The Status of Birds in Britain and Ireland
by David Parkin and Alan Knox | 412 pages | Christopher Helm | Hardcover | 2010 | £50.00 | ISBN: 9781408125007

This authoritative work of reference (both authors are members of the BOU’s taxonomic sub-committee) gives a detailed assessment of the status and distribution of every species on the British and Irish lists for the first time since 1971, including covering each subspecies known to have occurred in the British Isles. [The book is complemented by a 32 page colour section illustrating some of the representative species and habitats.]

In 1971 the BOU published an avifaunal check-list under the name ‘The Status of Birds in Britain and Ireland’ (ISBN 0632081406) and now in 2010 after forty years Christopher Helm  [A&C Black] have published a new list under the same name  written by David T.Parkin and Alan G.Knox.

The decay of the British landscape as a result of over-population and modern agriculture was already apparent in 1970 but forty years later immigration, over-fishing and EC agriculture subsidies have had a mind boggling destructive effect on NW Europe’s nature and Britain is no exception. Hundred’s of thousands of kilometres of hedges have been cut down and burned, paid for by the European taxpayer and for what? A long list of songbirds went into decline since and the results of BTO censuses are included in the book.

Unhindered Intensive farming has diminished biodiversity; fields once full of all kinds of life forms are now more or less monoculture deserts. Only one bird has benefited: the Mediterranean Gull which thrives on fields ‘drowned’ in manure. After settling in large colonies near the Dutch-Belgian ‘manure’ belt from the late 1980’s onwards ca 500 pairs now breed in Britain.No line drawings, such as the ones which illustrated the 1971 list, have been included in the new book which is a pity. On the other hand the new book contains photographs which illustrate typical scenery and even some endemics such as Hebridean Songthrush.

Parkin and Knox have done an impressive job and no one interested in faunistics should be without their monumental work.

The weakness however is the urge to implement the most recent developments and publications at all cost. The new list is said to follow the sequence of K.H.Voous’ 1977 BOU ‘List of Recent Holarctic Bird Species’ yet the authors saw it fit to modernise Voous’ list which is confusing and unpractical as now the list begins with ducks instead of grebes which in turn are now placed before the raptors. There are more such shifts and this gives a rather messy impression. Surely it would have been better to either stick to Voous or a fully new order based on recent DNA sequencing.

The late Kenneth Williamson explained in the 1950’s which weather systems were responsible for the arrival of south-eastern rarities at Fair Isle. Not only rarities arrive under these specific circumstances. They displace common species as well, among them Blackcaps. Yet the authors seem overwhelmed by nonsense tales that Blackcaps have changed their migratory habits and are now even developing into a new form! [I totally disagree Fatbirder] It is also rather surprising that an important British bird such as the Scottish Dunlin is lumped with the Baltic Dunlin despite their obvious differences.

In the 1971 list all large white-headed gulls with grey mantles were called Herring Gull Larus argentatus and only two subspecies were recorded in Britain & Ireland: L.a.argenteus the breeding stock and nominate L.a.argentatus from the Murmansk area immigrating from July onwards in order to winter. Other Herring Gull subspecies mentioned as possible visitors but not recorded with certainty were L.a.taimyrensis,L.a.michahellis and L.a.heuglini. L.a.cachinnans wasn’t even mentioned! How the world of gulls changed! Before 1995 very few people knew the Caspian Gull L.cachinnans existed nor that it is a European breeding bird, let alone what it looked like! From colour-ring studies in the Ukraine it became clear that Caspian Gulls dispersed to W.Europe and an excellent study by Garner & Quinn in British Birds (1997) showed that Caspians spend the winter in England. Curiously enough Parkin & Knox do not even mention this important British study of a new British bird!

Parkin & Knox go to extreme length to introduce new genetic studies and translate them into modern taxonomy, very brave but also very risky as these are new unchartered waters, which may change rapidly as new results are being published almost on a monthly basis. Mixing old and new taxonomy may lead to strange conclusions. For example, Parkin & Knox state: “The nominate race (argentatus) breeds in Germany and Fennoscandia, and is dispersive rather than migratory.” The fact is that the nominate argentatus, which is recognizable by it’s dark grey mantle, does not breed in Germany nor Fennoscandia, but breeds rather exclusively along the North Russian coast near Murmansk and the adjacent part of N.Norway and as for their migratory behaviour, they fly thousands of kilometres to winter along the southern North Sea. Indeed one of the birds colour-ringed in a Norwegian project dispersed from N.Norway to Agadir in Morocco! The Dutch Herring Gull L.a.argenteus enters the Baltic in the West and then grades into the world of the Marsh Gull L.omissus, an old species which disperses westwards and sometimes reaches Britain as has been shown by ringing in the Baltic states!Another unhappy mix of old and new taxonomy which leads to almost comic results is the way Parkin & Knox deal with the Yellow-legged Gull L.michahellis. Michahellis is the name given to the Adriatic Yellow-legged Gull and thefore, all yellow-legged gulls must be given that name in classic taxonomic thinking. The reality however is that the Atlantic yellow-legs and Mediterranean yellow-legs form two distinct groups whereby the Alantic yellow-legs are small, short-legged birds with dark grey mantles while the Mediterranean yellow-legs are larger (the birds from the Camarque and NE Spain are truly colossal!), long-legged gulls with light to dark grey mantles. Historically the Atlantic gulls are the oldest, so naming them michahellis seems a bit far-fetched and confuses an already complicated case without need. The result is that Parkin & Knox paint a vague picture for the British situation, which hampers progression, unnecessary since quite a bit of knowledge on the subject has been gained over the last 20 years.The other newcomer among gulls is of course the American Herring Gull first as subspecies of L.argentatus and now as species L.smithonianus. It wasn’t even mentioned in 1971 let alone expected to turn up in Europe! Now it has.

There is one more thing that deserves more detailed clarification in my opinion and that is the geographic origin of the small breeding population of Snow Buntings in Scotland, they are said to be both the nominate Plectrophenax n.nivalis as well as the Icelandic subspecies insulae. It would be interesting to see this phenomenon illustrated.

Notwithstanding all of the forgoing, this is, all in all a great book and which I whole-heartedly recommend.

Review in large part by Norman D.van Swelm

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