ISBN 9780007267262. £25.
  • Available from Birdwatch Bookshop
  • Pbk: ISBN 9780007268146. £17.99.
  • Available from Birdwatch Bookshop

First published in Birdwatch April 2010

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