Birds of India

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A Short History of Ornithology in India
Edited by Bikram Grewal

The people of India have lived for several thousand years in close proximity with its rich natural life. The earliest Hindu religious work the Rig Veda refers to about twenty birds, but its anonymous compilers would have been familiar with several more. The later Vedas list up to 250 birds, and include an interesting observation of brood parasitism by Koels and their host the House Crow. Legends and myths grew around several familiar species. The Brahminy Duck, as well as the Sarus Crane, became symbols of fidelity, the pairs mating for life. The Chataka, either the Common Hawk Cuckoo or the Crested Cuckoo, was said to drink only rainwater, no matter how thirsty it was. The Sanskrit poet, Kalidasa, frequently used bird imagery in his plays and poetry. His Meghdoot is a sensuous poem about a lover exiled from his beloved in the monsoon, traditionally the season for passion and romance, and in fact the time when large waterbirds like cranes, storks and egrets breed. Addressing a storm-cloud the lover says ‘ hen-cranes will know the time ripe for mating and rejoice when they note in the sky your eye-delighting presence; rest assured they will attend on you in patterned flight’

tamp depicting Meghoot

Not only poets, but rulers too, expressed interest in ornithology. The Great Mughals maintained royal menageries and reveled in hunting on a grand scale. But they were also meticulous in their observations of wildlife. In the 16th century, Babur, the first Mughal Emperor, observed his first Pied Myna. "When I threw a bridge over the Ganges and crossed it, driving the enemy before me, I saw in Lucknow, Oudh a species of sharak which had a white breast and a piebald head with a black back. I had never seen it before. This species probably does not learn to speak at all" Babur’s keen interest in nature was inherited by his son Humayun, who even when fleeing India after being defeated by Sher Shah Suri, stopped to have a painting done of a bird he had never seen before.

The Emperor Jehangir noted with amazement the devotion of a Sarus Crane to its dead mate, refusing to leave the bones of his spouse. He was aware that both the Asian Koel and the Crested Cuckoo were brood parasites, and that the Koel laid its eggs in the nests of crows while the latter used those of the babbler. He employed the famous nature artist Ustad Mansur, whose paintings of the Dodo is supposedly the first ever done of the now extinct bird. Salim Ali was moved to say that the Emperor’s interest in birds would match any of the modern day masters.

Dodo by Ustad Mansur

The Mughal Empire stated to disintegrate at the beginning of the 18th Century, and the spread of British power gave enormous scope to officers in the police, civil, forest and armed services to observe the land’s plentiful birdlife. As the British power grew, there were an increasing number of such officers, whose jobs required much less crippling paperwork than those of their successors in later years. The result was pioneering work on which much of today’s study is based.

In the 18th century Carl Linnaeus of Sweden started the first proper classification (or systematics) of birds and thus scientific study of birds or ornithology was established worldwide.

The early studies on birds of the Indian region were done by Major Franklin and Colonel W. H. Sykes in the early 1830’s. Sykes produced A Catalogue of the Birds of the Bombay Deccan, where he described several new species naming many after Hindu deities like the Black Kite Milvus m govinda. Samuel Tickell came up with A List of the Birds of Borabhum and Dholbum. Edward Buckley, a Madras-based surgeon drew and described 22 birds seen around the East India Company’s fort. He sent his sketches to England and his material was the source of the description of the Indian Pied Wagtail as Motacilla maderaspatensis by Gmelin. The origin of the name is evident. Similarly his collection was the source of Linnaeus’s description of the Asian Paradise Flycatcher Terpsiphone paradisi.


Other than individual collectors, several countries in Europe started sending out expeditions to the east. In 1774, the King of France financed one such expedition to China, which visited the French territories in India. Pierre Sonnerat was the naturalist on the ship and his name has been immortalized in the scientific name of the Grey Junglefowl Gallus sonneratii. Similarly the French traveler Jean B Leschenault collected several birds and he is celebrated in the name of the White-crowned Forktail Enicurus leschenaulti. Adolph Delessert too collected birds and has the Wynaad Laughingthrush Garrulax delesserti named after him.

Gallus sonneratii

Vigor, Gray and Hodgson has stated writing on Himalayan birds, and using available material Horsfield stated publishing other descriptions. Sykes stated investigating the Deccan, while McClelland undertook Assam, Franklin and Tickell looked at birds from the Northeast and Bengal Peninsula. Fairbanks and Vidal worked on birds of the Konkan and Travancore while Butler published the tentative catalogue of the birds of the Deccan.

