"Birds" - a note of caution

To: <>
Subject: "Birds" - a note of caution
From: Syd Curtis <>
Date: Thu, 27 Feb 2003 05:11:17 +1000
Hi all,

       "Birds - Their habits and skills", by Gisela Kaplan & Lesley J.
Rogers.  Allen and Unwin. 2001.

Contains an amazing amount of material, but some caution on the part of the
reader is indicated, I suggest.  My thoughts became directed along that path
when I read on page 50:

    "Lyrebirds are famous for their dancing displays as well as their
versatile vocal displays.  These vocalisations contain beautiful musical
sequences as well as exquisitely mimicked sequences of other bird sounds and
even car horns, chainsaws, horses, dogs, and many other animate and
inanimate objects, all strung together to make a statement and attract a

There is a superscript "40" at the end of that, and I couldn't wait to check
the reference to see who was responsible for that arrant nonsense about car
horns, chainsaws, etc.

Imagine my amazement - and horror - when I found (p. 211) it to be a
reference to a paper that I co-authored:

    "40   Robinson, F.N. and Curtis, H.S. (1996) The vocal displays of the
lyrebird (sic) (Menuridae).  Emu, 96, 258-275."

But what Norman and I had actually written is this:

    "In all the recordings made during the breeding season, only the sounds
of birds and mammals were mimicked.  No sounds of human or mechanical origin
nor mimicry of corvids that are predators of Superb Lyrebird eggs were
heard."   (Pp. 261/2 of Emu.)

And that was based (with each of us) on 30 years of studying lyrebirds and
hundreds of hours of tape recorded lyrebird display song.  (And before
anyone jumps on me, note that we were referring to lyrebirds in the wild and
only to their breeding season song.)

It appears that the authors hadn't even read the summary at the beginning of
that paper either, where we said:  "There was no evidence of mimicry of
man-made sounds."  

My immediate reaction was, "Ah, the authors are quoting references just to
impress, without having actually read them."  But there I did them an
injustice, for I find that the references are not listed as such.  They are
merely called "Notes".  But it would have been more appropriate, to have
shown them as "Suggested further reading."

I found myself in good company, for on the same page as the lyrebird
material, the authors also say, "The bower of the tooth-billed bowerbird is
particularly elaborate in size and number of objects displayed."  The "note"
given is:

    "Frith, C.B. and Frith, D.W. (1993) Courtship display of the
tooth-billed bowerbird (Scenopoeetes dentirostris). Emu, 93, 129-136.

And what do the Friths say?  Page 129 of Emu :

    "Sc. dentirostris do not construct a grass or stick bower as do males of
other polygynous bowerbirds, but clear an area on the forest floor that
encompasses the trunk of at least one 'display tree'.  Males collect  leaves
and lay them with their paler side uppermost on this display court. ...  We
consider the frequently used terms stage, playground and bower to describe
this display court misleading and inappropriate."

So, a "bower" that is "particularly  elaborate in size and number of objects
displayed"?  Hardly!  No, the authors didn't read this one, either.

The publishers could have been expected to give the authors better editorial
assistance than they have.  For example, on page 65 the authors wrote,

 "Similar burrows, only wider and higher at the end, are dug by kingfishers
which tend to choose entrance sites higher off the ground than pardalotes

"Presumably the authors knew what they meant by a burrow entrance "higher
off the ground", but it's a mystery to this reader.  A good editor would
have required that to be reworded.

And on page 63, in a discussion of nest locations, one finds:
    "Only a little safer is the choice made by the South American great
potoo which, similar to Australian nightjars, places its egg on the upper
jagged platform of a broken off tree trunk."

But I guess a general editor couldn't really be expected to know that all
three species of Australian nightjars simply lay a single egg on a small
bare patch of ground.

Do the authors know this?  Well, yes, they probably do.  The "note" they
give is the reference for a paper about the owlet-nightjar, and no doubt
owlet-nightjar was what they meant to say.  But it's not what they wrote, is

The editor must surely accept some of the blame for the unhelpful way these
"Notes" are set out.  They are not arranged alphabetically by author, but
for each chapter they are simply serially numbered in the order in which the
statements to which they relate appear.  This is fine except where the same
reference appears more than once.

"Ibid." is OK, for you have the previous reference immediately above, but
how do you find the reference when all you are given is the author's name,
the date, and "op. cit.", when the references aren't alphabetical by author?

If you have the book, try this exercise.  In the discussion of cooperative
breeding on page 68 one is referred to Note 40.  Note 40 (page 213) reads:

    "40     Stacey and Koenig (1990). op. cit."

Now try to find that original citation.  No doubt it's there somewhere, but
I haven't found it yet.

It would have been so simple, wherever "op. cit." is used, to add after it
the number of the note in which the reference is given in full.

The book gathers together a lot of useful information about birds.  It is
unfortunate that it also contains some misinformation.  It would be good to
see a revised edition, where these problems have been fixed.

Syd Curtis in Brisbane.

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