Birds of the West Indies by Norman Arlott

Birds of the West Indies. Norman Arlott. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010. 240 pages.

Simply put, I find the West Indies to possess one of the most interesting avifaunas in the Americas. Although I’ve only been blessed to visit the region once, I find island endemism to be one of the most interesting topics in the bird world, and have spent a lot of time poring over information on the subject.

Although the West Indies doesn’t support the numbers and variation of species found on the mainland at similar latitudes, it sure makes up for quantity with quality. When looking through a field guide on this region, every bird seems to pop out at me in its own special way, and piques my interest in all sorts of directions.

Thus, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on the recently-published Birds of the West Indies by Normal Arlott and enjoy some of my favorite unseen birds from an entirely new perspective. I was also quite interested in seeing how this book stacked up in relation to The Birds of the West Indies (2003) by Raffaele et al.

In keeping with the author’s mission to “create a ‘pocket’ book that included all the species of the region,” the introduction is kept at a short four pages. Among the acknowledgements and short intro in which the author sums up the purpose of his writing, is a nice full-color map of the region divided into three smaller areas (the Bahamas, Greater and Lesser Antilles) as well as a brief description of the text and two nicely-done illustrations on bird taxonomy. And, without a page to spare the author dives right into the plates.

The Plates (Illustrations)

All 80 color plates are done by Mr. Arlott, and I find all of them to be quite attractive and enjoyable. Every species is illustrated beautifully and in similar postures to all related species on the plate to ensure ease in comparison. They’re all very accurate (besides the Great Crested Flycatcher illustration, where the green back color seems slightly more olive than is typical) and are nicely detailed.

I do have a few problems with the illustrations, however. First off, in keeping with the ‘pocket-sized’ theme here, all juvenile and immature plumages of all species are omitted. In my eyes, omitting the immature plumages of gulls, jaegers and shorebirds is unacceptable. Terns, Herons and Wood-Warblers also likely suffer from this omission as well. Furthermore, we only receive flight illustrations for seabirds, gulls, hawks and falcons, swallows and swifts. Again, groups like terns, ducks and psittacids would’ve benefited, had they received in-flight illustrations. Also, numbers on plates (to label species) drive me nuts. I can’t stand looking back and forth between the text and the illustrations to figure out what I’m looking at. It’s an error all too many field guides commit, and something that really shouldn’t be done.

The Plates (Text)

This field guide follows the classic format of illustrations on the right, text on the left. The text contains the following: field notes, short descriptions on behavior and sometimes diet, voice, with the descriptions shown in italics, habitat and distribution. Size is given in centimeters.

In keeping with the theme of this book, the text is very concise and to the point. I find it especially nice to have a little behavior description in the “field notes” area, something that is sometimes lacking. Vagrants are very well-covered, and most recent taxonomic revisions are present (though not all; Cuban Black-Hawk still lumped with Common Black-Hawk and Greater Antillean Oriole still one species). The author makes an effort to illustrate and describe every subspecies and island form, which is very nice.

The author fails to do something, however, that I really appreciate in the Raffaele guide. Although some species are noted to be endemic to an island, not all are. For example, under distribution for Cuban Kite it says, “Oriente province in northeastern Cuba” while for Hook-billed Kite above it says, “Grenada.” For someone totally unfamiliar with the North American avifauna, one might not know that the Cuban Kite is restricted to Cuba or that Hook-billed Kite is not only found on Grenada. Thus, it would be nice if the author added, “endemic to the Oriente province of northeastern Cuba.” Also, identification is not discussed in the text. One must refer to the illustrations and judge for themselves. I should note that this field guide packs a sharp “Western Palearctic flair” to it, at least when it comes to the nomenclature. For example “gray” is “grey,” Northern Harrier is called Hen Harrier (with Northern in parenthesis), and what might be considered ridiculous, “European Shoveler” is listed as an alternate name for “Northern Shoveler.” Seeing that made me cringe.

The Maps

The author finishes the book with maps for every species, which occur after the plates. It’s a nice bonus, as the Raffaele guide contained maps, but not for every species. However, I really don’t think they’re necessary for a book to this region. Besides perhaps with seabirds and species with wider ranges, the distribution section in the text is really all you need. Also, although some don’t, a few of the maps illustrate an entire island, when the bird doesn’t occur throughout. For example, the Bee Hummingbird really only occurs in Cuba’s Zapata Swamp and adjacent regions, certainly not on the whole island. The maps are a nice touch, but I really feel like adding flight illustrations and punching in a little more text would’ve been a better use of space.

Summary

One thing’s for sure, I’ll definitely be taking this guide on my next trip to this region. Although it certainly won’t be alone among my field guides brought, it will surely be quite useful, especially when it comes to the illustrations, which I like a heck of a lot more than those in the Raffaele guide. I’d recommend purchasing and bringing both field guides if you visit this region. They both have their ups and downs, but are both terrific books and compliment each other nicely.

Overall, a nice addition to the books on the region, and something every visiting birder should have in their suitcase.

-AB

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3 Responses to Birds of the West Indies by Norman Arlott

  1. Deanna Becker says:

    Great review, Alex. I enjoyed your comments on both the pros and cons of the guides.

  2. Sharon Lauer says:

    Alex, I never cease to be amazed by the depth and breadth of your knowledge AND your incredible passion for birds. Mrs. Curran and I have been talking about expanding our birding program with a set of robust stations through the woods out back. We both agree that you must be a consultant on this project. If you are interested, just let me know when you would like to start talking about the project – either in person or by email. I know that you will have ideas that are outside the box and will help us to bring a program that started with your interest in Project Feederwatch to a new level.

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