Two Mighty Reference Books for Birders

December 27, 2021

A review by Frank Izaguirre

All the Birds of the World, edited by Josep del Hoyo

Lynx Edicions, 2020

967 pages, hardcover

ABA Sales–Buteo Books HABW

The Largest Avian Radiation: The Evolution of Perching Birds, or the Order Passeriformes, edited by Jon Fjeldså, Les Christidis, and Per G. P. Ericson

Lynx Edicions, 2020

445 pages, hardcover

ABA Sales–Buteo Books 15041

Corrigendum: Thanks to a tip from an attentive Birding reader and ABA podcast listener, Tim Westoll's The Complete Illustrated Check List of the Birds of the World, a book in limited circulation, has been identified as the first book to illustrate every bird species in the world in a single volume.

We’ve just about all had the thought: every bird in the world. Pretty much impossible in one birder’s lifetime, but Lynx has found a way to do it, at least in book form. All the Birds of the World is the first book to feature illustrations of all the world’s birds in a single book. There is essentially no text—it’s just wall-to-wall birds with names, maps, and minimal measurement data. Global birders will remember how in 2014 Lynx condensed the monumental 16-volume Handbook of the Birds of the World into the mere two-volume Illustrated Checklist of the Birds of the World, one book for passerines and one for non-passerines.

In the Illustrated Checklist, the layout is for the left page to have some basic species information and for the right page to have corresponding illustrations, much like the way most field guides are laid out, except that the Illustrated Checklist has the bulk of a glossy-paged hardcover. The primary way in which All the Birds of the World differs from the Illustrated Checklist is that there is essentially no text: Both the left and right pages are birds, the birds’ name, and a range map. That’s about all.

Well, not quite…

Editor Josep del Hoyo and publisher Lynx Edicions figured out a way to pack in a surprising amount of information without crowding the birds. Genus names are placed above birds in a way that makes it easy to see what birds are in the same genus. There is also a small colored circled with four quadrants, each quadrant corresponding to four major taxonomies: BirdLife International, eBird/Clements, International Ornithologists’ Union, and Howard and Moore. Depending on the color of each quadrant, readers can see which taxonomies treat the represented bird as a full species, subspecies, subspecies group, or not as an accepted taxon. Then, if there are differences between the taxonomies, there is a either a lowercase or uppercase letter that forms a pair with the other species that a particular bird “belongs” to. Every taxon accepted by at least one of the four authorities is represented. It’s really a fascinating system, and birders can quickly learn about the differences between taxonomies just by casually flipping through. One wonders if this book is in fact the fastest and easiest resource in existence for learning such discrepancies.

In addition, two-letter abbreviations indicate each bird’s global scarcity or abundance: EN (endangered), LC (least concern), etc. Each bird’s length, the elevation they are found at, and the number of subspecies for each species are also displayed. The amount of information displayed without crowding the illustrations is in itself a feat. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, a QR code links to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s own species profiles, connecting you instantly not only to Cornell’s official descriptions of each species but also to the media and data submitted by eBird users. So, for instance, if a reader learns of a fascinating, range-restricted bird they had never heard of, with a smartphone at hand, they can almost instantly see how often it has been reported to eBird, how many pictures and audio files have been uploaded, and so on.

For the global lister, All the Birds has every single-country endemic marked, and for those who can bear to mark up such a luxurious book, a subtly-shaded checkbox—easy to overlook or ignore—appears next to each bird’s name. A laminated key, which doubles as a bookmark, explains status abbreviations and how to use the quadrant system, and lists country codes used on the maps so that readers don’t have to refer back to an earlier part of the book, which is quite convenient. Key field marks are not highlighted in any way, as they are in field guides, but with every closely related species in the world as a neighbor, differences are often easy enough to discern.

The level of thought and detail that went into designing All the Birds of the World is astounding, even humbling. Perhaps we should not be surprised by such innovation from the first book to depict all the world’s birds, but it’s nonetheless enjoyable to think through the book, to consider how the editors and designers measured the levels of information available to them and figured out how to present so much knowledge without burdening the paintings.

But, in the end, the paintings are indeed the stars. More than 20,000 illustrations (!) represent a range of sexual dimorphisms, subspecies, and morphs. Many species have, in addition to their standard portrait, one or two in-flight versions in the corner of their allotted space. The unusual and variable geometric shapes that the needs of each page’s birds dictate—sometimes fairly uniform boxes and sometimes fluid contortions—have their own charm: what an adventure it must have been to lay this out. Birds with a variety of interesting forms, like Ruff for instance, are appealingly presented. The colors are, with few exceptions, vibrant, but not in a way that suggests exaggeration for its own aesthetic sake. Occasionally, some large birds, like the lyrebirds, seem constrained, almost like one of Audubon’s large bird paintings in miniature, but there is nothing that could have reasonably been done: Lyrebirds are big birds with big tails, and this book has all the birds of the world to cover. And yet, some birds, like some of the drongos with more expressive tails, are quite generously depicted, occupying large portions of the page. Small birds, for instance the wood-warblers, do not seem crowded in at all, receiving 15–20 species per page. The hummingbirds are also not crammed, with some pages having as few as 11 species. The lavishness of species with famously dramatic tails, like the Marvelous Spatuletail and the streamertails, are somewhat restrained, understandable as the scale of such hummingbirds is lessened relative to their peers so that they can fit reasonably on the page.

