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1 January 2001 Swifts: A Guide to the Swifts and Treeswifts of the World
Don Roberson
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Swifts: A Guide to the Swifts and Treeswifts of the World. 2nd edition.—Phil Chantler. 1998. Yale University Press, New Haven, Connecticut. 272 pp., 24 color plates, numerous maps & line drawings. ISBN 0-300-07936-2. Cloth, $40.00.—The first edition of this book appeared in 1995 among a host of similarly designed volumes on individual bird families published by Pica Press and others. Reviewers in the formal ornithological literature have often wondered for whom such texts were intended. The emphasis in these books is, as explicitly stated in this one, “first and foremost an identification guide,” yet one will surely not take a suitcase full of these volumes on any foreign field trip. The texts tended to be written by European (mostly British) field observers and are notably short on biological and ecological information. These are not the compendia of an acknowledged expert's life work, such as Short (1982) on woodpeckers or, more recently in the Oxford Press series, the wonderful syntheses by Kemp (1995) on hornbills, or Frith and Beehler (1998) on birds of paradise.

Collins (1997) concluded his review of the first edition of Swifts by suggesting that the “limited audience” for this effort was only those of “the globetrotting birding community.” By that I suppose he means someone like me. I like to have on my shelves a summary of the global state of knowledge about a group of birds, and particularly such a difficult group as the swifts (the small swifts of New Guinea and the Philippines certainly confused me in the field). I often photocopy relevant portions to take on trips; indeed, color photocopying is advanced and inexpensive enough to make copying selected color plates worthwhile. Thus I have been a sucker for those books, but, with the exception of the Oxford Press series, have been mostly disappointed. If the books are not intended to summarize all that is known about a set of birds, but, instead, emphasize identification and distribution, authors should at least (1) provide current, state-of-the art identification material, (2) adequately consult the literature and had a wide spectrum of field experts review drafts, (3) provide decent plates, (4) have distribution maps that are up-to-date and reasonably precise where a range is known, and avoid the suggestion of accuracy of a range that is not well known, and (5) be consistent and well-informed in the presentation of their perspective on contentious issues related to taxonomy, phylogeny, and English names. The efforts by Chantler on those points have fallen short in some, if not all, of those areas.

I bought the first edition of Swifts and took photocopied pages with me to Gabon and South Africa. My initial impression was this one might be better than most. The bibliography was lengthy and the acknowledgments listed several important experts on certain swifts in Africa and Southeast Asia. The Old World material seemed reasonably good (indeed, this book evolved from a paper on the identification of Western Palearctic swifts that appeared in the journal Dutch Birding) and the maps, consulted while I was in Africa, seemed adequate. However, the New World material seemed a lot weaker (see comments below). I was also not impressed with the plates and, although they acknowledge that capturing the shape of flying swifts is not easy, the paintings of the swifts in California that I am most familiar with were not very good. The reviews of the first edition generally supported those impressions. Old World field observers heaped praise (e.g. Turner 1996, Anon 1996), but a Neotropical field expert gave it a witheringly negative review (Howell 1996). Reviewers in the more formal ornithological literature were not much impressed (e.g. Perrins 1996, Collins 1997) but did make many specific suggestions for improvement. Because of this apparent feedback, I had high hopes for the second edition. Any second edition in this genre is uncommon. That one appeared five years after the first edition, giving enough time for Chantler to have considered comments and corrections from readers and reviewers and to have followed up with any experts who were not initially consulted. This would have greatly improved the product accordingly, particularly strengthening the New World material.

This second edition differs from the first in several significant ways. The artist Gerald Driessens is no longer listed as the junior author. The jacket says “several plates have been revised by the artist” but I found only one change: a new Plate 10 for African spinetails. The art is better but it was not the plate in most need of revision. The text has been renumbered and lengthened by 26 pages, and there are about 75% more bibliographic references. Yet those changes have not significantly improved the book. It's more up-to-date on some distribution details but, as stated above, the serious weaknesses noted by reviewers in the first edition have yet to be corrected. None of the many specific errors pointed out by Collins (1997) were fixed, except for a statement about the eggs of Alexander Swift (Apus alexandri; more on that below). Seemingly innumerable mistakes weakened the impressive-looking bibliography. Collins noted the misuse of “Anon.” in the bibliography when the author is actually known; those errors have been quadrupled in the new edition (none cited in the volume are anonymous, unlike the unsigned short review below cited as Anon 1995). The additional references in the second edition do not actually reflect a more thorough in-depth revision. Surely the only published account of a swift in the Birds of North America series would have been consulted, but Bull and Collins (1993) was overlooked for the account of Vaux's Swift (Chaetura vauxi).

Chantler does cite several other papers published by Evelyn Bull, but those are all erroneously listed in the bibliography under “John Bull” (of New York state fame). In addition, Howell (1996) questioned whether the artist had ever “seen a live, free-flying Neotropical swift.” I now wonder how many of the bibliographic references were actually read by the author. And, although the dust jacket claims the first edition was “highly acclaimed,” it seems as if the author or publisher ignored the negative reviews.

In a book whose first line claims it “is first and foremost an identification guide,” the identification sections are the subject of special scrutiny. The biggest identification challenge in North America is Vaux's versus Chimney (C. pelagica) swifts. Chantler says that Vaux's Swift is “best distinguished from Chimney Swift by its more highly contrasting rump and uppertail-coverts, generally paler grey-brown plumage, and best of all by the underpart pattern.” Whereas those plumage differences provide useful secondary points, I consider size, shape, and vocalizations significantly more important. When the two species occur together (as they occasionally do in California and elsewhere), size and shape differences are apparent. Even when the species are not present together, size comparisons with frequently adjacent swallows can be helpful (e.g. Vaux's Swift is nearly as small as Violet-green Swallow [Tachycineta thalassina], and the Chimney Swift is a tad larger than the Barn Swallow [Hirundo rustica]).

