The Handbook of the Birds of the World is on direct sale in more than 160 countries, but reaches many more through the export services of specialized bookstores. Since the first volume appeared, the collection has received over 800 reviews in 220 publications in 32 countries. Among the accolades received are “the essential work of reference for conservation status”, “a masterpiece of science” or “the bible of ornithology.”
Josep del Hoyo Calduch is 57 years old and a doctor by training, having graduated in medicine from the Universidad Autónoma de Barcelona in 1977. Three years later, he toured Africa in a 4×4 on what was primarily a bird-watching expedition. Despite carrying all the available ornithological guides to each area visited, he was frustrated at seeing so many species that were unnamed and undescribed. Two years later, after his search had confirmed that there was no handbook describing, and far less illustrating, the birdlife of the world, he began a database – initially on index cards – building up, species by species, a complete factual, descriptive and photographic record, with accompanying drawings. The following year, this effort would materialize in the publishing initiative that came to be the Handbook of the Birds of the World.
But is has certainly been a long journey. To start with, there was no money. On returning from his first African trip, Del Hoyo left medicine and worked for a few years as a health educator, while building up a bibliography and gradually giving form to the project. In the late 1980s, he founded Lynx Edicions with his friend Jordi Sargatal – then Director of Aiguamolls de l’Empordà Nature Park – with support from lawyer and tourism entrepreneur Ramón Mascort. But the first volume of the HBW, published in 1992, proved economically unviable.
“Back then no one believed in the project,” recalls Marco Lambertin, Chief Executive of BirdLife International. “What chances were there for a handbook that aimed to cover the almost 10,000 bird species in existence, especially coming from a country with barely any birdlife research or publications?” Finally the first volume sold just 3,000 copies, But with the second things began to change: “They started to see that something worthwhile was happening,” explains Del Hoyo, “and the people who had bought the second volume went back and bought the first, and so on.” Volumes were initially published every two years and later switched to annually.