Peacocks and Picathartes: Reflections on Africa’s birdlife – Book Review

This book by Rupert Watson has been nothing but a joy to read. Watson explains in the preface that it is a book about the birds that are “quintessentially African”, and that the aim is to expand the interest of the reader in Africa’s birdlife by both informing and entertaining. The focus is primarily on sub-Saharan Africa and he does a good job of incorporating all the major regions rather than being biased to East Africa, where he is based.

Some of the birds featured are extremely rare, or at least live in places inaccessible to most birders, while others are very common and widespread. What I liked most about this book is that even the most common of birds are presented in a captivating light, with interesting and little-known facts about them included. I certainly learned something new about each of the featured birds.

The first chapter opens with an engaging and captivating introduction to the African continent’s zoogeographic regions, geography, vegetation and climate, as well as the history of its birds and their evolutionary origins. He fully recognizes the complex and ever-changing nature of bird taxonomy, choosing to avoid getting caught up in the nuances of whether this or that bird is a subspecies or a full species. He instead chooses a single taxonomic authority and decides to use it as his refence point throughout the book.

👉Check out the book here

The book’s chapters blend very well into each other. Following the introduction, there is a chapter that is fully dedicated to the 24 bird families that are endemic to Africa. A couple of these do however have species whose ranges extend slightly beyond the continent, such as the Hamerkop, which also occurs in southern Arabia (although technically that is still within the Afrotropical realm). Iconic birds such as the Shoebill, Secretarybird, Turacos, Rockfowl, and Rockjumpers are among this group of “the most essentially African birds”.

Eastern Nicator Nicator gularis in the Muumoni Hills, Kenya. Nicators (Nicatoridae) are among the 24 bird families that are endemic to Africa

This is followed by a chapter on the near-endemic bird families, which have most of their representatives in Africa with only a few species being found on other continents. Most of these are families that likely evolved in Africa and have only recently radiated outwards. Cisticolas, Sandgrouse, Honeyguides and Weavers are among those in this group. Among numerous interesting facts in this chapter, you will also learn why the Zitting Cisticola ‘qualifies as the most remarkable small bird in the world.’

The chapter that follows is on six special species that belong to widespread families but have themselves come to epitomize Africa. I was glad to see two raptors finally featured here. With Africa hosting the highest number of raptor species of any continent, it would have been outrageous to write a book dedicated to Africa’s birds and not include raptors!

The Bateleur Terathopius ecaudatus is featured as one of the six special species that belong to widespread families but are themselves “quintessentially African”

The author avoids dwelling too much on conservation problems, choosing instead to focus on highlighting the wonder of the birds themselves and what makes them unique, fascinating and worth protecting as part of Africa’s heritage.

He does however include a chapter on “Conservation and Celebration” where he mentions conservation initiatives such as BirdLife International’s Important Bird Areas network, the Beesley’s Lark Conservation Program and citizen science projects like the Kenya Bird Map. He mentions some of the current conservation concerns facing Africa’s birds, such as the decline in vulture populations, as well as some conservation success stories like the down-listing of several birds in Mauritius and the Seychelles from Critically Endangered to less threatened categories. The growth of avitourism in Africa and its potential role in conservation is also included in this chapter.

The final chapter is a fascinating look into the history of ornithology in Africa, where Watson highlights key people who have inspired him and whose work he has drawn from to write this book. He includes several entertaining anecdotes about pioneering European explorers in Africa and explains early research in interesting detail.

The story of how it was first discovered that the Pin-tailed Whydah Vidua macroura is a brood parasite is both amusing and fascinating!

Anectodes about the early days of African ornithology are not only delegated to the last chapter however. Throughout the book, he describes when and where the type specimens of several species were collected, who the collector was and who described and named the species. Short stories of several interesting early discoveries are included, such as how Frederick Jackson’s Kenyan assistant, Baraka, is to thank for the discovery that the Pin-tailed Whydah is a brood parasite.

This is a well-researched and enthralling book written in language that the layman would find easy to understand, with little scientific jargon used. It is a MUST READ for anyone who has an interest in Africa’s birdlife.

The book is available online in both paperback and Kindle form. Get a copy here: Peacocks and Picathartes 🦚

For those in Nairobi, you can also get it at Bookstop in Yaya Center or at the Friends of Nairobi National Park office. You can also contact the author for it: rupertwatson48@gmail.com

This review is also printed in the latest issue of Swara Magazine. Click here to join the East African Wildlife Society and get access to the latest Swara issue. 

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About Sidney Shema

Sidney is a Kenya-based ornithologist and photographer specializing in the birds of Africa, with an especially keen interest in the birds of prey (raptors) of Kenya.
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Don
Don
1 month ago

Nice article bro.. the book sounds like a good read

Last edited 1 month ago by Don