Open Access
How to translate text using browser tools
1 April 2004 Threatened Birds of Asia: The BirdLife International Red Data Book
Pamela C. Rasmussen
Author Affiliations +

The following critiques express the opinions of the individual evaluators regarding the strengths, weaknesses, and value of the books they review. As such, the appraisals are subjective assessments and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the editors or any official policy of the The American Ornithologists' Union.

Threatened Birds of Asia: The BirdLife International Red Data Book.–Nigel J. Collar, Editor-in-Chief. 2001. BirdLife International, Cambridge, United Kingdom. xxx + 3,038 pp., 1 appendix, many unnumbered figures, and maps. ISBN 0-946888-44-2. Cloth, $102.00.—In two massive volumes, Threatened Birds of Asia is full of well-organized and well-referenced data on the rarest birds of Asia, including Pakistan through eastern Indonesia (except Irian Jaya) to northernmost Russia. Such a work has long been needed for Asia, with its extravagantly diverse but imperiled avifauna. The book's plan and presentation should maximize its use for many purposes, because every effort has been made to ensure traceability of records, completeness of coverage, and transparency of conclusions, while an evident lack of restrictions on space has allowed for an explicitness and thoroughness rarely seen.

The outcome of several years of planning and implementation, the book has involved the collective efforts of hundreds of people from many countries, primarily in the United Kingdom and in Asia (more than 1,000 people are thanked in the Acknowledgments). To glance randomly among the main species accounts gives an inkling of the scope of coordination, compilation, and analysis necessary for this huge undertaking. The result—a monolithic work full of comprehensive accounts targeted specifically toward conservation but relevant in many other ways—is even more than one might have hoped for, because it incorporates several major advances over its predecessors for Africa and the Americas. Those advances include a more comprehensive survey of the specimen evidence, incorporation of unpublished specimen label data, and maps with each point linked to data presented in the text. This is despite the fact that the avifauna of Asia is in many ways more “difficult” than that of Africa and the Americas, given the biogeographic complexity of the region (in particular, the archipelagoes of Indonesia and the Philippines), the lack of modern ornithological coverage of many areas, and the vastly greater linguistic demands of working with ornithological literature in (for example) Chinese, Japanese, and Russian.

An informative introduction explains the data-gathering process, sources of data used (literature, museum specimens, and personal testimony), modes of referencing, organization of the text, and so on. Regional problems of inconsistent taxonomic treatment at the species level are discussed—a particularly relevant issue, given that BirdLife International has chosen the species as the basic unit for conservation. Even strongly marked taxa long deemed subspecies by standard global lists do not receive treatment in this book; that is a lost opportunity to publicize the need for their conservation, but in a book like this, it is not feasible to evaluate the status and levels of differentiation of such taxa and attempt their conservation. The introduction continues with a section covering IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources) Red List categories and criteria, and closes with a simplified analysis and overview section that will be especially useful for the nonspecialist, and a list of Asian species falling in the Critical and Endangered categories.

The maps are among the most useful features of the book. Their production clearly involved an immense amount of work, for each mapped locality is numbered and referenced in the text in a way that allows the reader to easily determine the source of the record. To accomplish that for a single species is difficult and tedious enough; its achievement here, for nearly all the species covered, is monumental. The book's mode of mapping is probably the best possible at this scale, but a few caveats for using the maps may be in order. As is pointed out in the introduction, the maps can give a false impression of how widespread—and therefore secure—some species are. That is especially true in the case of migratory birds, and in cases where the evidence behind mapped reports may be doubted — such as historical records of the Oriental Stork (Ciconia boyciana), Hooded Crane (Grus monacha), and Green Peafowl (Pavo muticus) in India. The mapped points are distinguished by shading as “historical” (pre-1950), “fairly recent” (1950–1979), and “recent” (1980 on) records, but there is no indication of the seasonality or type of record. For migratory species, perhaps a color map or one broken down by month or season could have shown the important facet of seasonality, and thus better represented the species' conservation requirements. Also, the reader cannot determine from the maps whether a given point represents a single (perhaps uncertain) record or many well-documented records year-round; nor do the maps discriminate between specimen records and sight records, though the text does.

