Ornithologist's book rolls off the presses

by Gavin Wilson
Staff writer

For legions of bird-watchers, The Birds of British Columbia is not just another book; it's an event.

And for UBC Press, it's a landmark publication -- one of the largest projects it has ever undertaken, a benchmark in regional ornithology and an important milestone in the documentation of B.C.'s incredibly rich birdlife.

"This is one of the largest ornithological research projects ever undertaken," said UBC Press director Peter Milroy. "It has been ongoing for almost 20 years and involves a large number of people -- about 10,000 -- in one way or another."

The third of what will be a four-volume set was published this month. It covers 91 species including such common ones as swallows and starlings, and is illustrated with 700 colour photographs, maps and drawings. In total, 472 species will be covered in the four volumes.

The books comprise a complete reference work for bird-watchers, ornithologists and naturalists with information on history, habitat, breeding habits, migratory movements and distribution patterns.

"We have written these books to be useful to professionals," said one of the authors, Ian McTaggart-Cowan, dean emeritus of Graduate Studies, whose first book on birds was published in 1947.

"But we also know that most people who will read the book will do so because birds are gorgeous creatures."

The mammoth undertaking began in 1972 when McTaggart-Cowan, then a professor of Zoology, and his student Wayne Campbell decided to fill what they saw as a pressing need for a comprehensive work on the province's birds.

They enlisted the help of thousands of bird-watchers and many naturalists throughout the province, eventually compiling 1.5 million index cards of information.

The initial two volumes, published in 1990, sold out almost before they reached the bookstores. They have now been re-issued to coincide with the publication of volume three, for a combined print run of more than 10,000 books, nearly half of which were pre-sold before publication.

The fourth and final volume will be published in about two years' time, Milroy said.