For those who follow my reviews, you know how much ‘message’ means to me. Messages that raise awareness, awe and appreciation, foster love for our planet and educate us as to Her fragility, monitor the health of species and ecosystems, and offer hints on being better stewards of the Earth.
This time, that’s not what my review is about.
Readers also know of my passion for field guides, themselves, as beloved, tactile, visual, physical objects – especially if they come with hand-drawn or painted plates.
What we have here is a very ambitious and undoubtedly arduous undertaking that might be a triumph if not for the lay-out artist who took the paintings and actually designed how the birds were to be arranged on each page.
If it was the charming and talented Ber van Perlo, himself, as the author and artist, who did the plate design for Birds of South America Passerines, then – Well, follow along with me.
The first thing this reviewer opened to when unpacking the book was a long, blank, vertical space in the middle of a page where small bird paintings lined both edges, many facing out of the book, or with heads tucked so deeply into the crease of the binding that all you see is white space and tails. See page 257, the Greenlets, for example.
There were many pages like that. Or worse.
Why the distracting, conspicuous, disconcertingly empty centers? Why hide birds by nearly burying them in the glue?
Why didn’t the book editor, designer or proofer catch that?
This book wastes so much space on some pages and crams so many birds onto others. More perplexing is that, even on some of the ‘full’ pages, there is still a large white space right in the middle of the page. Sometimes it’s even circular. Like a bulls-eye.
It screams, “Look HERE. At NOTHING!”
Studying the final plate, with just seven birds on it, surely there was a way to give them a more pleasing arrangement with larger images and less empty space and still keep all of them out of the gutter.
Since this isn’t something that normally grabs my attention, I thought I’d check out some other field guides to see if I ‘m just in an overly-sensitive frame of mind.
In the volume, also by van Perlo and also published by Princeton University Press, Birds of Hawaii, New Zealand and the Central and West Pacific, these concerns don’t come up, even though on close inspection you can find them. A little. But only on a couple pages, and even then, unless one is primed to look for them, they’re not readily apparent.
Not that it’s necessarily easy to lay images out in a field guide to appropriately meet all needs, from ease of use to geographic ranges or family grouping, etc. But, this is Princeton University Press – Just look at most of their other guides, such as Birds of New Guinea Second Edition by Pratt and Beehler. Those pages, beautifully laid-out, thick and full with imagery, are rich and beautifully rendered, with no wasted space and images large enough to comfortably study. They are a joy to skim over, a delight to inspect.
If nothing else, those empty spaces in Birds of South America Passerines, could have been filled with illustrations of nests, favorite trees, habitat, feeds, even courting behavior, chicks or eggs. But, curiously, with one exception (a fruiting tree species favored by many birds, illustrated on page 417), there is nothing here but the birds, themselves. And, of course, the empty white spaces.
Next, in the introductory chapters, the tiny, thin font used is a real challenge to read (thankfully, fonts for the plates are clear and legible). Bearing in mind that many readers will be retired or older adults with the time and financial ability to actually travel to other countries on birding expeditions, catering to the needs of older users might be a smart strategy.
The map of the covered region (on page 11), in particular, has text so tiny, I’m unable to read some of the place names even with my non-prescription reading glasses on.
There must have been a way to use a larger, darker or clearer font. There is enough room. Again, were these pages proofed for legibility before publishing?
With such a high reputation for consistent quality at Princeton University Press, these kinds of oversights in Birds of South America Passerines, is disappointing.
OK, enough picking at design.
On now to the art, itself.
Looking closely at the (sometimes tiny) full color sketches, it’s evident they are just that: Quick, loose, sometimes hasty sketches, like field sketches, or rough-painted birding notes, rather than finished paintings.
Not that there’s anything wrong with color sketches. Not at all! Many times the energy, vitality and life found in such field sketches far surpasses stiff, stolid portraits. There are many favorites of mine, such as One Man’s Island, A Naturalist’s Year, by Keith Brockie, in which it’s the hand of the artist, the obvious marks of the creator, that make the work so visually and emotionally satisfying.
The sketches in this volume brought to mind, right away, a beloved old, quirky, clumsy but classic book from my early days collecting field guides, The Birds of South Vietnam, by Philip Wildash.
Are van Perlo’s illustrations as charming?
Certainly van Perlo has produced some mouth-watering eye-candy over the years. He can present the gist, gesture and gestalt of our avian friends with quick brush strokes. But it seems to depend on the format of the book he’s working on – Are his drawings here free, loose and sketchy, or sometimes just plain sloppy? Some of the more careless examples, such as the black-chested tyrants on page 189, give the impression that he was in a hurry to just get done with them, yet on page 69 the bare-eyes and antbirds are beautifully and precisely (cleanly) rendered.
Unfortunately, while many of his sketches are pleasing, I have to wonder how accurate they really are. For instance, the cedar waxwing is a familiar North American visitor, always impeccably and almost unbelievably well dressed – Smooth, clean, tight bright plumage, not a feather out of place. But, in Ber van Perlo’s illustration, the cedar waxwing is a pale, pudgy, droopy-looking impostor. Somehow, one of my favorite species lost all his dapper good grooming and fell into disrepair.
Any images of similar questionable quality in the Hawaii guide aren’t showing it so readily, maybe due to the layout of the plates. So, perhaps it’s not the work itself at fault, it’s the presentation.
Next question is: How useful is the book when faced with trying to key out a bird in the field? When examining page 41, with the confusingly similar antwrens, some way of highlighting key field marks would go a long way to making identification easier – Or even possible.
Nothing that an experienced birder can’t deal with. Key word being ‘experienced.’
Lastly, focus being on birds of one of the most biodiverse, most imperiled regions on Earth, encompassing the rapidly-vanishing rain forests of South America – While this book is already quite large, surely it would have been possible to include one page on conservation concerns, or a colored dot or something next to each description indicating threat, rarity or healthy population status of each bird.
So, in the end, is this book recommended?
Yes, for comprehensive coverage of species, many of which might be unfamiliar even to North Americans, who tend to think of our southern tropical neighbor as being full of nothing but parrots and hummingbirds.
There are many glowing reviews of this new guide, which completes the set along with Birds of South America: Non-Passerines: Rheas to Woodpeckers, by
Francisco Erize, Jorge R. Rodriguez Mata, & Maurice Rumboll, (which I have not had to opportunity to review). So to say otherwise may be a foolhardy or even reckless thing.
But in this (exceedingly rare) instance, a book with so much promise simply falls short of this reviewer’s expectations.