Birds of Colombia book review Frank Lambert Birding.jpg

Birds of Colombia by Steve L. Hilty. Lynx and BirdLife International Field Guides Collection, 2021. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona. ISBN: 978-84-16728-24-4 Flexi-cover, 978-84-16728-23-7 Hardcover. 49.50€–55.90€. 608 pages

Review by Frank Lambert

In April 2020, I was about to visit Colombia for the first time in a decade, but the pandemic inevitably put that on hold and, like many keen birders, a year later I am still eagerly awaiting an opportunity to get back to some serious birding. Unsurprisingly, Colombia remains one of the countries at the top of my list of places to visit. Although I have probably spent almost a year birding in Colombia in total, that is still insufficient to visit all the important areas for birds. After all, Colombia boasts more bird species than any other country, a product of its incredible topography, great diversity of habitats, and subtropical location. Being within easy reach of migratory species from North America also helps boost the list, since many species of northern migrant winter in Colombia.

Birds of Colombia book review Frank Lambert Birding

Birds of Colombia is a very welcome addition to the various field guides to birds of Colombia, and indeed the Neotropical region, with neighbouring Brazil now the only major country that does not have an adequate modern guide. This guide is the latest in the Lynx and BirdLife International Field Guides series. Other guides in the series have covered Asian countries, including Malaysia, Thailand, and Japan, and there is also a comprehensive Lynx field guide to the adjacent Indonesian archipelago, which harbours more endemics than even Colombia (a remarkable c.506 breeding endemics compared with ‘only’ c.94 in Colombia). This, however, is the first in this series that covers a South American country, and more are likely to follow. Like those guides, Birds of Colombia is both up-to-date and user-friendly, and is available as a soft, flexible cover or in hard back. At 1.2kg (2.6lbs) it might prove to be a little heavy for some people to carry around, but it can easily be carried in a small bag and the advantages of having a comprehensive guide whilst birding in a country with so many species certainly make that worthwhile.

Birds of Colombia Review Frank Lambert Birding

When I first visited Colombia in 1993, I carried around Steve Hilty’s excellent first Colombia guide A Guide to the Birds of Colombia (Princeton 1986), along with John Dunning’s (1987) photographic guide, South American Birds. Being the first country that I had visited in South America, I was of course overwhelmed with identification challenges from Day 1, and no doubt made errors, but I got by thanks to that combination of books. Much has changed since the 1980s and, through the efforts of both professional ornithologists and birders, our understanding of avian taxonomy has advanced enormously, as has knowledge of field identification, vocalisations, and ecology. Hence an updated field guide by Hilty has been long-awaited. Nevertheless, his 1986 Colombia guide is still worth having in your book collection, since the species accounts include much that is not found in the 2021 guide, including more comprehensive information on behaviour, breeding, and a description of range rather than just a map (although unavoidably outdated in some cases).

Birds of Colombia book review Frank Lambert Birding

Hilty’s book is not the only recent Colombian field guide available. Since 2010, there has been an excellent pocket-sized guide published by ProAves, the Field Guide to the Birds of Colombia by Miles McMullan and Thomas Donegan (a third edition was published in 2018). This guide from Lynx is significantly more detailed and up-to-date, with better illustrations; although, of course, it is also much heavier. It is also worth noting that there have been many changes to the taxonomic status of birds in the neotropical region since 2018, so Hilty’s guide is now preferable as a field companion.

The present guide includes 1,960 species, 94 endemics, 101 near-endemics, 42 vagrants, and four introduced species. This compares with 1,475 species in Hilty’s original Princeton Guide. Colombia boasts an impressive collection of species in certain families, in particular: 163 species of hummingbirds, 212 tyrant-flycatchers, 180 tanagers, 121 typical antpittas, 118 ovenbirds, 57 parrots, 45 woodpeckers, 35 wrens, 34 cotingas, 23 antpittas, and 22 toucans. These eleven groups alone account for 997 species, or about half the bird species of Colombia. The increase in the Colombian list between publication of Hilty’s two Colombian guides results mainly from a combination of newly discovered species within the borders of Colombia, records of vagrants and migrants, and taxonomic changes. One very striking example in the last category is the splitting of the Oxypogon hummingbirds, which was considered a single species in Hilty’s first Colombia guide, Bearded Helmetcrest O. guerinii, but is now recognised to comprise four species, three of which are Colombian montane endemics.

Birds of Colombia book review Frank Lambert Birding

The first thing I noticed when I opened Birds of Colombia was that the format deviates from the now-familiar Lynx and BirdLife International field guide design. Birds of Colombia has the same features, such as clear colour distribution maps alongside the illustrations, but the illustrations and maps are not grouped on a plate opposite the species accounts, but instead integrated with them. This design seems preferable because there are no longer any large blank spaces in the book (often found after the text and sometimes on the plates in other books in the series) and there is no mixing of genera on a plate, since the birds appear in sequence. Also, as with the recently published Birds of the Philippines by Lynx, the maps are not in boxes, another space-saving measure.

A useful topographical map that names key rivers, major towns, and mountains is provided inside the front cover, but like other maps in this field guide series, it inexcusably lacks any scale. The map is reproduced inside the back cover, where it has been adapted to show the approximate location of 59 National Parks and Protected Areas, along with a further six proposed areas.

