Our fine-feathered friends

This month sees the publication of the eighth, and final, volume in the landmark Birds of Africa series, begun in 1982. msafiri meets the editors and artists behind the ambitious project and showcases the books’ magnificent illustrations.

The series takes flight
Acclaimed by the journal Nature as “… the standard work on African ornithology for the twenty-first century,” The Birds of Africa was the brainchild of Kenya resident and internationally renowned ornithologist Leslie H Brown. He had the fledgling idea for a definitive series of books about Africa’s incredible birdlife as early as 1973, before co-writing the first volume – Ostriches and Birds of Prey – with illustrations by South African artist Kenneth Newman. Sadly, Brown died before the book appeared in 1982.

Under the editorship of Hilary Fry, Stuart Keith and Emil Urban, the series was extended to seven volumes. These covered more than 2100 species of birds (a quarter of the world’s total) in unprecedented detail, and included 232 magnificent colour plates – almost all of them by Martin Woodcock. Leon Bennun in the Ibis heralded the series as “A magnificent achievement: the sheer depth and compass are breathtaking.”

Edited by Roger Safford and Frank Hawkins and illustrated with 63 colour plates by John Gale and Brian Small, Volume 8 covers the birds of Madagascar and the various islands and archipelagos of the western Indian Ocean, including Seychelles, the Comoros, Mauritius and Reunion. In all, 487 species are represented, of which over 40% (even when vagrants and migrants are included) are found nowhere else. According to Dale Zimmerman, writing in The Auk, “The effort expended has been enormous and remarkably successful considering the immensity of the project. The Birds of Africa is indispensable for anyone with a serious interest in African ornithology.”

Quick chat with editor Roger Safford
Q How many years has it taken to produce the final volume in The Birds of Africa series?  About ten years for two main author-editors (alongside full-time jobs) and 60 co-authors for particular species or sections of the book.

Q Do you have a favourite illustration? I love the yellow-bellied sunbird asities – an incredibly beautiful bird, which has been the subject of some confusion; I hope we have got closer to the real thing. It also holds a special place in our memories as we saw these birds in the 1980s (in the fabulous Marojejy mountains, now a national park) when hardly anyone knew what they really looked like or where they were found. Finding them was an ornithologist’s dream.

Q What was the most challenging species to illustrate? Many were difficult, because of the lack of knowledge. Quite a few have rarely been seen and never photographed, and 100-year-old stuffed birds in museums do not tell all that an artist needs to know, for example about a bird’s normal posture, or what the juveniles look like. Birds with the best camouflage, like owls and nightjars, are also a challenge.

Q What is the rarest species featured? We included some extinct species, but of those surviving, the rarest is very likely to be the Madagascar pochard. It was thought extinct until a sensational rediscovery in 2006. The wild population is around 20 to 25 birds, with very few young surviving to maturity. However, a captive population has quickly been established so the global total is now higher. There is hope that it may yet be reintroduced elsewhere in Madagascar and the population nursed back to health. Clearly its fate is totally in our hands.

Q How has the series contributed to our understanding of African birds and their conservation? You generally cannot conserve a species unless you know where it occurs and in what habitats, what it eats, how it breeds and what threats it is exposed to. All these aspects are reviewed, some for the first time, in the The Birds of Africa. Research for the series has also led to many insights into bird taxonomy and this is a crucial part of determining where to spend the still pitifully few resources that are at conservationists’ disposal. But it is not all about conservation: many common species in the region have extraordinary habits. After laying eggs, for example, the female greater Vasa parrot becomes bald and develops bright orange head skin before singing to attract males to feed her young.

Q What’s next? The Butterflies of Africa perhaps?  Or maybe reptiles and amphibians. Or the birds of Asia: it is surprising that there is still no such handbook on Asia’s birds, as there is for Europe, North America and Australasia. We have begun to distil Volume 8 into a new field guide for the region, and local language guides that make the information more accessible. This would be another leap forward for the study and conservation of Madagascar’s birds.

PLATE 1: The petrels are among the most exciting and evocative of all seabirds, and they show that it is not only among the landbirds that the Malagasy region holds species found nowhere else. Reunion holds the entire breeding populations of two petrels, Mascarene petrel and Barau’s petrel. Barau’s is quite easy to see as the birds congregate just offshore at various spots in the late afternoon before heading inland to their breeding sites on the cliffs and ravines at almost 3000m above sea level. The Mascarene petrel on the other hand remains almost completely mysterious, and is one of the rarest birds in the world. On Mauritius, or more particularly Round Island, an islet off the North coast, amazing discoveries have been made: two species (Herald and Kermadec petrels) previously thought to be confined to the Pacific Ocean have been found breeding alongside another (Trindade petrel) that is otherwise found only in the Atlantic.

PLATE 2: These illustrations serve as a reminder of a few of the species we have lost in the last few centuries. We have already wiped out the heaviest birds that ever lived (the elephant birds of Madagascar), an extraordinary range of rails, pigeons and parrots, and many more. And of course, Mauritius was the home of the dodo, and Rodrigues hosted the related solitaire: giant, terrestrial pigeons, exquisitely adapted to the islands on which they evolved, but sadly unequipped to deal with the hunting, introduced predators and habitat destruction brought by man.

PLATE 3: This plate combines the mundane with the bizarre. Guineafowl, as extant in Africa, are presumed to have been brought by man to the region centuries ago. The red jungle fowl is the ancestor of the domestic chicken and seems to have been introduced to Reunion directly from their wild homeland in Southeast Asia. The mesites, on the other hand, are among the most enigmatic birds in the world: a whole family restricted to the forest floors of Madagascar, where they arrived nearly 60 million years ago. No one is certain what they are related to, suggestions including the rails, pigeons and even cuckoos; but they don’t look much like any of these!

PLATE 4: The Malagasy region has some beautiful pigeons. The green pigeons, Namaqua dove and Comoro olive pigeon are quite like their African counterparts, although all are treated as different species or subspecies, but the exquisite blue pigeons are a class apart: found only in the Malagasy region, more like species from the Asia and Pacific region. They still survive, and are even common in places throughout the Malagasy region, although sadly the most splendid of all, the Mauritius blue pigeon, which seemed to combine the best features of all the other species, became extinct in the early 19th century.

PLATE 5: The pleasingly-named ground-rollers are another of the families found only in the Malagasy region. They are distantly related to the rollers, familiar in Africa, and of which one species, shown here, also breeds in Madagascar. They are usually elusive, especially when silent, but very beautiful. With perseverance, luck, and often a good local guide, they are not so hard to see in some of the national parks of Madagascar. Four are found in the rainforest and can all be seen in a day in and around Mantadia National Park, only three hours by road from Antananarivo; the fifth species, the long-tailed ground-roller, lives only in the spiny forest north of Toliara.

PLATE 6: Two more special families, restricted to the region, are the cuckoo-roller of Madagascar and the Comoros, and the asities of Madagascar. The cuckoo-roller is neither cuckoo nor roller, and indeed no-one knows what it is most closely related to: perhaps it belongs, like the Coelacanth fish which was for long best known from the Comoros, among the living fossils. The asities include two dumpy frugivores and two nectar feeders, looking rather like sunbirds but totally unrelated. They ooze nervous energy and are among the most beautiful birds of the region, if not the world, with their brilliant yellow underparts, glossy blue upper body and extraordinarily colourful bare skin of cobalt blue, turquoise and luminous green.