A comprehensive catalogue of the world's bird species, which used thousands of specimens from the Museum's collections, is the new gold standard for the taxonomy and conservation of birds.
The first volume of the Illustrated Checklist of the Birds of the World, released earlier this summer, defines more than 400 new species of bird.
Species for conservation
The book was authored by Josep del Hoyo and BirdLife International author and Museum scientific associate Nigel Collar. Part of Collar's job at BirdLife is to help feed into the IUCN Red List - a global record of the conservation status of the world's plants and animals.
For this, he needed a robust list of the world's bird species. Whether a bird gets defined as a separate species or not is important for its conservation. If a bird is defined as a subspecies (a variant of a species) many birds will go extinct without ever getting proper conservation attention.
Conversely, if too many birds are defined as species, the concept of a species becomes devalued and the idea of conservation becomes difficult to manage.
In the Illustrated Checklist, birds up for consideration as a new species were scored on a number of characteristics, with particular focus on plumage and voice - the traits important for determining whether breeding can occur between two birds.
The results of the first volume estimate that bird diversity may have been previously underestimated by around 10%, meaning one-in-ten birds have been ignored by conservation efforts.
In addition to 462 new bird species, the criteria also merged 30 existing species into other species, creating new subspecies.
The Bearded Helmetcrest hummingbird is now recognised as four different species - one of which hasn't been seen in nearly 70 years.
© Francesco Veronesi, Flickr Creative Commons.
Camped out in the collections
For the physical characteristics of birds, Collar says that our Museum collections at Tring have been indispensable:
To look carefully at the characteristics of birds you need them right under your nose. The Museum has the best collection in the world with the best reputation. It's utterly invaluable.
He looked at thousands of specimens for the first volume of the book, and is now ‘camped out' at Tring researching for volume two.
Thousands of birds
Collar, del Hoyo and their co-authors assessed the species status of around 1,000 birds for the first volume, which covers non-passerines. Passerine birds account for over half of all the world's bird species and are often called ‘perching birds' thanks to the arrangement of their toes.
The authors have another 1,000 birds in the passerines group to consider before they release volume two of the Illustrated Checklist, due out in 2016.