The Tanagers. Natural History, Distribution, and Identification.
By Morton L. Isler and Phyllis R. Isler. 1999, 2nd Edition, Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, D.C., 406 p.
The Islers have have updated their landmark 1987 collection with a new paperback edition, The Tanagers. Natural History, Distribution, and Identification. Due to the rapid growth of available Neotropical avian research and knowledge, the Islers must have faced a difficult choice with the re-publication of The Tanagers: publish it as is while focusing on their own research or rewrite large sections of the book to incorporate this new work, a task on par with writing the original text.
They opted for the faster and simpler alternative with the addition of a summary of research published since 1987. While continuing to accumulate information and providing these references is laudable, the failure to incorporate new literature into species accounts for the new edition was disappointing. Nonetheless, this does add to what reviewers of the hardback version noted as a strength of the book, an extensive literature cited section especially for natural history information (B. 1988; Valburg 1988; Wiedenfeld 1988). The book also maintains one weakness noted previously, illustrations often lack the vibrancy in color that these birds show in actual plumage. As Valburg (1988) noted, however, the plates do have an artistic flair that adds an aesthetic quality without sacrificing accuracy and detail important for identification. Also, printing problems noted in the first edition (Wiedenfield 1988) seem to have been corrected in the new paperback edition.
Of the areas that the Islers set out to covernatural history, distribution, and identificationthe latter is probably the weakest. The book relies on plates and plumage character descriptions to aid in identification but each species account lacks a section discussing how to distinguish potentially confusing similar species. Distribution information is thorough and range maps detailed though lacking place names (Wiedenfeld 1988). For northern migratory species, however, the authors do not extend distribution or breeding range maps north of the Mexico border. This exclusion of information available in popular United States field guides is a common problem in neotropical field guides. This is only a minor problem for Tanagers because only a few breed or have ranges in northern North America. Nevertheless, it does diminish the completeness of this taxon specific book. While researchers from the north surely have additional references available at only a minor inconvenience, this may be a greater problem in areas with limited resources.
Since Storer (1969) pointed out the taxonomic complications within Tanagers and called for more research and the reanalysis of this group, much has been done in the arena of natural history and behavior. That long sought after reanalysis, however, is not present in this book, despite a thorough synthesis of life history and distribution data based on the older taxonomy (Storer 1970). Perhaps it is too early to reorganize Tanager taxonomy, but the picture should be coming into focus. This book provides a comprehensive summary of the state of current research, unfortunately future research needs and conservation status are not laid out based on the authors' extensive experience.
Despite (1) an eloquent plea by Parker for students of neotropical birds to broaden their interests to include conservation and (2) the stated objective to ultimately aid in the conservation of this group, the authors do not expressly address Tanager conservation. The distribution maps give an idea of range limitation and suggest the vulnerability of some species but more explicit mention, where possible, of population size, conservation status, and possible threats would have been an important first step toward achieving this objective.
This book is another contribution in a growing series of taxon specific books (usually at the family level) that are a hybrid between field guide and monograph, and as such, should be a welcome and well-used addition to the bookshelf of any serious neotropical birder or ornithologist.
B., A. H. 1988. Other items of interest: The tanagers: natural history, distribution and identification. Auk 105(3): 607.
Isler, M.L. and P.R. Isler. 1987. The Tanagers. Natural history, distribution, and identification. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, D.C.
Skutch A.F. 1989. Life of the Tanager. Comstock, Ithaca, NY.
Storer, R.W. 1969. What is a Tanager? Living Bird V8: 127-136.
Storer, R.W. 1970. Subfamily Thraupinae, pp. 246-408. In Check-list of birds of the world, Vol. 13, ed., R. A. Paynter, Jr. Cambridge: Mus. Comp. Zool.
Valburg, L.K. 1988. Book Reviews: The tanagers: natural history, distribution, and identification. Condor V90: 523-524.
Wiedenfeld, D.A. 1988. Book reviews: The Tanagers. Natural History, Distribution, and Identification. Wilson Bulletin, V100(3): 520-521.