on 22 December 2008
This has to be the best bird book I've ever read. Really expert birdwatchers have spent centuries astonishing and boring the rest of us by identifying tiny differences between the corpses of birds from different parts of the world. Watson and Moss combine geography and field observation with laboratory physiology, biochemistry and genetics in a way that suddenly start to make sense of these bizarre observations. Their appendices, detailing vigorous disagreement with other workers in the field, add flavour to the book.
on 6 August 2009
It was an interesting choice that the founders of British Birds made in 1907 when they had to decide which bird should decorate the emblem of this august journal. They chose the Red Grouse because it was considered to be the only British bird to be endemic to our islands. That was a century ago and now we treat this bird as the British race of the Willow Ptarmigan. But let's not forget that grouse are important. They have had a significant influence on land use in our uplands and they play an important role in the economies of many people in the countryside. They also stimulate passionate debates between conservationists and landowners - in fact it is hard to think of another bird family of this small size that could warrant a book of this nature. Both authors are renowned experts in their field and have written important contributions on grouse ecology for this journal over the years, including in 1980, the unforgettable paper "Why are Capercaillie cocks so big?".
This is the 107th New Naturalist title to have appeared since the series started in 1945 and it is also one of the largest volumes. It deals exclusively with the four grouse species to be found in the British Isles: Red Grouse Lagopus lagopus (although referred to in the book as Willow Ptarmigan when non-UK populations are discussed), Ptarmigan Lagopus mutus, Black Grouse Tetrao tetrix and Capercaillie Tetrao urogallus.
An introductory chapter introduces the family and another discusses the nomenclature used. It also reveals some of the more bizarre names that have been awarded to these species over the years.
A total of 151 pages contain chapters on each of the four species, with sections on plumage, behaviour, systematics, distribution, numbers, habitat, diet, metabolism, longevity, survival, breeding, movements, population trends and conservation. However despite this level of information there are still nine other chapters focussing in on some of the important aspects of their lives including threats from a wide range of sources. The book is really well illustrated with 199 well-chosen colour photographs making it pleasant to browse through, and although this is a very authoritative work it is written in a readable style in short sections which make it easy to navigate.
So how are the grouse doing? Although the Ptarmigan is currently surviving well it is sometimes a victim of ski wires and will be affected by climate change over time, although future farming policy may see a reduction in overgrazing by sheep and deer. However all the other grouse species are declining. While the artificially maintained population of Red Grouse fluctuates depending on a huge range of factors, the Black Grouse and Capercaillie are both Red Listed and are threatened by poor habitat management and face future difficulties from climate change.
This is an excellent book and a real demonstration of the New Naturalist series at its best. Although titles in this long-running series have been appearing more frequently in the last few years this is the first to focus on a bird family since 1992.