With few exceptions, the illustrations are crisp. In this reviewer’s copy, pp. 612–613 are blurred, making the text difficult and unpleasant to read and the illustrations of poor quality. On pp. 609 and 637, there is a similar blurred effect but not quite as bad, while on p. 614, there are shadows of another page, which also happens on pp. 634–635. These blemishes seem to be printing errors rather than mistakes of design or illustration.

The subtleties of the Myiarchus flycatchers, which are of course all presented alongside each other, are appreciable, and that is saying a lot. Same with the Thamnophilus antbirds and other such antbird genera. Again and again, indeed with almost each page turn, one is left shaking one’s head at such a remarkable ornithological, artistic, and design achievement. The amount of knowledge one can quickly and passively absorb just by flipping pages is formidable: Did you realize there were that many species in Tyto? How about Accipiter? Even if you are not a globetrotting lister, you will see your own backyard birds differently after consuming even just a little of this book.

Several appendices round out the book. One features extinct species, while a second accounts for differences in nomenclature, which can be a perhaps surprising thrill to read through. Did you know there’s a whole controversy regarding whether the scientific name of the Purple Gallinule is an adjective or a noun? You do now! A lengthy series of maps for various regions of the world and a one-page list of countries with extant endemic species ranked from most to at least lead into what is naturally a very long but also easy to navigate index.

All the Birds of the World is not inexpensive, but relative to the almost unfathomable amount of carefully and classily curated information, it’s a bargain. For the libraries of global birders, and perhaps even birders whose minds enjoy wandering to the far corners of our bird-filled world, this book deserves to be considered indispensable.

While All the Birds of the World made a big social media splash with its launch, flying more under the radar was The Largest Avian Radiation: The Evolution of Perching Birds, or the Order Passeriformes. Gorgeous in its own right, The Largest Avian Radiation is nonetheless more appropriate for birders seeking a serious reference on the evolution and distribution of that largest of avian orders, the passerines.

The book’s first illustration, a full-page painting of a Common Stonechat opposite the Table of Contents, has a simple caption: “Passerine birds inhabit all terrestrial landscapes.” What follows is an exploration of how this immense success came to be. A result of DNA sequencing research that began in Denmark and Sweden and later expanded to include researchers from all over the world, The Largest Avian Radiation has three editors—Jon Fjeldså, Les Christidis, and Per G. P. Ericson—and nineteen co-authors. The book is in some ways like a collection of peer-reviewed papers, but also a narrative, a great story of how passerines found their way to every corner of the Earth with a snag to perch on.

There are three sections. The first covers the modern view of how passerine birds came to be so spectacularly successful, a thorough primer on the topic; the second goes into detail on how different passerine families evolved; and the third synthesizes the previous two to interpret topics like how new species emerge and the conservation implications of the existing scientific knowledge on the Passeriformes.

There is a popular genre of bird book that takes scientific concepts and writes about them using accessible language, often propelled by storytelling techniques like scene and dialogue. This isn’t that. While there is an element of storytelling—perhaps two such elements really, the evolution and global spread of passerines along with the growth of scientific awareness of that evolution and spread—the story is told slowly, indirectly, through the painstaking process of building scientific knowledge.

The illustrations, all watercolors by Jon Fjeldså, are expressive and spirited, typically presenting the birds as mostly de-contextualized, as in a typical field guide. Liberated from the identification focus of a field guide, a healthy amount appear a bit more creatively than a purely straight-on perspective, clinging to a nest or contorting around a branch while feeding for instance. Many birds are illustrated, to the book’s great credit, in conglomerations of same-family groupings containing 20+ species, so there are lots of bird paintings to enjoy. Most chapters begin with a beautiful full-page print of one species in a landscape setting, such as Snow Buntings launching themselves into a cold winter air.

Shaded family maps, with darker coloration indicating higher species density, are an interesting feature, although they are not presented for each family. One learns, for instance, that the area of highest species diversity for Vireonidae, with up to 12 resident species co-occurring, is Central America. Phylogenies are a common graphic. The book in most ways looks and feels like a textbook. If reading the kind of curated knowledge that textbooks offer on the subject of passerine evolution without the pressure of an exam at the end is appealing to you, this book deserves a place on your bookshelf. Young birders who think they may wish to pursue a career as a professional ornithologist will almost certainly benefit from a look, although they run the risk of discovering through this serious and demanding text that they are less interested in ornithology than they may have thought.

Reading through the family accounts is a great way to get a sense for how passerine families differ from each other. There is material there for improving actual birding skill because one is able to build good understanding of what unique traits allowed different families to spread, specialize, adapt, and become successful, which can factor into improving field ID, especially for global birders. But reading this book is probably not the most efficient way of acquiring such knowledge, so that shouldn’t be one’s only motivation.

Passerines are the bread and butter of our hobby. They often command the bulk of our attention during migration, and at over 6,000 species worldwide, they are after all more than half of the world’s extant bird species. This is an erudite text that doesn’t skimp on beauty, in its way a dazzling homage to not just passerines, but the many brilliant people around the world who have dedicated their lives to studying them.

If you love ornithology—like, really, really, just maybe not quite to the level of reading peer-reviewed ornithology papers on the weekends—then The Largest Avian Radiation is a good book for challenging yourself. Birders poised to make a serious push to expand their global life lists might also greatly benefit—you will at least come away with excellent material for impressing your next companions on the van rides between hotspots.


Frank Izaguirre serves alongside Ted Floyd and Michael Retter as Birding magazine Editor. Frank is also Book & Media Reviews Editor at Birding and writes the biweekly Birds and... column for the ABA's website.