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Review: Parrots of the World

November 12, 2010
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Brand new I and the Bird #138 up at Wanderin’ Weeta

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Birders looking to expand their personal libraries have more than just a myriad of field guides to choose from.  Many publishers and authors put out family specific guides for a multitude of the world’s species which, while being perhaps less useful for field use, offer insights into groups of birds that field guides, in their mission to help you identify the species as easily as possible, often miss.  When looking at birds on the order level it’s fascinating to see their evolutionary history laid out in front of you, a testament to the ability of natural selection to drive speciation from a common ancestor whose traits are shared by every member of the group.  Or maybe there’s just a bunch of pretty pictures.  Those are nice too.

Covering both those bases with equal aplomb comes Joseph Forshaw and Frank Knight’s new Parrots of the World, published by Princeton University Press.  Given our own species long and often sordid history with the Psittacids, parrots are a natural for this kind of coverage. Not only do they span the gamut of form and function from nut shattering Macaws in the neotropics to Australasia’s dainty flower-licking Lories, but they come in an array of shapes, sizes and colors that simply must be seen to be believed.  Foshaw breaks the order into the three centers of diversity; the neotropics, Afro-Asia, and Australia, from which the order is believed to have radiated and where its greatest diversity is achieved.  From them on each genus is extensively covered, with rarely more than four species per page and all appropriate subspecies illustrated.  Maps are clear and colorful, and because parrots are essentially non-migratory, multiple colors that might otherwise be used to illustrate breeding and winter ranges are instead used to illustrate subspecific ranges; a nice touch for taxonomy buffs and a fascinating look at radiation, which appears to be as extensive within some species as it is within entire genera.

Frank Knight’s illustrations are fabulous, and the charisma that makes parrots so interesting practically drips off of the pages.  Each of the birds is not only illustrated perched, but also as in flight.  This addition alone practically makes one want to throw this guide in your backpack on a neotropical excursion, as anyone with experience looking for parrots in rainforests realizes that the majority of the time, the birds you spot are in flight.  Due to their extensively green plumage, parrots can be exceedingly difficult to find perched, yet too often this is the only way they’re illustrated in conventional field guides.  Showing the patterns a birder would see on a bird in flight is revelatory, though it shouldn’t be,  and one hopes authors of conventional field guides take a note.

All in all, Parrots of the World is a beautiful book, filled with fascinating insights on a singularly fascinating group of birds.  Though it’s use as a true field guide is limited, it’s without a doubt the kind of book any parrot enthusiast would love to have on their shelf.

Thanks to Princeton University Press for providing me with a review copy.

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  1. Review Roundup: November, 2010

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