Cuckoos of the World
Through its distinctive voice and a range of cultural associations, the Common Cuckoo must be one of the most widely appreciated of British birds. But as the only local representative of a worldwide family, its congeners are often more of a mystery. In fact, there are some 38 genera in the Cuculidae, among them anis, roadrunners, coucals, couas, malkohas and koels, as well as a varied array of cuckoos on different continents.
A single modern guide to this diverse family has hitherto been lacking, so Helm’s new offering is sure to prove popular. It is the second in the company’s
series of revamped identification guides, though like the first – Cotingas and Manakins (reviewed in Birdwatch 238: 64) – the format covers much more than ID alone. The introduction is an informative 11-page overview of the family, covering everything from systematics and morphology to habitats and conservation, via moult, vocalisations, behaviour and feeding, breeding and movements.
This reveals, for example, that there are 14 skeletal characters exhibited by all cuckoos that occur in no other birds. The reader also learns that the full gamut of breeding systems found in birds is known within the family, from the normal nesting and rearing of their own young by monogamous pairs to the obligate brood-parasitism for which the family is famous. Passing reference is also made to the fascinating discovery that in some species females of different genetic lineages lay differently coloured eggs and utilise different hosts – evidence of evolution and perhaps speciation in action.
The 144 species are beautifully illustrated over 36 plates by a team of four artists. Styles can clash in such ventures, but here the work of Richard Allen, Jan Wilczur, Martin Woodcock and Tim Worfolk blends together very well indeed. As far as I can see, nowhere are the artists individually credited for their work, so it remains an unfortunate mystery as to who painted, say, the striking crested cuckoos or the delightful bronze cuckoos.
The bulk of the book is taken up by the species accounts, which range from seven pages for the well-studied Common Cuckoo to just a single page for the extinct Snail-eating Coua; two or three pages is the norm. Information is presented under the headings of taxonomy, field identification, voice, description, biometrics, moult, distribution, habitat, behaviour, breeding, food, and status and conservation. While the field identification and description sections are generally the longest, this book clearly offers more than its ‘identification guide’ branding might suggest.
The species accounts are enlivened not just by informative text, but also by detailed distribution maps and an excellent set of photographs depicting different plumages and geographical variation. Mistakes appear to be few and far between, but I did notice that Jacobin Cuckoo is shown as breeding in Iran, a country where it has apparently not been recorded for 50 years, and that the sole record of Grey-bellied Cuckoo there is listed as occurring in “June 1048”. Otherwise, Cuckoos of the World impresses heavily in every department, and is further evidence of the extent of improvements publisher Helm has made to this already accomplished series.
• Cuckoos of the World by Johannes Erritzøe, Clive F Mann, Frederik P Brammer and Richard A Fuller (Christopher Helm, London, 2012).
• 544 pages, 36 plates, more than 600 colour photos, 144 maps.
• ISBN 9780713660340. Hbk, £60.
Available from Birdwatch Bookshop