14 October 2012

Review: Owls of the World, by Heimo Mikkola

Ever since I was given a copy of Eric Hosting's Owls (Hosking, E. and Flegg, J., 1982) when I was a child, owls have been one of my favourite avian orders. Eric Hosking's classic black and white photos, such as the Barn Owl captured mid-air bringing back a vole for it's chicks, and the Snowy Owls that bred on Fetlar in the 60s and 70s, helped cement my interest in birds. Now, wherever I go birding in the world, I always try to get out at night to find some owls.

Published in August, Heimo Mikkola's Owls of the World: a Photographic Guide is the first comprehensive photographic guide to the world's owls. I recently received a complementary copy and I thought I'd write a quick review.

On opening the book it's immediately obvious that this is much more than a photographic field guide. The first part contains detailed and insightful chapters on adaptations (vision, hearing, ear-tufts, silent flight etc.), biology (including calls, colour variation and ageing, moult, diet, habitat, behaviour and movements), evolution, biogeography, taxonomy, the relationship between owls and humans, conservation, and a short section on extinct owls. There's a lot of fascinating information here, illustrated with beautiful photography, however a lot of similar information can be also found in Owls of the World (König et al. 2008).

The bulk of the book is comprised of the species accounts, focusing on identification and including basic biometrics, descriptions of adult and juvenile plumages, flight and calls (including a useful section highlighting features to look for to separate similar species), along with information on diet, hunting methods, habitat, status, distribution (with good maps) and geographic variation.

The book includes chapters on adaptations, biology, evolution, biogeography,
taxonomy, the relationship between owls and humans, and conservation.
Owls, like many other taxa, are currently in a state of taxonomic flux. This guide is based on the taxonomy and nomenclature of Owls of the World, 2nd Edition (König et al. 2008), which is rather split-happy, treating many subspecies as full species, as far as I could determine, many without formal decisions backing them up. One advantage of this approach though is that more forms, regardless of whether they turn out to be legitimate species or not, get comprehensive treatment.

No further taxonomic decisions are made in this book, but three recently split species described elsewhere are included - Hume's Hawk Owl Ninox obscura split from Brown Hawk Owl N. scutulata, Grey-bellied Little Owl A. poikilis and Northern Little Owl A. plumipes split from Forest Owlet Athene blewitti. In addition, The undescribed Santa Marta Screech Owl Megascops sp. is also included.

Subspecies are also described and those that are considered possible future splits are covered in some detail, often illustrated with photos, an example being the six different races of Philippine Hawk Owl Ninox philippensis. Note that just a few weeks after the book was published, Philippine Hawk Owl was indeed formally split, based on differences in vocalisations, and two new species formally described - Cebu Hawk Owl Ninox rumseyi and Camiguin Hawk Owl Ninox leventisi. (see John Gale's superb plate here).

However, it's the photography that really sets this book apart. Over 850 photographs illustrate all but 14 of 249 species (including colour morphs), and include high quality images of little known and rarely photographed species, such as the island endemic Otus scops owls and Ninox hawk owls. Photos of skins from the Natural History Museum at Tring in England have been included for five of the 14 species that have seemingly never been photographed. The photography throughout is excellent and it's impossible to pick favourites

Five photos by yours truly made it into the book, including this one (right) of a
Galapagos Short-eared owl Asio flammeus galapagoensis that I took on the
island of Genovesa during a year travelling around South America in 2006.
Although photos can be a useful aid to identification, I find accurate painted plates much better than photos at showing the subtle differences between similar species. The addition of good painted plates would have gone a long way to making this the ultimate guide to the world's owls, especially considering the often poor illustrations in field guides (I've also never found Friedhelm Weick's illustrations in Owls of the World (König et al. 2008) particularly inspiring).

The distribution maps are large and clear, but the range for Black-banded Owl Strix huhula does not extended eastwards enough to include Rio de Janeiro state in Brazil, where I've seen the Atlantic Forest race S. h. albomarginata on numerous occasions. Other than that, the only other criticisms I can make are that there are a few rather unnecessary nomenclature changes, for example, Long-whiskered Owlet Xenoglaux loweryi is renamed Long-whiskered Owl, and the three photos that were taken at REGUA in south-east Brazil have been incorrectly labelled as north-east Brazil.

There's no doubt that this is a beautifully produced book with well researched text (did you know there has now been a Barn Owl recorded in Antarctica?) packed cover to cover with stunning photos (the sourcing of the photos alone must have been an enormous undertaking). Although a little limited as an identification guide, Mikkola has succeeded in writing a fascinating and useful photographic reference that is worth every penny. Highly recommended to anyone interested in owls.

Owls of the World: A Photographic Guide by Heimo Mikkola (Christopher Helm, London, 2012)
ISBN: 9781408130285

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