Book Review: Parrots of the World, Princeton University Press

While long popular as pets, parrots are certainly among the world’s most frustrating bird families to observe in the wild, especially for visitors to the humid lowland forests of the neotropics. Usually glimpsed far overhead in noisy flight, they are generally seen in poor light conditions and their screeching, metallic calls are notoriously difficult to recognize. Unless you’ve already spent many days in a region becoming deeply familiar with the avifauna, many parrot species will typically look and sound alike, and you’ll probably need the help of a guide to distinguish between an Orange-Winged Parrot and a Mealy Amazon, for example. Even when a pandemonium of parrots luckily descends into the crown of a fruiting tree nearby, they’ll disappear incredibly into the green of the leaves with their well-camouflaged plumage. For these and other reasons, parrots have been somewhat ignored historically by ornithologists and birders, although that trend has changed in the last few decades, highlighted with the recent publication by Princeton University Press of Joseph M. Forshaw’s Parrots of the World.

The comprehensive field guide takes a practical approach, dividing the diverse family into three geographic regions: Australasian, Afro-Asian, and Neotropical (parrots are distributed throughout the southern hemisphere). It boasts 146 spacious color plates, presenting subspecies where appropriate as well as helpful images of the birds in flight, remarkably from both below and above (imagine yourself birding from the top of a 50m canopy tower or from the cliff edge of a tepui to understand the utility of the latter feature). Species accounts are conveniently located on the facing page, including color distribution maps and a list of localities where each species can be found (these are especially helpful for birders trying to track down one of the many highly localized parrot species, such as the Orange-Headed, or Bald, Parrot in Brazil). Although I have yet to use the guide in the field, it has all the characteristics of a user-friendly field guide, including being compact enough to carry comfortably in a backpack for quick reference.

So what explains the growing interest in parrots? Disturbing news of their worsening status accounts for much it (unfortunately, “let’s see them while we still can” has become a rallying call for birders). Over one fourth of all parrot species in the world are now threatened, primarily because of habitat loss but also in part due to the live-bird trade. Consequently, many parrots have become flagship birds for conservation efforts, including the Orange-Bellied Parrot in Australia, the Kakapo of New Zealand, and Lear’s Macaw in Brazil. Of course, many parrots are also among the world’s most spectacular birds, and as access to their remote habitats improves, they would have attracted increased attention regardless of their status. A notable combination of these two phenomena is the magnificent Hyacinth Macaw, which is the largest parrot species in the world and one of top target species for birders visiting Brazil. Although the population sank to 1,500 in the 1980’s, thanks to the cooperation of cattle ranchers in central Brazil who have constructed nest boxes and promoted certain types of palms on their property, it is now one of the first ticks visiting birders make to the Pantanal.

Although I have yet to bird in Australasia, where arguably the world’s most impressive parrot species reside, parrots still feature prominently in my best birding memories: sneaking up on a pair of feeding White-Breasted Parakeets, or White-Necked Conures as Forshaw labels them (his deviation from Robert Ridgely’s English common names for neotropical species is one of my least favorite features of this book), near the Bombuscaro Entrance to southern Ecuador’s fabulous Podocarpus National Park; watching hundreds of Cobalt-Winged Parakeets descend to a clay lick in a blur of greens and blues in Yasuni National Park; gazing down at sunset from the privileged viewpoint of an observation tower on a group of Scarlet Macaws flying impossibly steady over the canopy at Sani Lodge on my first trip to Amazonia; nearly driving over dozens of endemic Yellow-Collared Lovebirds that were feeding on the ground while we were on safari in Tarangire National Park in Tanzania. Come to think of it, I haven’t really been on a birding trip where I didn’t record seeing at least one parrot species.

The field guide isn’t indispensable if you’re heading out on a birding trip somewhere in the Southern Hemisphere (whereas a country or regional field guide of all bird species is), but it’s certainly a valuable companion text, especially when planning a trip or studying beforehand. The detailed treatment of subspecies makes it particularly useful to biologists, bird guides, and anyone who has a healthy interest in taxonomy (I admit that I’m not quite there as a birder myself). For someone who hasn’t invested in the Handbook of the Birds of the World and already come to grips with the remarkable diversity of parrots, the text will also open the eyes of the reader to some fantastic birds, such as the black cockatoos, blood-red lories, racquet-tailed parrots, and elegant rosellas (aside from the large Ara macaws, there are few truly eye-catching parrots in the neotropics, with a few exceptions, including such as the Red-Fanned, or Hawk-Headed, Parrot). Indeed, thanks to Parrots of the World, I’m already scheming how to move to Australia, “Land of the Parrots.” The guide ends poignantly with a section on extinct or presumed extinct parrots, including North America’s own Carolina Parakeet, making it clear that now’s the time to pursue parrot conservation and tourism.

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