Robins and Chats, by Peter Clement and Chris Rose
Published by Christopher Helm
This is the latest in the long-running series of Helm Identification Guides – and like the others it is an impressive and weighty tome. A previous Helm volume by Peter Clement on the Thrushes appeared in 2000. At that time it was thought that Robins and Chats were closely related to Thrushes, but improvements in DNA analysis and a more advanced approach to phylogeny means that we now have a much clearer understanding of how these birds relate to each other. So 15 years on it is now generally accepted that the Robins and Chats are in fact part of a large group called the Muscicapidae – the Old World Flycatchers. But just to add to the potential for confusion, none of the species in this book has the word “flycatcher” in its name because they are in a subfamily. Also I suspect that in a further 15 years our understanding of these family relationships will have advanced further. The one easy thing to know about taxonomic research is that there is no such thing as “the last word”! But who said that taxonomy was easy?!
So this book takes 168 species that really are Robins and Chats, and adds in a further eight that really are not, but got left out when the Thrushes book was created. These include the only North American species in this book – the three Bluebirds. However I have included some page samples of these as they are familiar to many NTN readers. Also in this category are the four species of Cochoa and the similar-looking Black-breasted Fruithunter – all from Asia.
The Robins and Chats are really great birds, most of which are not keen on being approached, and are among the most sought-after by world listers. Indeed some – such as the Akaklats and Alethes – are real skulkers. They range across a wide variety of habitats but most choose scrubby areas or woodland, with just the Forktails preferring to be next to water. They are found from ground level right up to the snowy peaks of the high Himalayas. As a group they are spread across the “Old World” with 67 breeding in Asia, 77 in Africa and the rest being shared with either of these continents and Europe. About half are migratory in a significant way.
The introductory chapters discuss the family’s characteristics and there is much emphasis on taxonomy. A special chapter by the Swedish taxonomist Per Alström explains how species are linked together and shows how this aspect of ornithology has moved on a long way in a relatively short time.
For many the highlight will be the 62 colour plates illustrating the family by the internationally renowned artist Chris Rose. These mostly picture the birds perched facing the same way, allowing for direct comparisons to be made. With the exception of the Wheatears (whose tail patterns are often diagnostic), these are not usually shown in flight. There are other line drawings in the main text, depicting specific plumage details.
The species chapters following this cover everything you need to know – on identification, taxonomy, comparisons with similar species, voice, choice of habitat, behaviour, breeding, status and distribution movements, moult and measurements. These vary in length from about 2000 to 8000 words. There is a large colour distribution map for every species, clearly indicating both breeding and non-breeding areas, but leaving you to work out where the species might occur on passage. The latter is obvious in most cases. However, if you take a migrant such as the Northern Wheatear, the entire world population winters in Africa. That is truly incredible when you consider that the breeding range stretches from eastern Canada and Greenland, across the whole of northern Europe and Asia to Alaska. There is a lengthy text describing these movements, and while I’m sure there are still more questions than answers about this migration, some graphical indication of the routes thought to be taken would have been interesting.
For me, a highlight of the book is the superb set of over 400 colour photographs illustrating all but one species – the Rubeho Akalat of a remote mountain area in central Tanzania. It was only described for science in 2004 and has proved to be camera-shy ever since! These really make the book for me – and every time I pick it up I start to think about planning a trip to somewhere new to find some of these birds. While that is only one way to assess a book, it has to be one of the better ways to decide whether it is worth buying!