Not only does this guide to swifts fail to mention size and shape differences, but the two are painted nearly the same size and shape in the plates. In addition, the line sketch of purported differences in Vaux's Swift when the tail is spread or not does not match my field experience with the Vaux's Swift over the past few weeks. Further, vocal differences are another key but Chantler's comment that Vaux's Swift is “rather softer than Chimney” is of little help. Reference to Bull and Collins (1993) would have helped. They describe the Vaux's Swift “high-pitched, rapid chipping and buzzy insect like twitter given in flight” as compared to “Chimney Swift vocalization lower-pitched with sharper chips predominating.” Kimball Garrett's pithy characterization, that a Vaux's Swift “sounds like a Chimney Swift on steroids,” captures the difference between the two species well. But Chantler did not read Bull and Collins or contact Garrett (whose name is misspelled “Garnst” in this book, an error pointed out in review four years ago and left uncorrected).

The distribution maps for California swifts in the first edition could have been improved in the second. For example, although the scale was sufficient to map the Vaux's Swift breeding range in Santa Cruz and Monterey counties south of San Francisco, it is not shown for this area despite a series of relevant publications, including Roberson and Tenney (1993) and Sterling and Paton (1996), that included maps.

Taxonomic and name decisions by Chantler were also unsettling. Having some field experience with Hydrochous gigas (Giant or Waterfall Swiftlet) in Java, I was surprised that the first edition had merged that genus with Collocalia swiftlets. Since the first edition, more recent research has supported Hydrochous as a monotypic genus (Lee et al. 1996, Holmgren 1998). Despite discussing some evidence in the second edition, Chantler has not revised his generic assignment. That seems particularly ill advised because a hefty portion of the introduction delves into differentiating the genera of swifts. Likewise the English name “Papuan Swift” is a particularly poor choice for the enigmatic Collocalia papuensis, one of the rarest and least-known New Guinea species, and called by all Papuan authorities (e.g. Somadikarta 1967, Coates 1985, Beehler et al. 1986) the distinctive and useful name “Three-toed Swiftlet.” Although Chantler's work could be influential, he showed poor judgment in choosing Sibley and Monroe's (1990) misleading and ambiguous name over the long-established moniker.

All this brings into question the quality of the author's research and judgment in the development of this book. To further illustrate, consider the question of the color of the eggs of Apus alexandri, a species endemic to the Cape Verde Islands. Although seemingly an obscure issue, egg color has been considered of taxonomic importance (e.g. Brooke 1971). Citing Bannerman and Bannerman (1966 [sic = 1968]), the first edition of Swifts said “This species is unique in the Apodidae in having finely red-brown freckled (most densely clustered at broadest end), not pure white eggs.” What Bannerman and Bannerman actually said, referring to a set collected by Alexander (1898), was “These [eggs] were white, minutely freckled with reddish-brown, forming a faint zone round the larger end.” (I read that as tiny freckles around the large end only, not throughout, but I digress.) In the second edition of Swifts, this text is replaced by the following, “eggs plain white (not ‘red-brown’ freckled)” citing Hazevoet (1995). What Hazevoet actually said was (internal citations omitted):

“Brooke found that alexandri has no close relatives and, for that reason, gave it specific rank. His judgment appears to be at least partly based on the supposition that alexandri is the only swift that does not lay plain white eggs, those described by Alexander being freckled with reddish brown. The eggs collected by Naurois, however, were pure white and those collected by Alexander were presumably misidentified.”

This is detailed stuff but perhaps not unimportant. Hazevoet (1995) is an unabashed proponent of the phylogenetic species concept and, under that concept, egg color is not relevant when discussing species-level taxonomy. Yet, discounting Alexander's eggs as “presumably misidentified” is surely just speculative at this point. Nothing in Alexander's (1898) or Bannerman and Bannerman's (1968) detailed discussion suggests that the nest found by Alexander with its two eggs were other than the swift's. If these eggs were misidentified, what were they? Are they extant? If so, wouldn't it be worthwhile to check them out, especially if one was writing a major new monograph on swifts? (The implication in Hazevoet is that Alexander deposited the material in the British Museum and, therefore, could be examined.) Whatever the answers, the issue is not as simple as changing the egg description details from “red-brown freckled” (first edition) to “plain white, not ‘red-brown’ freckled” (second edition). In ornithology, as in politics, the devil is in the details, and I am not convinced the details were appropriately researched for this volume.

Thus, despite my initial high hopes, I cannot recommend this new edition. If one already owns the first edition, the revisions in this new work do not justify paying the price again. Those areas in most need of reworking have not been changed and some new material appears hastily compiled and ill-advised. If you don't own the book, I recommend Chantler's (1999) text in Volume 5 of the Handbook of the Birds of the World series. You'll get much of the same material plus better plates (by Ian Lewington) and spectacular color photos (not to mention the summaries on owls, nightjars, and hummingbirds). If a small volume summarizing information about Old World swifts is of use to you, Chantler's Swift book will fill that niche. However, you should probably look elsewhere for information about New World swifts.

Literature Cited


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Don Roberson "Swifts: A Guide to the Swifts and Treeswifts of the World," The Auk 118(1), 274-277, (1 January 2001).[0274:]2.0.CO;2
Published: 1 January 2001
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