Chris Watson

Papua New Guinea

Birds of New Guinea: Distribution, Taxonomy, and Systematics

ReviewChris Watson

By Bruce M. Beehler and Thane K. Pratt

This hefty book is the companion to the second edition field guide for the same region which I reviewed here earlier. It’s a massive work of data collection and scholarship and grew out of the effort to update the field guide. The amount of new research that had been undertaken since the publication of the first edition was such that all the new information couldn’t possibly be shoe-horned into the single volume. As a result, Birds of New Guinea: Distribution, Taxonomy, and Systematics (DTS) comes in at 668 hardbound pages versus the 528 pages in the paperback field guide which is also printed at a slightly smaller format.

At around $140 it's at the lower end of the price range for large reference volumes on similar subject matter. If that price makes you flinch you should consider carefully the scale (both literally and figuratively) of the book that money is purchasing. Birds of New Guinea DTS will probably have slightly reduced appeal to the general bird watcher than the field guide, given that it lacks the colour plates. But to the serious scholar of Australo-Papuan birds, or even the diligent student of northern Australian species this book is a gold mine. Birds of New Guinea DTS is effectively a checklist; as the authors acknowledge, a heavily modified, re-ordered and updated reworking of Ernst Mayr’s original 1941 List of New Guinea Birds.

Any birders who have read Tim Low’s magnificent Where Song Began, will be well aware of one of the sweeping themes of that book: though the landmasses of Australia and New Guinea appear separate the reality is that they are both part of the same continent and even a casual glance at their faunal assemblages bears this out. Both islands possess echidnas, birds-of-paradise, bowerbirds, dasyurids, wallabies and tree kangaroos. Birds of New Guinea DTS is a reference that fleshes out this reality to a granular degree. A mind-boggling amount of field time has produced the data in this book, backed up by similar levels of industriousness in the laboratory and during the editing process. The taxonomy follows the same sequence set out in the field guide with just a few minor tweaks where new information has come to light.

Birds of New Guinea DTS (bottom) with its dust jacket off.

The real advances in knowledge that have allowed for this expanded edition are greatly improved understanding of the distribution and systematics of New Guinea’s birds. Importantly, this permits a treatment of almost the entire avifauna of the island down to subspecies level—something most Australian field guides do incompletely or not at all.

There is a wonderful introduction which provides a lot of information about the geography and history of the island and includes a detailed discussion of the systematics presented in the book and the references which have informed their approach.

Birds of New Guinea DTS is certainly an important milestone of ornithology in this region and will be an invaluable reference for birders and ornithologists working in New Guinea and across northern Australia.



Buy it from Andrew Isles

Review: Birds of New Guinea (2nd Edition)

ReviewChris Watson

Birds of New Guinea 2nd Edition by Thane K. Pratt and Bruce M. Beehler.


“New Guinea is central to this story: the island is not so much a neighbour of Australia as a core part of it, biologically speaking. To include Tasmania but not New Guinea is to let nationalism distort ecological thinking. Whenever sea levels have fallen New Guinea has joined the mainland for longer than Tasmania has, because the water that separates it is shallower. The line between northern Australian savanna and rainforest is more limiting to birds than is the Torres Strait. New Guinea’s birds are part of the Australian bird fauna.” Tim Low in Where Song Began: Australia's birds and how they changed the world, Chapter 4 - New Guinea: Australia's Northern Province.


New Guinea is weird - so close but so distant.

A perfunctory scan through a list of its fauna reveals tree kangaroos and hare-wallabies, dasyurids and monotremes: all the sorts of animals that are most obviously associated with Australia. The little Rakali Hydromys chrysogaster, can be found from Tasmania right up through Australia's mainland and through all but the highest parts of New Guinea. Even New Guinea’s most iconic animals, the birds-of-paradise, are also represented in Australia by four species: three riflebirds and the Trumpet Manucode.

As birders, we’re used to drawing arbitrary lines on maps for the purposes of delineating our lists but, at least from a biological perspective, none of these lines is more arbitrary than the separation of New Guinea’s fauna from Australia’s. This is perhaps one of the major themes of Tim Low’s sweeping assessment of song bird evolution in Where Song Began.

Like many birders, New Guinea is high on my list of places I yearn to visit. Also, I suspect, like many Australian birders, I barely gave New Guinea a moment’s thought before reading Low’s book. Despite being so close to Australia – I’ve flown over it countless times on my way to near-antipodal destinations – New Guinea is, by most accounts, still a challenging place to visit.

Gradually though, this reputation is changing and books like this 2nd edition of Birds of New Guinea are an important part of the process. Papua New Guinea, and even parts of Indonesian-occupied West Papua, is now a fixture on the itineraries of most of the major wildlife touring outfits. There is a string of reputable wildlife lodges across some of the more important habitat areas. As well as infrastructure and services though, the availability of accurate field guides is an important step in making wildlife tourism more attractive. And, as we’ve seen in many other developing parts of the world, when tourism revenue is tied to biodiversity it can result in benefits for research, conservation, local economies and, ultimately, greatly improve our understanding of the birds of that region.

For an area with such a famously diverse avifauna, New Guinea has been served by a limited, though quite high-quality, range of books on the topic. Before the release of this 2nd edition, the 1st edition of Birds of New Guinea was thirty years old and Birds of New Guinea and the Bismarck Archipelago by Coates and Peckover, while an impressive achievement as a photograph record of such a diverse and often secretive bird fauna, was a long way short of comprehensive (it covers 444 species).

Birds of New Guinea 2nd edition covers all 780 bird species for the first time and includes full-colour plates for all (some plates in the 1st edition were black and white). For a book treating such a number of species the layout is smart. The plates fill the first 260 pages and are accompanied by brief species accounts and range maps on the facing page. Maps were critically lacking in the 1st edition. The remaining half of the book is taken up with more detailed family and species accounts including range, habitat and appearance notes as well as quite detailed commentary on the vocalisations including, for selected species, stylised spectrograms giving a visual aid to the cadence and pitch variation of the bird’s song.

The plates are a bit of a mixed bag. They range from superb to serviceable but are competently executed throughout. They’ve been supplied by four different artists so there is bound to be some variation and, unsurprisingly, the plates depicting the birds-of-paradise are probably the finest in the book.

Considering the close affinities between Australian and New Guinean birds, Birds of New Guinea 2nd edition is a useful reference for Australian birders to have available. For northern Australian birders ever-hopeful for vagrant birds visiting from our northern neighbour, it’ll be indispensable.  For the introductory sections alone, describing the natural history and geography of the island, it is worth the asking price; there is so much to learn here.

We can hope that it won’t be so long before another revision, but with this edition being so expertly finished, Birds of New Guinea 2nd edition looks capable of seeing us through another 30 years if necessary.



Buy it from Andrew Isles.


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