In Sri Lanka John Gideon Loten (of Loten’s Sunbird Nectarinia lotenia) was appointed the Dutch Governor General of Ceylon and he employed several local artists to make drawings and paintings of birds, which later became source material for taxidermists like Latham. Similarly John Latham used a drawing made by Lady Impey, the wife of the Chef Justice of West Bengal to describe the Monal Pheasant Lophophorus impejanus

Perhaps the most important (but overlooked) resource was the collection of bird illustrations, done by local artists, in the collection of Maj. Gen. Hardwicke, which was published as a folio of plates by J.E Gray and called Illustrations of Indian Zoology. Bird illustrations improved when John Gould produced in 1832, A Century of Birds from the Himalayan Mountains and, from 1850, the magnificent six-volume Birds of Asia.

From Il. Indian Zoology

But true ornithology in India started with Capt. Surgeon Thomas C Jerdon, Brian Hodgson, and Edward Blyth, collectively called the Founders of Indian Ornithology. Jerdon’s Birds of India, published in two volumes in 1862-64 was based on the work of all three men, assisted by a loyal group of field workers. Jerdon’s Fifty Illustrations from Indian Ornithology was the first serious attempt to illustrate birds of the region.

Drawing by Hodgson

The next major advance in ornithological knowledge came with the arrival of Allan Octavius Hume. He is widely known as a founder of the Indian National Congress, but is also known as the ‘Pope of Indian Ornithology’. For over a decade he and his team collected birds for study over most of the sub-continent. Hume also edited and published twelve volumes of bird observations between 1873, and 1888. These volumes, collectively known as Stay Feathers, are valuable reference works even today. After Stray Feathers ceased publication, the Ibis, which is the published by the British Ornithological Union and the Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society (JBNHS) became the main repositories of ornithological information of this region.

A year after the last of the Stray Feathers was published; Eugene W. Oates and W.T. Blanford produced the first volume of Fauna of British India Birds. Three more volumes were published in the following nine years. These were the most significant reference works on Indian ornithology for at least twenty years. They included detailed observations from parts of the Indian region not covered by earlier works. The next major work was by E.C. Stuart Baker, an Indian Police officer for nearly twenty years. Some of Baker’s classic early work appeared in the journal of the BNHS, including Game Birds of India, Burma and Ceylon. But Baker’s most important works are the eight bird volumes of the second edition of the Fauna of British India, published between 1922 and 1931, and the Nidification of the Birds of the Indian Empire, which was published between 1932 and 1935.

The 20th century saw an increased number of talented and dedicated ornithologists in India, but the most celebrated and long-lasting partnership was between Drs. Salim Ali and Dillon Ripley. On an early field trip to the Mishmi hills, they conceived the idea of the Handbook of the Birds of India and Pakistan. The first step towards compiling a handbook was an up-to-date checklist, provided by Ripley’s A Synopsis of the Birds of India and Pakistan, published in 1961, with an 2nd ed. following in 1982. The first volume of the Handbook was published in 1968 and the tenth and last in 1974. The Handbook, listing 2060 birds, remains the standard and most exhaustive work on Indian Birds. In 1987 it came available in a compact edition. Salim Ali also published several other books, including The Book of Indian Birds which has gone into several editions, as well as many invaluable regional guides.

Dr. Walter Koelz collected birds (over seventy thousand) from several parts of India and Afghanistan and described several new sub-species, not all of which have been upheld. Meanwhile Charles Vaurie worked on the birds of Tibet publishing the excellent Tibet and its bird in 1972

Modern bird guides started in India rather late with the publication, in 1980, of Martin Woodcock’s Collins Handguide to the Birds of the Indian Sub-continent. The first photographic guide by Bikram Grewal was published in 1993. But arguably the most significant book to be published in recent times is Grimett, Inskipp and Inskipp’s Birds of the Indian Subcontinent (1998) and its subsequent offspring, The Pocket Guide to the Birds of the Indian Subcontinent (1999). These, with Krys Kazmierczak’s A Field Guide to the Birds of the India (2000) truly ushered in the age of modern Indian bird books. The year 2005 saw the publication of Birds of South Asia: The Ripley Guide, by Pamela Rasmussen in two volumes. This scholarly and well researched book, with its numerous splits and new names, caused some controversy, but is now being accepted more and more and will remain a major reference work in the future

Editor's note:This does not purport to be a definitive work of original scholarship. Several sources have been consulted, including the marvel of the modern age, the Internet, and its outstanding offshoot, the Wikipedia. For any corrections, omissions and additions the authors will be delighted to hear from readers. Please email your comments to the Webmaster.


Compiled and created by Sumit K Sen I All rights reserved I Copyright © 2001 - 2017.
Reproduction in any form or medium without specific written permission is prohibited.
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