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Review - Roberts Bird Guide Second Edition

Updated: Oct 13, 2020

After being involved in a podcast review of the Roberts Bird Guide 2 application, I thought it would make sense for me to review the paperback version in comparison to other guides you could purchase with your hard-earned money. Looking over at my badly overloaded bookshelf, I wanted to scratch around to see if I could find one of the older Roberts Guides and compare how the birds, format, and descriptions have changed over time. Thankfully, the earliest version of the book I could find was one that I luckily picked up at our local SPCA thrift store for R20.00. This copy is the Roberts Birds of South Africa revised by G.R. McLachlan and R. Liversidge. This third edition (fifth impression) was published in 1976, with the first edition being published all the way back on the 8th of June 1940. I could sit here and write the expected comparison between the latest version and Roberts Bird Guide first edition last reprinted in 2015, but that is a lot less interesting than seeing how far the Roberts books have come. Yes, I will give you my opinion on this latest book too...

Looking at the foreword written by the then Field-Marshal 'The right Honourable' Jan. C Smuts, I quote the opening lines: "Although the bird life of South Africa forms one of its outstanding glories, there has so far - apart from the handy little volume by Dr. Leonard Gill - not been a comprehensive guide for the use of bird-lovers. This need, at last, has been met, and I am happy to be able to introduce this valuable work to the public of South Africa." This text was written in 1938 and shows how long-lasting and strong the heritage of the Roberts guides has had for the South African birding community.

Apart from the dust and brown pages, the most notable difference between these books is simply the number of species each list within Southern Africa. As more and more people have picked up a pair of bins and have grown in their experience with birding, so the accounts of new species for the region has grown. If you are interested in reading further into this topic, I have provided a link to a fascinating article written by Faansie Peacock below. The old book still made use of their own numbering system with Ostrich being number 1 and went through to species 875 which was Cabanis' Yellow Bunting (Emberiza cabanisi) now simply called Cabinis's Bunting. The new book has moved on somewhat from their numbering system, but the first bird featured is still the Ostrich. The latest inclusion which happens to be the 971st species now listed is Yellow-throated Leaflove (Atimastillas flavicollis) (as at the time of publishing the latest edition in 2016).

Plates (illustrations) are arguably the most important feature of any field guide, as without these we are left to imagine the appearance of a species based on how detailed the written description from the author is. The earlier edition does include plates (hand painted), some of which date back to 1937. These colour plates were compiled by Norman C.K. Lighton, and for the time were invaluable. Artists of today (namely I.B Weiersbye, R.J Cook, P.R.M. Meakin, G. Arnott, C.S van Rooyen, A. Barlow, and A.C.V Clarkson) use a blend of historical plates and modern photography to develop the latest iterations of species' plates. Thanks to their work, the later version of the book can allow the viewer to pinpoint the most important identifying feature/s of a species. Very few species had both male and female species depicted in their dimorphism, however, today's book can often have up to four illustrations for a single species. Today's version of the Roberts Bird Guide goes one step further especially with difficult to identify families such as Nightjars. The authors have added colour photographs to supplement the plates to assist with determining the species observed. Again, I would like to 'draw' your attention to the link below to a relaxing video showing the intricacies of painting a bird. Perhaps you could develop a new birding related past time or hobby?