Open Access
1 July 2000 Rails: A Guide to the Rails, Crakes, Gallinules and Coots of the World
David W. Steadman
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Rails: A Guide to the Rails, Crakes, Gallinules and Coots of the World.—Barry Taylor. 1998. Yale University Press, New Haven, Connecticut. 600 pp., 43 color plates, 15 text figures. ISBN 0-300-07758-0. Cloth, $49.95.—Among the many family-level bird books that appeared in the 1990s, this is one of the best. Barry Taylor's encyclopedic knowledge of rails leaps from every page of this carefully researched book. Whatever criticisms I put forth here do little to dampen my overall enthusiasm for Rails, a book with small but legible print that packs more good information than any mortal could ever absorb.

With clarity, conciseness, and fairness, the introductory section covers the topics of phylogeny, classification, morphology, flightlessness, habitat, feeding, voice, behavior, breeding, movements, conservation, and extinction. Taylor presents the information objectively, unafraid of controversy where it exists, such as in the classification of rails. The new book is much more thorough than the rail chapter that Taylor wrote for the Handbook of the Birds of the World, vol. 3 (del Hoyo et al. 1996). Previous to Taylor's efforts, the last time that all rails were treated in book form was in the lavish, large-format Rails of the World by S. Dillon Ripley (1977). Except for Storrs Olson's chapter on fossil rails (which is now obsolete in parts but still very useful) and certain of the color plates by J. Fenwick Lansdowne, little need now exists for ornithologists to reach for Ripley's Rails.

The species accounts follow a standard format, furnishing 145 species of rails (133 extant, 12 extinct) with a distribution map and a text with sections on taxonomy and nomenclature, identification, voice, description, measurements, geographic variation, molt, distribution and status, movements, habitat, food and feeding, habits, social organization, social and sexual behavior, and breeding and survival. These accounts serve as a proxy for how much we know about some species (13 FPAGE worth for Porphyrio porphyrio and 12 for Gallinula chloropus, for example) and how little we know about others, such as less than one page for the historically extinct Porzana monasa or for the extant Rallina leucospila.

The distribution maps are very useful but would be even more so with the addition of place names. This is especially true for the widespread oceanic species Gallirallus philippensis, Porzana tabuensis, and P. porphyrio. Most of the maps are fairly accurate, although for P. porphyrio, southern Tonga (Tongatapu, 'Eua) and nearly all of the Solomon Islands are erroneously excluded from the range. The map for Porzana tabuensis also has inaccuracies. I would add, however, that Taylor's accounts of these three difficult species are outstanding and by far the most useful ever written.

The color plates by Ber van Perlo are generally accurate and artistically gratifying. Multiple depictions for most species cover much of the variation due to age, sex, or geography. Some of the birds are too pale; the colors should be more saturated in, for example, various species of Gallirallus and Porzana (plates 14 and 28). A few other plates are too red. The soft-part colors are inaccurate for some poorly known species, such as for both species of Nesoclopeus (plate 11).

Extinction is no small topic when discussing rails; if not for anthropogenic extinction, more species of rails would be alive today than of any other family of birds. Taylor discusses extinction of island rails thoroughly, reviewing even some of the massive amount of extinction that took place prehistorically on oceanic islands. This sets his book apart from most modern treatments of avian biogeography, which ignore human-caused extinctions that occurred before 1600.

Because of their secretive habits, many species of rails are difficult to detect and therefore difficult to survey. Large-scale population estimates are simply unavailable and unrealistic to attempt for most species. Thus, the conservation status is highly speculative for many, perhaps most, species of rails. On average, Taylor does a much better job than many conservationists in not crying wolf about species whose status is, in fact, either poorly known or simply not qualified for the subjective classification “endangered.” An exception would be Nesoclopeus woodfordi, which he calls “globally ENDANGERED and possibly close to extinction” (p. 230) in spite of being “locally common” (p. 231) on the large island of Isabel. During my field work on Isabel in 1997, N. woodfordi was common in riverine forest and was well known to local people. It is not close to extinction.

To continue with Nesoclopeus, I was disappointed to see that Taylor repeated the oft-made but illogical claim that N. woodfordi of the Solomon Islands and N. poecilopterus of Fiji form a “superspecies” and may even be conspecific. These two flightless species are distinct from each other morphologically, and they live on islands that are separated by 2,200 km of deep ocean. Just as untenable is suggesting superspecies status for P. monasa and P. atra (p. 422), two flightless species that are isolated by 6,000 km of deep ocean and hundreds of intervening islands.

Among my minor quibbles, unavoidable in a work as extensive as Taylor's, are using “eruptive” rather than “irruptive” (p. 37), “classed” rather than “classified” (p. 349), and various misspelled island names (p. 361). Pettiness aside, Rails is a book that will never be far from my reach. Barry Taylor has set a very high standard for future family-level bird books.


David W. Steadman "Rails: A Guide to the Rails, Crakes, Gallinules and Coots of the World," The Auk 117(3), 840-841, (1 July 2000).[0840:RAGTTR]2.0.CO;2
Published: 1 July 2000
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