28 December 2017


"A Photographic Field Guide to the Birds of India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh" by Bikram Grewal, Sumit Sen, Sarwandeep Singh, Nikhil Devasar, and Garima Bhatia was published in 2017 by Princeton University Press.  It's a 792 page paperback that costs $45.00.  You can find it online here.
What better way to pass the time (it's -4 degrees here in Missouri right now) than by sharing some thoughts on a book from Princeton University Press!  I was eager to take a look at this book because a) I've never been to India (or even remotely close), b) I love reviewing books (despite not having a ton of time to do so anymore), and c) I hadn't reviewed any bird books from that part of the world.  But with that comes a couple of caveats.  For example, a) I've never been to India.  Ha, the same reason as above!  It's true though, I'm by no means an expert on the species there.  Shoot, I've never even heard of most of them!  But hey, I can still share some thoughts and pictures of the book.

So right, the physical book... here it is next to the Sibley Guide (kind of a standard to me):
You can see it's large; it's as wide and almost as tall as the Sibley Guide.  In terms of thickness:
Right, it's a BEAST.  It's thicker than the Sib.  But hey, if there are lots of birds... a book is likely to be big.  This is known.  Moving on.

I guess a good place to start is the Contents page (with a what-is-THAT-bird?!):
You'll notice this book is laid out a tad differently than most.  The maps, glossary, and descriptions of bird parts actually comes at the END of the book.  Thankfully the Introduction stayed true to its name and is found first.  Here's a photo of the first page of this 13-page section (which is very-much steeped in history):
Also, if you're looking for the key to the range maps, you have to pay attention.  There is a small section at the end of the intro that explains them:
Ok, but now it's on to the bulk of the book... the "Descriptive Text" as it's called.  If you open the book randomly, you'll be greeted by a view like this:
A couple of things are obvious right away... these are photos.  This is a PHOTOGRAPHIC guide, after all.  There are 2 species on the left and 2 species on the right.  This schematic is usually the case with this book although once in a while a species will take an entire page.

Here's a closer view of a couple of species.  First up is Blyth's Starling... a species I had never even heard of:
You'll see some basic info at the top like the species name, scientific name, and the family name.  Beneath that is information about the size of the bird (in cm), voice, text description of range, and the general habitat.

You'll also notice the range map.  Not every species in this book has one but most of them do (in fact, there are 1300+ range maps packed in this book!).  Here's a species WITHOUT one:
Here's another species, the Blue-throated Barbet (and what a gorgeous one):
This time, you can see that there is a small photo of the bird in flight as well.  That really varies from species to species in this book.  Sometimes there will be several photos, sometimes just one.

Here's the account for Asian Emerald Cuckoo:
As you can see above, this species layout has 3 photos of the bird but none in flight.  As I noted before, this is going to vary from bird to bird.

After the bulk of the book is a section called "Vagrants and Doubtful Species".  I found it kind of funny that they're throwing shade by calling them "doubtful".  But anyway, we get the idea:
 Remember, a lot of materials are at the end of this book instead of in the front.  That includes the "Descriptive Parts of a Bird".  I think every field guide has one of these:
There is also a section devoted to just a list of the birds of the region.  Perhaps this would aid you if you wanted to check off species you had seen.  It includes a section for alternate names as well:
The area maps are also in the back.  Here's Sri Lanka:
... and India:
... and Bhutan & Nepal:
So.  Thoughts?  Here are some quick pros and cons from my POV.

* The photos are great.
* The region it covers is severely lacking in coverage (in my library, at least)
* Range maps!  I'm glad there are range maps for so many species.
* It's a simple thing... but I really like that they put the family name with every species.

* I am not fond of photo guides.  It's too hard to standardize the views, point out field marks, keep it clean-looking, etc.  The background color of each species is different, since it's a photograph, which really hurts the efforts to keep the book clean and cohesive-looking.
* For a book with so many species, I think it would have helped to have tabs or a quick-find guide just inside the cover.  I imagine finding a species quickly in this book would be a daunting task.
* It's BIG.  This isn't a major concern but maybe they could slim it down by including fewer countries?

Overall, I'm happy to have a copy of this book for reference and I suggest that anyone who wants a photo guide for this region check this book out.  I'm not sure this is the perfect field guide, however.  I personally prefer illustrated books that are much more standardized in layout, color schematics, bird postures, etc.  Because this is a photo guide, the background of every photo is a different color and this makes it hard to offer standardized arrows or fieldmarks away from the main text.  That point may not seem like a sticking point for most but it is for me.  If I could choose, I'd like a book that is a) slimmer, maybe just include ONE country, b) illustrated, and c) contains arrows highlighting separate ID points.  

But really, in summary, it's just fun looking at all the crazy birds that I'll probably never see.  :-)

I received a complementary copy from the publisher for review purposes, but the viewpoint expressed in this article is entirely my own.