When I first headed to China in 1985, the only guide to the country’s birds was a (then) recently published volume – The Birds of China, 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), was a major improvement – as it should have been, given John MacKinnon has extensive field experience in China; Karen Philllipps lived in Hong Kong. Notably, most of the over 1300 species were illustrated in colour (some only in black and white, accompanying the text).
But here too, the descriptions were often casual and cursory. Not quite at the level of having to touch the heads of passing raptors, but some of the tough birds like warblers weren’t 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.
HOWEVER: thanks to WWF China sponsoring publication of the mainland Chinese edition, to make it more affordable, this guide helped 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; keen and with growing expertise – all helped by this guide.
… 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.
Updated: Guide to the Birds of China by John MacKinnon and Karen Phillipps
An updated version was published in January 2022; reflecting the advent of Chinese birding, now at team of illustrators: Karen Phillipps, Yang Xiao Nong, Liu Li Hua, Xiao Yao, Gao Zhi, Gao Chang, Lan Jian Jun, and Annie MacKinnon.
I’m yet to properly use in the field – can’t travel to mainland China now, even though living in Hong Kong [!]. Looking through, my impressions are that it’s indeed an improvement, including in the structure making it more readily used. Still not so detailed as some guides around: a look at frigatebirds, say, suggests it is hardly ideal for identification challenges birds like these pose. But, it remains the guide for China, especially for anyone visiting areas replete with endemic species.
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). Birds of East Asia is also excellent, including if you are likely to see many east Asian migrants, such as at Beidaihe and nearby.