The Handbook

AS I STAGGERED back from my 16 mile walk in the sun the other week, a neighbour stopped and asked me if I was interested in some bird books he had been given which were sitting in his garage, waiting until he could find for a suitable home for them. He showed me four hefty volumes published by the RSPB in the early 1980s. They were still in their original packaging and in excellent conidition. It shows how incoherent I was after my walk that I didn’t immediately realise what they were.

A short search on Google revealed that these were in fact the first four volumes of the monumental nine volume Birds of the Western Palearctic. That’s the subtitle by which they’re generally known but the actual title is Handbook (some handbook; you wouldn’t get far with these in your haversack!) of the Birds of Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. The RSPB printed an ‘orthnithologists edition’ limited to 5000 copies. With a bit of reorganising I’ve managed to fit them on my shelves. Now all I need to do is track down the remaining five volumes.

When Barbara and I were staying on Skokholm Island, the warden described Birds of the Western Palearctic as ‘the most boring bird book ever published’; what he meant was that you couldn’t really browse through it for pleasure but when it comes to information about a species, if something you’ve observed isn’t mentioned in the text, then it’s probably new to science. Barbara and I had been watching Jackdaws carrying shells into their nesthole in a rabbit burrow on the cliff-top near The Neck on Skokholm. The warden was soon able to tell us that there is no mention of shells in the list of nesting materials in the entry on Jackdaws, so that’s probably something that has never been observed and recorded in birdwatching literature.

I’m really grateful to my neighbour and I feel as if the books waiting for me to come along and put them to some use. Earlier this year, I decided that it was about time that I started exploring the wilder corners of Europe – hence our holiday in Switzerland – and the Western Palearctic is the ecozone that our continent occupies. I don’t know why I should ever need to refer to a description of a bird with that level of detail but it’s reassuring to have such an authoritative source of birding wisdom available.

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