Chris Watson

princeton publishing

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.



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