To say that an update of John MacKinnon’s “A Field Guide to the Birds of China” (2000) has been highly anticipated by birders interested in Chinese birds is almost an understatement. While there are some decent Chinese-language guides, they are of limited use for (local) illiterates like me. The 2000 MacKinnon guide is showing its age while my preferred choice for the Shanghai area, Mark Brazil’s “Birds of East Asia”, covers non-Chinese locations such as Japan and Korea while excluding Western China.
Maybe the level of anticipation was too high – in any case, the new guide turns out to be rather a disappointment.
But let us start with a few positive aspects. The book has a reasonable size and can be carried around in the field. There is also a far cheaper, even more portable electronic edition. The book has bird names in English, Latin, Chinese, and Pinyin – very useful for somebody like me to communicate with local birders. There are QR codes for vocalizations taken from Xenocanto – also a very useful addition.
The book covers all of China, which given the large number of species (1484 are covered in the guide), the relatively low level of bird knowledge and also the limited market for such a book in English language (MacKinnon claims in one interview that the Chinese edition sold ten times more than the English one) is quite an achievement.
As for the font size, what Dragan said in his recent review of the Lynx Malaysia guide also applies here (and I wish I had come up with it): “The font size may be small, yet that is already the standard in field guides so I gave up complaining but started to wear glasses”.
But then, the negatives. Mind you, I am not a particularly good birder – I am the kind of birder who really needs a good bird guide. So, the points below may not really be highly relevant. Also, I am not qualified to discuss the extent that the guide is up-to-date with the current ornithological literature (if it was up to me, I would probably declare the existence of subspecies as illegal). But the fact that I detected a number of flaws in the guide give me the nagging feeling that there may be many more lurking in the many species descriptions that I cannot comment on at all.
Actually, the book arrived at my home while I was out at Nanhui, a place that is even briefly referred to in the introduction of the book – “the underprotected reedbeds of Nanhui Cape”. At Nanhui, I saw a few Common Moorhens along with some other, duller-looking but similarly-shaped birds. Now I know from previous disappointments that these will very likely not be the hoped-for rare rail or crake species but rather the immature moorhen, but to be sure, I decided to look the bird up in my new guide. It turns out that the immature plumage of the Common Moorhen is not shown in the MacKinnon guide despite (in my opinion) being sufficiently distinct.
Adult Common Moorhen: Plumage shown in the “Guide to the Birds of China”
Juvenile Common Moorhen: No room in Mr. MacKinnon’s house
Next, I looked up the illustration for Chinese Grey Shrike and compared it with the one in the Brazil guide (Birds of East Asia). It seems to me that the latter is more detailed, simply better. Many of the illustrations in the MacKinnon guide are a bit vague, and the colors are a bit dull. It is kind of hard to make a Red-billed Leiothrix a slightly dull-looking bird, but somehow the guide manages this feat. Many of the illustration pages give the impression of having been out in the sunshine for too long. Of course, I cannot rule out that this is an issue with my specific copy, though as I paid for it myself, this would not be such a great thing either.
I am wondering whether the somewhat underwhelming illustrations are partly due to the fact that the main illustrator who contributed more than 1000 illustrations, Karen Phillipps, already died in February 2020. In fact, many of the illustrations seem to have been taken from the 2000 edition without substantial changes. For example, the plate on cranes seems to be completely unchanged from the 2000 edition, which means that compared to the Brazil guide, there is again no separate illustration for the juvenile Common Crane.
Accurate illustrations should be particularly important for this guide as the species descriptions are clearly on the short side (“concise”, as the cover blurb calls them). To give an example, while the visual description of the Chinese Penduline Tit covers more than 300 words in the HBW, MacKinnon manages with about 45 words (Brazil uses about 75 words).
On the other hand, some of the information provided seems almost too generous. For example, about half of the shortish entry on the Azure-Winged Magpie discusses subspecies, particularly their geographic distribution. Given that there is only one illustration and no information on the actual difference between subspecies, this seems rather pointless. For this particular species, it is also not quite clear how it helps with the identification to add a specific marker “blue on wings” to the illustration, as this is hardly an aspect even a casual birder is likely to miss.
It must be a hell of a job to prepare distribution maps for the almost 1500 species covered in the guide. On the other hand, in some way the task is simple – just look at eBird. For some reason, this is not the approach that has been consistently taken in this guide. I have never seen a Greater Coucal in Shanghai, and both the HBW and eBird locate its range further south. And yet, the distribution map of this species in the MacKinnon suggests I should have a chance of finding a Greater Coucal here.
Taking a page or two from Donna’s typical reviews, a few notes on usability. Coming back to the Chinese Grey Shrike, the poor bird gets assigned three different numbers – it is species number 680 on page 234 and shown on plate 81. The index actually only shows species and plate numbers, not page numbers. I have to say, I find this bewildering (to be fair, I have already wasted several hours of my life looking up the wrong page in the Brazil guide, as it also mixes plate numbers and page numbers). There is a reason books only have one ISBN number, not three (ok, admittedly you might argue that they have two, an ISBN-13 and an ISBN-10, but you get my point).
Another puzzling formatting choice is that there frequently are double pages of text followed by double pages of illustrations. These may not even match directly. For example, page 368/369 has the description of 10 species of parrotbills while the next double page shows the drawings of 19 species of parrotbills. I have read my share of bird guide reviews in the past, and I cannot remember this ever not getting criticized.
I would have liked to add some example pages to this review – however, wanting to do this properly (I am German, after all), I asked Oxford University Press for permission to use some sample pages of their choosing. Instead, they referred me to an agency that apparently handles these inquiries – but the search engine of said agency neither knows of the existence of an author named MacKinnon nor the ISBN number of his recent book. Another follow-up with the publisher eventually brought the advice that I should check with the author which illustrations could be used – I had kind of given up by then. Making sample pages hard to obtain may not be an ideal marketing strategy.
There are some sample pages on the NHBS website – you can see them here – I cannot tell whether they got official permission to use these though (from the way the content close to the middle of the book looks warped, it seems that these are scans rather than taken from a pdf file). The official announcement of the book on the publisher’s website also does not have any sample pages apart from the book cover and a non-working link to something called Google Preview. It almost seems as if the publisher is not too confident about the illustrations himself.
Don’t get me wrong – for foreign birders visiting China, this is still a guide worth buying, particularly given the lack of English-language alternatives – it is simply the only guide to cover all of China. However, it is a guide that could have been so much better, given the high quality of some recent bird guides such as those published for neighboring countries by Lynx Edicions. In retrospect, it was probably a mistake to use the 2000 guide as a basis for the new guide, as this prevented the adaptation of many of the changes and improvements that have become standard in these last two decades.
Finally, on a personal note, I strangely feel slightly guilty about writing this less-than-stellar review given the undoubted merits MacKinnon gained with his 2000 guide. But overall, it is undeniable that I will keep using the 2009 Brazil guide as the standard reference for birding in Shanghai, rather than this new guide.
Additional reading: An interview with John MacKinnon (by Craig Brelsford) on the release of the guide is available on Shanghaibirding. Another one covering the same topic by Han Xuesong is on Birdingbeijing. Both sites also offer a way to get the guide at a discount.
Guide to the Birds of China
by John MacKinnon (Author), Karen Phillipps (Illustrator), Yang Xiao Nong (Illustrator)
Publisher OUP Oxford, 2021
ISBN 978-0192893666 Hardback
Length 560 pages
Dimensions 16.2 x 3 x 24 cm
Weight 956 g
Official US release date: April 22, 2022 (the UK edition has already been released)