Yellow throat sparrow: the first bird that prompted Birdman Salim Ali to study birds in India | Neha Sinha
Yellow throat sparrow: the first bird that prompted Birdman Salim Ali to study birds in India | Neha Sinha
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I am often asked by people who see me dawdling about in the countryside with a pair of
binoculars hung round my neck, peering into bushes or shadowing the comings and goings of what seems to them a perfectly unremarkable-looking bird, why I waste my time in this unprofitable pursuit. Indeed it is difficult to convince a certain type of person of the profit in any occupation unless you can show him some inherent possibilities of black marketing.

In the first talk of this series entitled “The Kingdom of Birds” my friend Dillon Ripley has told you of some of the marvels and mysteries of bird life. Among other things you have heard of the enormous journeys, many birds perform twice each year in order to escape the rigours of winter and to enjoy the bounties of springtime. The regularity, punctuality, and precision with which these movements are carried out often over thousands of miles of land and sea, even by young birds without previous experience of the route or the goal, has excited the wonderment of man from earliest times.

While we have learnt a good deal about the migrations of birds in general, through the
efforts and researches of bird students in Europe and America, it has to be admitted that in
relation to India specifically our knowledge is still in a very elementary stage. This is also
the stage at which we find ourselves as regards most other problems concerning the lives of Indian birds. What I want to impress upon listeners in the present talk is about the importance and value of bird study in India, particularly that part of it which concerns the living bird in its natural environment. Practically all that we know about Indian birds has been learnt during the last 125 years. And it has all come through the active interest taken in our bird life by a handful of Britishers. They were not imported especially as luxury articles in order to study our birds for us, but people who extracted opportunities from their governmental or professional duties, and devoted their leisure to the pursuit of their hobby. In other words, they were all amateurs mostly. Through the piecemeal efforts of these men has been built up all the knowledge that we now possess of Indian birds.


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The foundation has been well and truly laid and it is now up to us to design and erect
a superstructure that will do credit to ourselves, and thereby also to the pioneers who
provided the foundation. Of the many things that Britishers will be remembered by in years to come when distance in time enables us to form a truer perspective of their achievements and shortcomings, one will certainly be the contribution they have made to the study of Indian birds. It is a coincidence that may be news to many people that the same Allan Hume who was one of the founders of the Indian National Congress and thus in a way the spiritual ancestor of the Quit India resolution, was also the virtual father of Indian ornithology. He encouraged bird collectors in every part of the country to send him specimens and from his official duties found time to edit a journal called Stray Feathers, the ten volumes of which, though now difficult to obtain, form an indispensable work of reference for every serious student of Indian birds.

In these few minutes I want to give you an outline of the work done by these pioneers;
to tell you in fact how much we actually do know about Indian birds, and what we have still
to learn.

The first concern of the earlier ornithologists was naturally to discover how many
different kinds of birds were to be found within the boundaries of the Indian Empire as it then was. They themselves collected, and they caused to be collected through local shikaris and snarers, specimens in every corner of the country, the chief aim of every collector being no doubt to obtain something that nobody else had collected before, and which could be described as a species new to science. The chief ambition of most collectors even today, sometimes veiled, sometimes undisguised, is to discover a bird such as has never been seen or dreamt of. I myself sometimes feel that I would like to give to the world a pigmy owlet with a peacock’s train! Most of these Indian collections sooner or later found their way to the British Museum, which, in spite of the recent acquisitions by some museums in the U.S.A., perhaps still contains the richest Indian material.

Some of these early collectors devoted themselves more specially to collecting birds’ eggs. In their zeal to get eggs of a larger and larger number of species they often employed gangs of jungle tribes to collect for them, with rather unfortunate results. It was sometimes impossible to establish the identity of the birds that were described by the men who brought in the eggs, and errors have thus crept into ornithological literature which are difficult to eradicate.


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However, the position is that through the united labours of all these volunteers we now know that the total number of species and subspecies of birds to be found in India is in the neighbourhood of 2400, of which about 500 visit the country only during the winter months. These latter do not nest in our midst. Regarding most of the residents – but yet not all – we know when they breed, what sort of nests they build, the number of eggs they lay, and what the shape, size, and colouration of their eggs are. But apart from these basic facts, there is little else that we can lay claim to. While all the attention has been centred in the collecting, naming, and describing of dead material, the living bird has been practically ignored. We really know exceedingly little, and that only scrappily, about the life histories of most species. And it is only in comparatively recent years that any attention has been given to this aspect of bird study. There was even a time not so long ago, when bird watching – the only possible way in which the living bird can be studied – was looked down upon by museum workers as a harmless enough but rather childish way of killing time. The observations of field naturalists were sometimes treated with condescending tolerance, but little scientific importance was attached to them. All this has given some people an idea that because they do not kill birds and stuff them and preserve their dry skins they are incapable of contributing anything seriously worthwhile to the study of birds. I can tell you that nothing is farther from the truth. The truth is that at the stage bird study has reached in India it is unnecessary, except in special areas and by specialists who know what they want, to go on collecting bird skins or eggs in a haphazard way any longer. The gun and the skinning knife must now give way to the binoculars and the notebook. We want to know exactly how birds live: why they select particular habitats, how the environment reacts on them, and how they react on their environment. What food birds eat, their preferences for different foods, and the quantities they consume. What determines and controls the density of bird populations in different areas. We want to know more of the social life of different species of birds, the interflock relationship of individuals, and the relations of one species with another. We want to know about their courtship displays and pair-formation rites, their attitudes towards their young, and their behaviour under unaccustomed circumstances. And we want to know about their different calls and emotions and reflexes. We want to learn more precisely about their migrations.

Now, these are not things that can be studied in a musty museum from dry and
shrivelled-up skins with the help of callipers and slide rules. They are things that you and I
who watch birds intelligently enough to enjoy them can contribute to as we wander about the fields and hedgerows and jungles even while we enjoy the open air, the blue sky, and the song of the birds. All you need in the way of equipment is a good pair of binoculars, a
notebook and a pencil, a good stock of patience, and a capacity to observe keenly and record faithfully. That is the sort of bird study of which we stand in the greatest need in India today, and for which we need recruits and more recruits in every part of the country.

This excerpt from ‘Words for Birds’ edited by Tara Gandhi, has been published with permission from Black Kite & Hachette India.

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