Ber van Perlo, Birds of Mexico and Central America

It’s a great idea, the “illustrated checklist,” and as Princeton University Press keeps turning them out, I’m beginning to wonder whether Ber van Perlo may soon become the only illustrator in history to have painted every bird in the world.

Unlike a full-scale (and full-weight) field guide, the Princeton Illustrated Checklists offer only densely packed color plates, with terse facing-page descriptions of field marks, habitat, voice, and distribution. The seven Myiopagis and Elaenia flycatchers in this volume, for example, are dispatched in eight images and 21 lines of tiny type–and share their plate with no fewer than ten other tyrant flycatcher species. A few openings feature as many as 20 species; in the case of the swallows, for example, or the northern warblers, several plumages and attitudes are presented for each species, making the plates so ludicrously crowded as to be essentially useless.

This, of course, is the price to be paid for the PICs’ great advantage, their portability. The standard guides to Mexico, Costa Rica, Belize, and Panama combined would add nearly 10 pounds to the thorough birder’s backpack. The present volume, covering all of the bird species in the AOU area south of the United States, comes in at just over a pound, or about one third the dry weight of Howell and Webb; this truly is a pocket book, easy to carry and quick to consult in the field.

Many birders over the years have devised their own approach to the weight problem: they have their heavy field guides disbound and the plates assembled into a new, slimmer volume for carrying. But the PIC has several advantages over even this Solomonic solution. First, the facing-page captions in the PIC contain voice and habitat information generally found only in the texts of the larger guides. Furthermore, the PIC includes range maps for each of the species covered, a feature absent from the plates of any of the national guides. Complete indices give English, Spanish, and scientific names for each species. And, perhaps most importantly, the PIC illustrates every one of those species, including, critically, a large number of North American breeders for which the standard field guides, in an attempt to save space and weight, provide only a reference to a North American guide.

The paintings, several thousand of them, are the most important component of the PIC. Plumage patterns appear to be depicted accurately, and the level of detail is often surprisingly fine on images so small. Unfortunately, van Perlo has a noticeable tendency to give his birds oddly “friendly” expressions, making even such lean, mean, bug-eating machines as Northern Mockingbirds look downright cuddly. His large parrots grin disarmingly where they should leer threateningly, and I’d hardly think twice at meeting this book’s Great Black-backed Gull in a dark alley. This is unlikely to bother the birder using the volume as a memory jogger, but anyone attempting to learn the birds from this book is likely to be led astray.

The inclusion of voice descriptions is a nice touch here, but the terminology used is not intuitive to a native speaker of English, and the definitions provided in the introductory matter are not carried through in the text. The trumpet of Whooping Crane, for example, is described as “high/very high,” terms defined earlier as corresponding to “the average pitch of a woman’s voice (e.g., oystercatcher).” I know very few women whose voice, absent the judicious application of helium gas, is nearly as high as the squealing of an oystercatcher, and the call of the crane is very much lower. Should this book be re-issued, these voice descriptions will require thorough revision.

The English and scientific names used in the book rely largely on the AOU Check-List, though with a number of unexpected deviations. Of course, the latest revisions (Tringa, the terns) are not included here–or in any other standard field guide for the American continents. Blue Grosbeak is still given its own monotypic genus Guiraca (merged into Passerina a Supplement or two ago), and its English name here is simply “Grosbeak.” The Spanish names are said to reflect Mexican and Costa Rican usage, though numerous local variants are included in the index.

For many birders accustomed to carrying a guide in the field, the PIC will prove a useful and handy aide-mémoire. But it really can be no more than that, and any birder tempted to rely on this as her or his primary guide to the region’s incredibly rich avifauna should resist, and immediately seek immersion in Howell and Webb or in Ridgely’s Panama.