Review: Birds of Hawaii, New Zealand, and the Central and West Pacific

This review was contributed by Cameron Rutt, a good friend of mine who is currently in the middle of a six month stint living on the island of Laysan and working on the reintroduction program for Millerbirds.

In many respects, this book is a follow-up to “A Field Guide to the Birds of Hawaii and the Tropical Pacific” (Pratt et al. 1987), except, notably, for van Perlo’s present inclusion of New Zealand. Of this widespread and diverse region, I’ve only spent significant time in the Hawaiian Islands, and so will restrict this review to that archipelago, which, admittedly, is not entirely fair. Nevertheless, I think the book’s coverage of Hawaii will be representative for the balance of the book.

Upon receiving this guide, I was thrilled with the prospect of a current guide to the Hawaiian Islands (the Hawaiian Audubon Society’s photographic guide, “Hawaii’s Birds” (2005) – being useful as a small pocket guide for the casual birder – is certainly far from comprehensive). However, after perusing through the contents, the same desire remains, unfulfilled.

Van Perlo’s illustrations, which he, himself, recounts as being labeled “sketchy” and “loose” are just that. Although at times spot-on, there are many illustrations that come up lacking, either in detail or coloration (even misleadingly false in places). For instance, Bonin Petrels (plate 11) are not illustrated with a dark, black cap, but rather one that is gray, concolorous with the mantle. The yellow bill of his adult Masked Booby (plate 17) is entirely too bright and saturated, verging on orangey, which could cause confusion with Nazca Booby (not illustrated), which has shown up multiple times in Hawaii. Female Great Frigatebirds (plate 18) are shown with a black throat, instead of pale gray, the key feature for separating that sex from the otherwise similar female Lesser Frigatebird. The flank color of American Wigeon (plate 26) is off-base, oddly bright pinkish. And so on. Despite this, the author does attempt to illustrate various subspecies where distinguishable and includes a wealth of illustrations for certain species, particularly waterbirds. I can count no less than 20 depictions of Canada and Cackling Goose (plate 24)!

There are other textual errors or omissions which bear mentioning. Millerbirds and Nihoa Finches are labeled as occurring on Ni’ihau (which is misspelled Niihoa, a nonexistent location), instead of on Nihoa (what should be island #9 in his diagram). I’iwis are listed with a question mark on Kaua’i, a place where they are very much still in existence, simply in declining numbers. And there is no mention that Hawaiian Crows no longer exist in the wild, with the entire population currently living in captivity.

Moreover, the state of Hawaii’s honeycreepers is such that many of these birds warrant full species accounts to adequately describe their present status. Van Perlo includes numbers of species that haven’t been seen for years, with only a simple “?” beside their island home. This is not very helpful in the least and a serious shortcoming of this guide – its insufficient text. The status of a great many honeycreepers has changed noticeably since the mid-1980s, sadly for the worse, and these updates would be most useful in any contemporary text.

On the upside, van Perlo does include, with equal plated coverage, all of the vagrants for the region, which is commendable. If one wanted to know, for instance, where Falcated Teal (Midway), Common Nighthawk (French Frigate Shoals), and Eyebrowed Thrush (Midway) have shown up within Hawaii, that information is available to the reader, another great feature. Again, van Perlo goes out of his way to then map vagrant occurrences with different colors to denote the seasonality for such records, another useful tidbit. Furthermore, the guide can serve as a predictor for possible future vagrants, something a purely Hawaii guide would lack. By illustrating to the reader that American Golden-Plover has shown up in New Zealand, for example, it goes without saying that this would be a species to have on one’s radar elsewhere in Oceania. For all of this, I must applaud his efforts.

In conclusion, if I were to buy a single guide for Hawaii, it would still be Pratt et al.’s guide from 1987. The text from that outdated guide more than compensates for the fact that it is nearly 25 years old, although now desperately in need of reprint. Van Perlo’s guide, should it find a place on your bookshelf, would serve nicely as a supplementary guide to the region, presenting the full breadth of species in a single sweep. A primary source, however, it is not.

Cameron Rutt
Laysan, Hawaii
September 2011

Book Review: “Birds of Hawaii, New Zealand, and the Central and West Pacific,” by Ber van Perlo, Princeton University Press (2011). 256 pages. 95 color plates. 787 species.


Disclaimer: Princeton University kindly provided a copy of this guide for the review.