The period categories differ in the potential problems inherent to them. The vast majority of specimen records fall into the “historical” category. Unfortunately, those records mix published reports, often of the specimens themselves, and unsupported claims in the literature. Most of the identifications in the specimen records have not been verified, which could be a problem where museum database printouts were used, especially if taxonomic shifts have occurred or the species is one of a pair or group of similar species. In the “fairly recent” period, few specimens were collected for most regions covered and few field guides were available; thus, sight records might be expected to be of lower quality than very recent ones. In the “recent” category, which might reasonably be assumed to represent a species' current range more closely than the previous categories, few vouchers have been collected, and observer effort has likely been concentrated in easily accessible, safe areas, such as national parks and sites featured in bird-finding guides. Fortunately, future researchers can perform analyses on a case-by-case basis (e.g. map only unassailable records), because every point locality is easily traceable.

Each species account begins with a statement about the species' threat status and a summary of contributing factors. For the better-known species, the accounts consist largely of a country-by-country (and for the larger countries, province-by-province) listing of records, providing date, source, and associated comments as needed for every record. Although this requires an immense amount of space and is not riveting reading, it is exactly the type of presentation that will allow future workers to re-interpret each record as needed, and to evaluate the importance of new records. Such detailed presentation of records places a far greater burden on the compilers, but it is only because of this that one can note and correct shortcomings. A few that I noticed include 12 fairly recent overlooked specimens of Gray-sided Thrush (Turdus feae; 11 in the University of Michigan Museum of Zoology; 1 in the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia; of these 11 are from from Mawphlang, Khasi Hills, Meghalaya; whereas 1 is from Karong, Manipur, India; all collected from October to December, 1951–1953). Also, for the same species, a Field Museum of Natural History (FMNH) specimen, said in the book to have come from Mawiyngkhung, is actually (according to the FMNH database) from Mawphlang—giving this unmapped locality the most specimens in all of India! Although this is probably unimportant on a global scale, and the symbol for Mawphlang would probably overlap on the map with that of Mawiyngkhung to the east, the inaccuracy might be significant to local conservation planning.

In Remarks (1) on the White-browed Bushchat (Saxicola macrorhyncha), it is noted that Paludan (1959) did not mention the species. True, Paludan did not himself encounter the species in Afghanistan and so did not discuss it in his main text, but he did include it in his “tentative list of Afghan birds” (Paludan 1959: 315), with a comment about its uncertain status in the country. The sifting of large numbers of records and the considerable effort required in cross-checking and updating every place where a given piece of information may have appeared can explain some inconsistencies, such as a pervasive mix-up on the identity of an odd chat wintering in Goa and seen by many birders. On pages 2045 (Distribution) and 2048 (Migration), it is tentatively assigned to S. macrorhyncha, but it is emphatically (and correctly) stated not to be that species on page 2046 (last paragraph of Distribution section). Under Remarks (5) on the same species, the reader might wonder why differences between female White-throated Bushchat (S. insignis, whose species account begins on the following page) and White-tailed Bushchat (S. leucura) are even mentioned, but the authors clearly intended “White-browed” here, not “White-throated” (perhaps an inadvertent advertisement for more memorable and less confusing common names in this genus).

In this era of field guides for every region of the world, some assume that misidentifications are largely a thing of the past, but parts of this book emphatically, if unintentionally, bring home the point that such is not the case. Consider the accounts for two species of adjutant storks Leptoptilos: the confusion in the literature both past and present is so overarching that one is left with the sense that few of the records are unassailable, which has consequences for assessment of the species' relative distributions and threat status. The confusion persists even though the birds are quite distinct morphologically; they have not been well served by field guides, which have engendered both false confidence and unnecessary uncertainty among observers. Similar confusion occurs with other large birds, such as vultures and pelicans, that are easily seen but difficult to identify, and for which the specimen record is far too sparse to provide a reliable framework. Aquila eagles (though represented by many more specimens) collectively form another special case of pervasive, long-term confusion in the literature, specimens, and sight records. It is unclear what can be done in a book like this but to cautiously accept most or all records, with resultant obscuring of trends.

