When I first headed to China in 1985, the only guide to the country’s birds was a (then) recently published volume by museum man Rudolphe Meyer de Schauensee, who reportedly figured he could learn all he needed about the country’s birds from his specimens (in the US), without visiting China. This had a fine introductory chapter on the history of ornithology, including tales of derring-do by Russian ornithologists risking and occasionally succumbing to bandits and diseases to collect specimens including species new to science. Yet, the field descriptions were sadly wanting (honey buzzard has feathers on the head and throat "which are short, stiff, scalelike and very dense"!) The plates were poor, omitting many key Chinese species – presumably as the artist could only portray available specimens.
Against this, A Field Guide to the Birds of China by John MacKinnon, with illustrations by Karen Phillipps (Oxford University Press, 2000), is a major improvement – as it should be, given John MacKinnon has extensive field experience in China; Karen Philllipps lived in Hong Kong. Notably, most of the over 1300 species are illustrated in colour (some only in black and white, accompanying the text).
But here too, the descriptions are often casual and cursory. We’re not quite at the level of having to touch the heads of passing raptors, but some of the tough birds like warblers might not be described with too much more than "medium-sized, brown": works for readily separated species, but when the identification gets tough, well, Birds of China doesn’t get going.
The book has a quirky structure, with species’ range maps – not short descriptions – facing plates. The idea’s interesting: you can identify birds partly based on where you are; but sadly, the maps are none too reliable. Here in Hong Kong, I guided a couple of birders who asked about species like wood owl, hoping we could see them; I had to say they don’t occur here, nor even very close. Even a dot that’s supposed to be on Hong Kong for some reason lies inland, well to the north.
But that dot is for Collared Pratincole, a species no one (but MacKinnon, citing a paper on seabirds) has suggested has occurred in Hong Kong. This is perhaps the biggest blooper in a guide that’s sadly splattered with errors, ranging from typos, through plates of two phalarope species both labelled Red-necked, to so many errors in range descriptions that one birder wrote a whole article berating mistakes re species in Laos ("MacKinnon says common – never occurred" was something like the typical comment for a slew of species).
I got so annoyed with the text, I simply ripped it out and tossed away: does make a significant weight saving. Though if you take such action, maybe bind the plates.
… And yet. And yet, this is still the only English language field guide to cover all China; and nigh-on essential for birding here, especially if you’re heading to an area with a selection of endemics. You could augment it with Birds of Southeast Asia, which has many of the species, even migrants that range to the far north; also Birds of Hong Kong and South China (which is all you need if you visit Hong Kong and close by).
And thanks to WWF China sponsoring publication of the mainland Chinese edition, to make it more affordable, this guide is helping spur birding in China. Back in the 80s, birding was essentially unknown here, and bird study was pretty much confined to people working as ornithologists, many of them of the old school, "What’s hit is history, what’s missed is mystery" thinking. But now, there are birders in China, still few and far between, but keen and with growing expertise – all helped by this guide. Who knows, maybe before long some of these birders will work on a China bird guide that can rank alongside, say, the Birds of Southeast Asia.
A Field Guide to the Birds of China by John MacKinnon and Karen Phillipps
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