"Handbook of the Birds of the World" (HBW) is a 16-volume mega-encyclopedia covering all living species of birds. Yes, all of them. Really! This is the ninth volume, covering a number of passerine families. Highlights include contingas, lyrebirds, swallows and the extraordinarily diverse tyrant-flycatchers. We also meet the primitive New Zealand wrens, believed to be the first passerines to diverge from the main stem of passerine evolution, already 85 million years ago.
As usual, the information presented is too detailed to ever by devoured by a layman, and even ornithologists might feel a bit cornered. Despite being an advanced reference work for scientists, HBW could be sold on the commercial market, as well. The stunning photos and illustrations (all in color) are what makes this book both so expensive, and so desirable...
The most fascinating chapter in this volume deals the swallow in human mythology. Apparently, barn swallows used to be associated with the crucifixion of Christ. They tried to save Christ from the temple guard in Gethsemane, and later tried to pluck out the thorns from his head. Another legend claims that while magpies tortured Christ by putting thorns into his feet, the swallows tried to remove them. For this reason, God granted swallows free access to human homes. We are also informed that a swallow reunited Adam and Eve after their expulsion from Eden.
In other legends, the swallows play a Promethean role. They steal the fire of the gods and give it to man. The fire is guarded by sparrows! (I *always* suspected them of being up to no good!) There are also many strange tales about why swallows have forked tails: because the snake in Eden bit off the middle feathers, or Thor tore the tail with a thunderbolt. The HBW also claims that the Koran mentions swallows attacking Christians besieging Mecca. This, however, cannot be correct. I never heard of any Christian attack on Mecca during the time of Muhammad. Overall, a problem with all these myths is that the HBW doesn't give their provenance. I've read in another book that magpies were popular during both Roman times and the Middle Ages, so where does the legend of magpies attacking Christ on the cross come from? 19th century British gamekeepers? Strangely, the mythology section says nothing about the old superstition that swallows hibernate during winter at the bottom of lakes.
But then, HBW isn't really about mythology, is it? ;-)
As already mentioned, this staggeringly well-produced work isn't really intended for a general audience, but rather for large libraries and universities. It's extremely expensive and the text is heavy and filled with scientific jargon. Still, if you are a really rich bird-lover, or just love spectacular books, you might actually enjoy it. Five stars!