The introduction rightly points out that the records of Richard Meinertzhagen are now known to be untrustworthy, because of his large-scale theft of specimens and replacement of original labels with new ones with fraudulent data. Meinertzhagen's records were thus largely eliminated from consideration, making this book the first to exclude them wholesale. However, an even more pervasive historical problem — that of the records from the Indian subcontinent of E. C. Stuart Baker, perhaps the most prolific author in the history of Indian ornithology — is not mentioned in the introduction. Seemingly authoritative and often cited, Baker's many works remain influential, and references to them fill the pages of the Indian subcontinent species in this book. Baker very often provided the only information available on nesting habits and seasonality, diet, vocalizations, and other aspects of the natural history of the region's birds; yet many of his records and observations are strikingly anomalous and have never been corroborated by others. The voucher specimens of rare taxa or of birds taken on the nest to which Baker so often refers have never turned up in any collection, nor have they been independently verified, and many of Baker's records have been seriously questioned (with good reason) by a succession of careful ornithologists. The problem is briefly discussed in Remarks (2) for the Gray-crowned Prinia (Prinia cinereocapilla) and in relevant species accounts referred to there, but realization of the scale of the problem evidently occurred too late in the project to be dealt with effectively. Given that numerous references to Baker's work are incorporated without query or special notice, users of the book who require factual information should be prepared in all such cases to suspend belief and seek independent corroboration.

Another problem that came into sharper focus during preparation of the book was that of the source of listings of many species from Bangladesh. Most synthetic sources have long included Bangladesh in the ranges of many species, though no one seems to know on what authority. Broad statements about species ranges through Bangladesh have been repeated from source to source, and tone range maps have attempted to replicate those statements, with resultant incongruities of occurrence and seasonality. Recent efforts to relocate many species said to have occurred historically in Bangladesh have often been unsuccessful, resulting in speculative statements about possible extinctions within the country. But the fact is that very little collecting has ever been done in Bangladesh, and primary information on the distribution of its birds is extremely incomplete; in the later stages of the project, it became clear that several threatened species had long ago simply been inferred to occur in the country. Threatened Birds of Asia is the first reference work to fully recognize and begin to deal with this matter; a discussion is found on page 830.

Many of the species covered in this book have not previously been reviewed in any detail, and certainly nothing has appeared on the vast majority of threatened species that matches the quantity of information presented in such a convenient and transparent manner. These accounts provide the most up-to-date information available on distribution, status, ecology, feeding, and nesting—for certain species, taking up many pages, whereas for others it was evidently a struggle to find any information. The coverage is comprehensive enough that anyone requiring information on any Asian threatened species should look here first.

The book incorporates all the information contained in Collar et al.'s (1999) Threatened Birds of the Philippines, which was published in Manila in a small print run that rendered it generally unavailable. That source is reproduced verbatim, but accounts for only a small percentage of the contents of Threatened Birds of Asia. Thus, owners of the Philippines volume will certainly need to acquire the Asian volumes, but owners of the latter will not need to find a copy of the former.

Above and beyond the compilation of species accounts and the analysis of distributions and biology, Threatened Birds of Asia provides several valuable services to ornithology that will enable conservation planning. Among those services is a 267-page partial bibliography of Asian birds, comprehensive in regard to threatened species; a list of the museums checked for significant holdings of threatened Asian birds, which should account for the vast majority of specimens of those species (though many smaller museums may not be listed); and gazetteers for each country including all traced localities of threatened species, which provides the capability of evaluating and redressing errors in point localization and which should eliminate much duplication of effort.

Threatened Birds of Asia is well produced and attractive, though its size makes it cumbersome. The copy sent to this reviewer is missing pages 1061–1092, but I do not know how many such deficient copies were produced. Species accounts can be downloaded for free on the Internet (, but the book (which is also available with a CD) is an excellent value for the price, and those who will use it very often will need to buy it. This is certainly an essential reference for all ornithologists and conservationists working on Asian birds, and it will no doubt prove useful to many others as well; the gazetteers alone will make it invaluable to biologists and policy-makers working on a wide variety of organisms in Asia. All major libraries should definitely acquire this book.

Literature Cited


N. J. Collar, N. A D. Mallari, and B. R. Tabaranza . 1999. Threatened Birds of the Philippines. Bookmark, Manila, Philippines. Google Scholar


K. Paludan 1959. On the birds of Afghanistan. Videnskabelige Meddelelser fra Dansk Naturhistorisk Forening i København 122. Google Scholar


Pamela C. Rasmussen "Threatened Birds of Asia: The BirdLife International Red Data Book," The Auk 121(2), 619-622, (1 April 2004).[0619:TBOATB]2.0.CO;2
Published: 1 April 2004
Back to Top