Book Review: Cotingas and Manakins, Princeton University Press

I recently received a review copy of this new monograph by Guy Kirwan and Graeme Green, and it broke my heart a little that I didn’t contribute any photographs to the project when Guy first contacted me through my Birding Ecuador blog. Cotingas and Manakins is a massive, erudite, and gorgeous compilation of all extant knowledge about cotingas and manakins, undoubtedly the two most extravagant and fascinating bird families of the neotropics. Over 130 bird species are covered in approximately 600 pages, including exhaustive text on identification, habitat, display, breeding, and status, and nearly all of them are represented both in 34 color plates by Eustace Barnes and 400 photographs by various contributors. Having lived and birded in the neotropics myself for nearly seven years, I have amassed a considerable collection of photographs of many of these species in the field. Even though some of them are of less than professional quality, it’s clear from a quick perusal of the book that grounds for inclusion were primarily based on representing each species as comprehensively as possible – both male and female sexes, juvenile plumage, nest construction – rather than on the quality of the photograph.

Regrets aside, I simply haven’t been able to put the book down, as it satisfies so many of my different cravings as a birder in repose. First, the beautiful color plates inspire as they present the birds in dynamic situations, such as a male in display or a bird feeding or in flight, often in their appropriate habitat. Then, the detailed text quenches the thirst for more information about each marvelous species, including natural history and distribution. Finally, the photographs present a tantalizing taste of the reality of seeing each bird in its proper context. And the poorer the photograph, the more provocation the adventurous birder feels to get out into the field and take a better one. Indeed, the fate of many of these marvelous birds is tied to the growth of birding tourism: the more birders that are inspired to visit the neotropics in search of cotingas and manakins, the stronger the conservation movement grows. Consider the case of the spectacular but critically endangered Araripe Mankin, for example. Discovered only in the mid 1990’s outside the borders of the Araripe-Apode National Forest, the bird’s distribution was found to be highly localized to just a few sites in northeastern Brazil, where it is conjectured to have once been more widespread before agricultural expansion. Despite the failure to preserve the bird’s habitat at the national level, conservation areas and private reserves have since sprung up, in part to capitalize on worldwide interest in enjoying this remarkable bird in person.

It’s difficult to generalize accurately about Contingadae and Pipridae because each family of birds is so diverse; in fact, recent taxonomical work suggests that at least five bird families are actually addressed in the text, and none of them comprehensively, although that was not the original intention of the authors (much has changed in the sixteen years it took to complete the text). If our understanding of neotropical bird families is still very much in flux, the monograph does at least cover all species traditionally considered cotingas and manakins, including the taxonomically troublesome Schiffornis and Piprites. So what, then, are some basic characteristics that link these two families together in the minds of neotropical birders? With respect to their appearance, sexual dimorphism is a common feature in most species, with the male usually bearing brilliant and sometimes even fanciful plumage, and the female often appearing drab or even cryptically colored. Behaviorally, some males of both families also engage in dramatic displays at specific sites, called leks, exposing certain features of their plumage in song and dance. Accordingly, Charles Darwin’s consideration of manakins supposedly led to his understanding of sexual selection, wherein females cause evolutionary change by their mating decisions. What else do they have in common? Typically frugivores, most cotingas and manakins don’t appear to migrate much locally, but some are rare and their whereabouts unknown during parts of the year. Indeed, it’s difficult to generalize about these families, which is yet another reason to buy the book, which treats each species separately and comprehensively.

The text certainly has potential as a field guide, considering its wonderful color plates, distribution maps, and lengthy notes on identification, habitat, description, natural history, and voice. But it would be a shame to get it soiled in the field (remember that birding in the neotropics almost always involves rain and mud). Instead, this is the type of text you would want to relish before and after a birding trip (I can confirm that it serves equally well as both an aperitif and a digestif). I’ll also recommend as you read about each species that you listen along on Xeno-Canto, which is a free library on the Internet of bird calls and songs from all over the world, including an extensive catalogue of neotropical birds (many of the contributors of photographs to the text are also responsible for making the audio recordings, including bird guides Nick Athanas and Ciro Albano, whose hard work I frequently benefit from when birding here in Brazil). Not that cotingas or manakins are very musical. In fact, some species are responsible for the strangest sounds you’ll ever hear a bird make, including the menacing growl of the Capuchinbird or the mechanical movements of the Club-Winged Manakin.

While I probably derive more enjoyment as a birder in spending hours trying to catch a glimpse of an elusive antpitta than ogling at a colorful cotinga or manakin, some of my favorite birding experiences in the neotropics are centered around those two families. I remember that my first visit to an Andean Cock-of-the-Rock lek near San Rafael Falls in Ecuador took place so early in the morning that my traveling companion brought a beer with him left over from his carousing the night before. I recall how guide Borris Herrera and I agonized for hours over whether a female manakin we saw on Volcán Sumaco was the rare Yellow-Headed Manakin while the rest of our expedition continued ahead to the next refuge, leaving us to arrive without flashlights well after dark. And it’s hard to pick the most memorable of many of my ill-fated solo trips in search of rare cotingas or manakins, but my brutal slog up Cerro Mongus in remote northeastern Ecuador in a fruitless attempt for the mythical Chestnut-Bellied Cotinga certainly comes to mind. Regardless of whether you have similarly personal associations with some of the species in this book, I would highly recommend it, either as a basic introduction to, or a scholarly review of, these avian wonders of the neotropics.

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