Birds of Colombia book review Frank Lambert Birding

The book contains a succinct 17-page General Introduction that starts with a historical background, which in essence is a summary of the historical to present day sources of information on the avifauna. As one might anticipate, the following sections describe the topography and climate, topographic regions, vegetation zones, and habitats. Unlike most field guides in this series, the distinctive birds inhabiting each vegetation zone or habitat are not mentioned in any detail, presumably because this would take up a lot of space and is not necessarily useful to users of the guide. There is also a brief section on Bird Conservation in Colombia, a country with at least 14 Critically Endangered species, 35 Endangered species, and 84 Vulnerable species. A sobering 54% of the 93-94 endemics are already considered threatened.

Interestingly, ‘Army ants’ are treated as a habitat by Hilty, an odd concept perhaps, but I think correct in the context of the professional (obligate) ant-following species that have proliferated in neotropical forests (particularly in the Amazon) and are usually only ever seen in association with foraging army ants. These professional ant-following species largely comprise antbirds and woodcreepers, and, as demonstrated by long-term monitoring on Barro Colorado Island, Panama, this mobile habitat is critical to the survival of some of these species. In addition, many other species frequently attend army-ant swarms, including a striking assemblage of army-ant following skippers, as well as various birds, and these ants are clearly keystone species in their ecosystems. Some of the other habitats that support interesting suites of endemic or near-endemic species that readers may not be so familiar with include sandy-soil forest, Várzea forest, and Amazonian river islands.

Birds of Colombia book review Frank Lambert Birding

A section on Using the Field Guide is essential reading for those unfamiliar with this field guide series. It includes a discussion of the taxonomic approach. Whilst the taxonomy followed is loosely based on that of Lynx-BirdLife International, the author has chosen to incorporate many taxonomic decisions made by the American Ornithological Society’s South American Checklist Committee, with the result that the taxonomy probably reflects the views of the author more than any one world bird list. The same is true for English names, with the book using a mixture of names from the Lynx-BirdLife taxonomy and others from Clements/eBird.

A particularly important section to read explains the inclusion of separate accounts and illustrations for taxa that have been assigned to Subspecies Groups. The treatment of taxa in Subspecies Groups will help keen birders and listers differentiate between groupings of various closely related taxa, presently treated as one species in this guide. Some of these taxa have already been split in some world bird lists and may very well be recognised as full species by everyone in the future. As a result, this field guide has, for example, full accounts (description, map, and illustration) for subspecies groups of Tyrian Metaltail (which in Colombia includes Santa Marta Metaltail, perhaps an endemic), Booted Racket-tail (with ‘White-booted’ and ‘Rufous-booted’ forms), Rufescent Screech-owl (‘Rufescent’ and ‘Colombian’ being present in Colombia), Ruddy Foliage-gleaner (which in Colombia is represented by members of three subspecies groups, with Santa Marta Foliage-gleaner already having been split off) and Northern Schiffornis (which in the southern part of its Colombian range is represented by Choco Schiffornis, in a separate subspecies group).

Birds of Colombia book review Frank Lambert Birding

The text on identification is succinct, indeed much shorter than is typical of guides in this series, presumably because this book covers so many species – more than double the number in countries such as the Philippines – but it packs in all the information that one usually requires to identify most species that could be encountered.

There are more than 3,600 illustrations in the present book, by 30 artists. As with any guide using illustrations from a diversity of artists, the quality of paintings of some groups are evidently different than those of others, but the general standard is excellent. Many of these illustrations derive from Lynx’s Handbook of the Birds of the World series. However, many illustrations were touched up or newly painted for this guide, including useful additions of some species in flight. However, there are relatively few illustrations of juvenile and immature birds and little text on younger plumages, which may occasionally prove problematic in the field. This, however, was undoubtedly necessary in a portable field guide that covers nearly a fifth of the world birds.

The original (1986) Hilty Colombia guide also contained detailed maps, but these were all at the back of the book, and black-and-white, while McMullan’s and Donegan’s guides contain good colour maps that indicate the approximate distribution of distinctive subspecies. This Lynx guide has more than 2,000 excellent colour maps depicted beside the appropriate bird illustrations, with the ranges of distinctive subspecies clearly shown. The maps also indicate the position of major rivers and shaded mountain ranges, which can prove invaluable when trying to figure out the distribution in a country such as Colombia.


Like other field guides in this series, Birds of Colombia includes QR codes for every species account. Scanning the code takes the reader to webpages of images, videos, and sounds of the species involved. Owners of the book are also able to use a unique code that comes with the book to download a free annotated 73-page Checklist of the Birds of Colombia from the publisher’s website. This is an extremely useful tool for anyone planning a birding trip to Colombia, with columns to enter the birds you have seen at 10 different sites (or dates) during your visit.

Whilst many global birders do not need much encouragement to visit Colombia, due to the rewards on offer to anyone interested in birds, the publication of this up-to-date field guide will greatly help with recognizing the species one encounters and to identify subspecies of taxonomic interest. I, for one, look forward to using it the next time I visit this incredibly bird-diverse country.

Birds of Colombia book review Frank Lambert Birding