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Complete Birds of the World, in one Book

Among the most popular books published by the National Geographic Society are its books about birds. The Society’s latest book in its bird series is “Complete Birds of the World.” (National Geographic Books, April 2009, ISBN: 978-1-4262-0403-6, U.S.$35.00 hardcover.) It features every one of the 193 bird families on the planet and profiles another 500 “representative”...

Among the most popular books published by the National Geographic Society are its books about birds.


The Society’s latest book in its bird series is “Complete Birds of the World.” (National Geographic Books, April 2009, ISBN: 978-1-4262-0403-6, U.S.$35.00 hardcover.) It features every one of the 193 bird families on the planet and profiles another 500 “representative” species.

I am only a casual birder, but I do appreciate any opportunity to learn as much as I can about birds.

I remember often the excellent advice given to me by a former news editor boss, an avid “twitcher,” who once asked me as I was about to visit South Africa’s Kruger National Park if I would be looking out for the birds. My head was filled with anticipated sightings of lions, elephants, buffalo, and other large fauna, but I had not given much thought about the birds I might see. His advice was to drive through Kruger slowly and also take in the birds. “You will triple your enjoyment of the park,” he said.

He was right. I have enjoyed looking out for birds all over the world since I first really opened my eyes to them in the Kruger Park.

The first stages of becoming a birder are relatively easy, I found. A good field guide and a pair of binoculars quickly led to identification of the more obviously discernible species. But then came the hard and very hard parts. It’s very difficult to distinguish between many of the more subtly differentiated species. This is where knowledge of habitat, behavior, diet, and calls become very important.

“Complete Birds of the World” provides a more holistic picture of the universe of birds, from Arctic to Antarctic and every climate zone inbetween. Understanding birds from the perspective of their different families adds much to my comprehension of our feathered relatives, and certainly to my appreciation of their infinite variety.


This is labeled Blue Grouse in the book (page 32) but is now renamed Dusky Grouse because it was recently split.

NGS photo

The project editor for “Complete Birds of the World” was Jonathan Alderfer, who also wrote the foreword. “The book was an international effort,” Alderfer told me in an email. “The editor was Tim Harris from England, ten authors wrote the text, many award-winning photographers contributed, and National Geographic cartographers produced the maps.”

I interviewed Alderfer about the book. Here is an edited Q&A:

What’s special about “Complete Birds of the World”?

This book features all the bird families of the world. What’s really great is that, because birds are a rather complicated and diverse class of animals, seeing all their families in one book gives you a unique overview of the incredible variety of birds–a world view of their diversity, their different life histories, their evolutionary adaptations, their conservation, and, of course, their amazing and beautiful plumages.

There are nearly 10,000 bird species and, according to this book, 193 families. How firm are those numbers?

Ornithologists have differing opinions, but most agree that there are close to 10,000 species of birds worldwide. That number will continue to change, and probably grow, as we find out more about some of the lesser-known species.

Lesser-Striped-Swallow-picture.jpgBy using vocalizations, behavior, and even molecular data, ornithologists are teasing apart species that were formerly considered as the same species. Birders know this as “splitting.” In North America, that happened recently with a species formerly known as the Blue Grouse. It’s now recognized as two different species, the Sooty Grouse from the West Coast and the Dusky Grouse (picture above) from the Rockies. So, this part of ornithology is really in flux, and many exciting discoveries are continuing to be made.

Lesser Striped Swallow photo by NGS

There is also change at the higher levels of classification. For instance, the American Ornithologists’ Union is in the process of reclassifying the North American tanagers, such as the Scarlet Tanager, into the family of cardinals, grosbeaks, and buntings. These birds will probably retain their common names, but will no longer be placed in the tanager family.

Why do some bird families have so many more species than others?

Many bird families have died out completely and are only known from the fossil record, other families are dwindling, and some are continuing to evolve and radiate. So, the process is far from static. The largest family of living birds is the tyrant flycatchers of the New World with about 400 species. In contrast, there are 16 families that have only a single member species. These birds have been determined to be so unique and different from their nearest relatives that they are placed in their own family. In North America, the Olive Warbler is placed in its own family.

Internationally, there are some really fascinating birds that warrant their own family. The Kagu, for example, a bird endemic to the island of New Caledonia, was originally thought to be a relative of egrets and herons. Now it is considered to be more closely related to the Sunbittern, another species placed in its own family. The Kagu might actually be more closely realted to cranes and rails. So the evolutionary history of this particular bird is still something of a mystery.


Goliath Heron (page 59) photo by NGS

Are there bird families that include a surprising combination of species?

In terms of size the family of petrels and shearwaters shows incredible diversity. The giant-petrels are the size of some albatrosses and have a wingspan of close to seven feet, while the tiny prions have a wingspan under 24 inches. Both groups are in the same family of monochromatic seabirds. For plumage variation, probably no family rivals the spectacular birds of paradise from New Guinea and the surrounding area.

Is the book for beginners or expert birders?

I’d say it is for both. The book provides a worldwide overview of the world’s birds. Most bird families are covered in two or three pages, providing a concise explanation of what makes a family unique: its distribution, behavior, movements, habitat, plumage, and structure. There are specific examples of species from each family and each family has a profile box that lists the number of species in the family, as well as how many species are threatened or endangered, as determined by Birdlife International.


Lilac-breasted Roller (Page 161) photo by NGS

Are birds in trouble from a conservation standpoint?

The numbers from Birdlife International are sobering. It is estimated that 1,200 species, or 12 percent of the world’s species. are threatened with extinction. It’s my hope that this book will help to inspire readers to participate in preserving Earth’s diversity, and knowledge is the first step in successful conservation.

The book can therefore be appreciated by almost everybody because its main purpose is to show the variation and extent of all the birds in the world.

Anyone interested in natural history can browse the book simply to enjoy the variation of birds and their habitats. There are great visual elements–photos, illustrations, and maps for every family–and the text is a gold mine of detailed information. Birders will especially appreciate having a single handy volume that includes information on every bird family in the world.

What’s next for National Geographic bird books?

This fall we are publishing an art-book sized edition of our North American field guide, Illustrated Birds of North America, Folio Edition. The enlarged artwork and maps are really spectacular. At almost 9″ by 12″ it will be a home reference that will give birders a chance to study the art and maps in great detail.

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Meet the Author

Author Photo David Max Braun
More than forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Max Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. In his 22-year career at National Geographic he was VP and editor in chief of National Geographic Digital Media, and the founding editor of the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directed the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. A regular expert on National Geographic Expeditions, David also lectures on storytelling for impact. He has 120,000 followers on social media: Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn