Roberts 7 – History and Background

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Austin Roberts’ The Birds of South Africa was first published in 1940 and has been in print ever since. In a remarkable publishing history spanning nearly 70 years, this book has been revised several times and has embraced no fewer than six editions and numerous impressions. In all, well over 300 000 copies of this well-loved work have been sold, making it one of South Africa’s most successful book ventures.

Roberts 7 Plate Illustrations

After the publication of Roberts 6, it was decided that Roberts (as it was affectionately known as) would be totally revamped. It would be produced in a larger format as a major handbook to encapsulate all current knowledge of southern African birds. The text would be comprehensive and detailed, while the plates would serve to enhance the book’s appeal.

The project was entrusted to the Percy FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology, and a scientific editorial committee comprising Phil Hockey (Editor in Chief), Richard Dean and Peter Ryan. To them fell the task of selecting the experts to write the texts and of overseeing the contributions of 58 co-authors, 36 of whom provided 10 or more species accounts. In addition, each text was assessed either by other authors in the team or by external referees.

The 951 species included in the new Roberts was dealt with under the usual headings of a handbook, but there are a number of additional features worth noting. Although no attempt is made to fill a niche as a field guide, identification is nevertheless dealt with in detail, with special emphasis on confusing species. Other innovative aspects included are etymology, moult, population and demography, taxonomy, geographical variation and conservation issues. The distribution maps, largely based on The Atlas of Southern African Birds, are fully up to date.

Texts vary in length, from breeding species (2 000 words) and non-breeding species (1 500 words) to vagrants (500 words), and full references are given so that the source of all information may be traced. Roberts implements the new common names that have been established by the International Ornithological Committee. Birdwatchers will also need to adapt to a dramatically revised taxonomic order, in which species are arranged quite differently. The African Penguin, for example, will no longer be found near the front of the book. Huge strides have been made in molecular techniques to establish biological relationships, and Roberts reflects that latest research.

A further feature of this new-look Roberts is the inclusion of 80 brand-new colour plates, specially commissioned from South Africa’s leading bird illustrators.