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16-volume bird checklist, complete after 60 years

The ``Checklist of Birds of the World'' is finished after 60 years of effort. Volume 16, the comprehensive index, was published at the end of April. Prof. Raymond Painter, curator of birds at Harvard University's Museum of Comparative Zoology, notes that the checklist is the ``only inventory of all the forms, that is, species and sub-species - of which there may be as many as 35,000 - of a group of animals. There are half as many mammals in the world, but no inventory.

``Birds have always been very well studied,'' Dr. Painter observes, ``because they are conspicuous and colorful.''

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The checklist ``provides a touchstone, he says. We know what's there when you talk about conservation.'' Perhaps a hundred bird species have become extinct since the list began.

Thirty-two editors beside Painter worked on the project, which originated in 1921 when James L. Peters, then a recent Harvard graduate, volunteered his services to the museum and was put to work making a card catalog of all the bird species and specimens in the museum's collection.

The ``avalanche'' of new specimens that poured into the museum transformed the project into the comprehensive catalog of birds of the world that it is today, says Painter.

By 1927, Mr. Peters was assistant curator for birds, with responsibility for volume 1 of the checklist, published by Harvard University Press in 1931. By volume 6 in 1951, the MCZ had become the publisher and Peters had called in international specialists to help.

The list is mainly a tool for museums and avian taxonomists rather than birdwatchers. It has no pictures, no descriptions. It does give geographical ranges, scientific names (but no vernacular names), where information was first published, and by whom.

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