Sunday, April 6, 2008

The Clements Checklist of Birds of the World: 6th Edition

This hefty but user-friendly compendium lists more than 9,800 species of birds and was near completion when Jim Clements died in 2005. At the behest of his widow Karen Clements, the torch has been picked up by The Cornell Lab of Ornithology under the direction of John Fitzpatrick, who provides the preface. The volume opens with a touching tribute to Clements from Jared Diamond, his friend and collaborator on previous editions. The checklist itself provides the species name (English then scientific) followed by a list of the major subspecies with a brief summary of world range for each. The inclusion of subspecies is critical in my view, to emphasize that species are more than simple check marks and to allow users to keep track of future taxonomic changes. It is hard to think of a better example of a moving target than a checklist of birds of the world. Avian names and affinities are in a constant state of flux and there are many points or disagreement or outright ambiguity. To help address this, and keep the volume semi-current, a compendium of updates and corrections will be maintained on-line by the Lab of Ornithology at Cornell. Common or English names present one of the thorniest areas and a planned electronic update will feature a comprehensive list of species that have different English names from those used by Clements and the International Ornithological Congress (IOC). A weakness, however, is that justifications are given for any of the decisions/choices. I appreciate that this challenging for such a huge list but referencing to key publications would help. This is probably where the web could be most useful. Presumably Clements and his team have extensive notes to back up each of their choices, and it is a shame that the information cannot somehow find its way into the public domain.

In 1983, the American Birding Association (ABA) accepted Clement's Birds of the World as the standard for species found outside of the ABA and AOU Checklist areas. Besides the world listers, I imagine many traveling birders will find this reference volume useful as an organized list of recognized subspecies and for clarification of common bird names. Those who own the complete set of Handbook of the Birds of the World (Lynx Edicions) can find similar information, but not in such a convenient format. There are of course other checklist out there. Edward Dickinson's 3rd edition of the Howard & Moore Checklist (2003) has been well-recieved, not least because of the much more extensive cross-referencing to the scientific literature and the bibliography contains ~3,000 items. A 4th edition is expected in 2009.

Turning back to Clements, I keep gazing at the exquiste cover photograph of a male Banded Pitta by Wicha Narungsri, which evokes fond memories of Thailand's broadleaf forest.

Title: The Clements Checklist of Birds of the World
Sixth Edition.
Author: James F. Clements.
Publisher: Cornell University Press.
Pages: 844 pages, 8 3/4 x 11 1/4, tables, maps.
ISBN: 0-8014-4501-9.
Published: June 2007.
Retail Price: U$59.95.

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