The Directory of Australian Birds. Passeriformes: A Taxonomic and Zoogeographic Atlas of the Biodiversity of Birds in Australia and its Territories.—R. Schodde and I. J. Mason. 1999. CSIRO Publishing, Canberra, Australia. x + 851 pp., numerous text figures. ISBN 0-643-06457-7. Cloth, AUS $180.00 (available from <sales@publish,csiro.an>).—Assessment of the species-level taxa of Australian birds has been a major problem ever since the publication in the early part of this century of the many volumes of The Birds of Australia by G. M. Mathews. A predominant difficulty has been the location of the largest collections of Australian birds, including most of the type specimens, in European and North American museums. For several decades, Richard Schodde and Ian Mason have built up the largest current Australian collection of Australian birds with excellent label data at CSIRO-Wildlife in Canberra. They have used this material as t foundation for a review of the species taxa of this avifauna. In addition, Schodde has examined the important collections of Australian birds in overseas museums, paying particular attention to the type specimens in to clarify the nomenclature of these birds. The results of this enormous labor on the passerines of Australia are presented in this volume.
The species taxa recognized in this treatment are based on the biological species concept, and this volume includes a discussion of the advantages of this species concept and the species taxa based on it. However, because this treatment of Australian passerines is also intended for use by general biologists, conservation managers, bird watchers, and interested lay persons, the authors felt that a general term for the basic units of Australian avian biodiversity was needed. This need is not well served by the phylogenetic species concept that would result in species taxa with widely different properties. Hence, the concept of the ultrataxon—a neutral grouping—was proposed to delimit the geographic units, generally subspecies, within species-level taxa. Use of the term “ultrataxon” is equivalent to the legal definition of “species” in some laws such as the U.S. Endangered Species Act, and it avoids all of the problems and shortcomings associated with species taxa under the phylogenetic species concept.
The area covered is Australia and its territories (e.g. Norfolk and Lord Howe Islands), and extends to Christmas, Cocos, Macquarie, and Heard islands, as well as the Australian Antarctic Territories. Accepted vagrants are treated briefly in a supplementary list covering only the Australian region.
Each species taxon description begins on a new page and, for each, the ultrataxa (subspecies) are presented with a brief description of each with a standard map showing its breeding range and zones of intergradation, if any. Species taxa, whether monotypic or polytypic, are not described. Synonymies for species-group names are not given. Other discussion is brief and often includes taxonomic (including comments on the genus, the species, and ultrataxa) and nomenclature circumscriptions. Because of an ingenious scheme for subdividing Australia into geographic regions and subregions, and using acronyms for habitats (see p. 9), the included information for each species and the ultrataxa is immense. When combined with the detailed citations, this organization provides the reader with full information of the biodiversity and distribution of Australia's passerines. A number of new subspecies is described; these are clearly noted in the text and are listed in Chapter 4 with all other taxonomic changes proposed in this work. Families are introduced on a blue background that makes the start of each family easy to spot simply by looking at the edge of the volume. Each family is delimited and the genera rather briefly discussed. Authors and dates for generic names are not given, nor are generic-group synonymies included.
The same map of Australia, with state boundaries, cities, river systems, mountain ranges, and deserts, is presented on the front and back end FPAGE. Additional maps (fig. 1, p. 9) showing geographic regions and subregions, and historic geographic barriers (fig. 2, p. 787), together with acronyms of habitat types, are provided. Extensive glossaries (27 pp.) for geographic, taxonomic, biological, etc., terms are provided, as is a large bibliography (23 pp.) as well as complete indices of scientific and common names (16 pp.). Although information about the diversity and distribution of Australian birds in this volume is terse, every effort was made by the authors to insure that users can find it.
The scheme followed in this volume allows the presentation of each ultrataxon in a clear and unambiguous way regardless of different opinions on the taxonomic status of the taxon. Hence, the endangered Black-eared Miner, often considered a separate species, is included here as the ultrataxon Manorina flavigula melanotis (p. 270), with a full discussion of the evidence supporting or refuting the advocated taxonomic position. In a similar manner, the Varied Sittella (Daphoenositta chrysoptera; p. 428) is treated as a complex of five ultrataxa in a single species rather than five separate species, again with a full discussion of the evidence, in this case, supporting the decision. In this way, the 720 ultrataxa of Australian perching birds are clearly and consistently arranged in 340 species taxa corresponding to the biological species concept such that the information is available and useful to a diversity of ornithologists from the pure systematist to the practical conservation manager.
This initial volume of The Directory of Australian Birds is one of the most important works to be published in a number of decades on the diversity and distribution of a continental avifauna. It is certainly the most important such work to appear for Australian birds. Although an outstanding significant reference work for anyone with the slightest interest in the Australian avifauna, I can recommend it to everyone from bird watchers and conservation specialists to scientific ornithologists in all fields as the baseline for the systematics and distribution of Australian passerines. Richard Schodde and Ian Mason are to be congratulated for their several decades of hard work collecting the data needed to write this volume and for producing such an outstanding work. All ornithologists can look forward with anticipation and pleasure to the appearance of the promised two additional books in this series.