Nigel Redman: A Birds of India Interview
Amateur ornithologist, bibliophile, and bibliographer, Aasheesh Pittie in conversation with Bikram Grewal.
BIKRAM: How did a young boy from a business family in Hyderabad get involved in the world of birds?
AASHEESH: WWF was the great trigger. Its Andhra Pradesh representative, late Capt. N. S. Tyabji, spoke about birdwatching in my school, which was an eye-opener, as I did not even know such a term existed! It was also the age of WWF’s posters. They issued a slew of endearing ones of tiger, and leopard cubs, etc. I became a WWF member, enrolled in its Nature Clubs of India movement, and through its newsletters (I still have all the copies) learnt much, including about Dr Salim Ali, and the BNHS. I persuaded dad to buy me Salim Ali’s Book of Indian Birds, which he did, and also made me a member of Bombay Natural History Society! Then I looked at birds through binocs, and was permanently hooked.
Despite my interests seeming an oddity in society, my parents were my anchor and support. I was a sort of introvert, and liked the world of books. Birding too, like reading, is a hobby that can be pursued entirely by oneself, with a great deal of satisfaction. Gradually I realised that birding had enough in it to not just interest me for a lifetime, but was also an avenue for channeling my energies in stuff I am fairly good at, like, research. We are happy humsafars.
What is your opinion of the current state of birdwatching in India today? How has it changed over the years?
Birdwatching, happily, is in a robust state of growth in India today. The past three decades have seen enormous changes in the way people communicate and learn, through digital technology. The Internet is a great smorgasbord of floating information free for use, available at the touch of a key and the speed of light. This is a metamorphic leap. Increasingly scientific journals and period books are available as PDFs online. Email has brought the entire worldwide community into easy contact. The gathering of information is child’s play, but the conversion of that into knowledge is every single person’s privilege.
The best part of the contemporary scene is the fact that it has truly fledged from the BNHS, and spread its wings across the country. In Dr Salim Ali’s time, anything to do with birds was either equated to the great man, or the BNHS. Not so any more. Scientists who graduated from BNHS or WII have begun small institutions all over the place and are driving research. Amateur ornithology was never stronger in India. Citizen scientists wield notebook and binoculars with great felicity. Suhel Quader has pioneered citizen science through MigrantWatch and SeasonWatch. Satish Pande and his group in Pune are involved in bird surveys, education, species-specific studies, ethno-ornithology, and publishing. C. Sashikumar and his colleagues in Kerala carry out systematic land, and pelagic surveys. Bishwarup Raha’s conservation and education efforts in and around Nashik are laudable. Nitin Jamdar has worked for more than a decade with Trevor Price on warblers. BNHS, of course, continues its ornithological commitments—conservation of endangered species, migratory bird studies, etc. There are so many more I would like to name! Other institutes have sprung up too, doing equally laudable work—SACON, NCF, NCBS, etc. One amazing phenomenon revolutionising Indian natural history in general, is the resurgence of photography—again an offshoot of the digital age we live in. Whether for pleasure or for scientific documentation, photographers have produced an amazing catalogue of our fauna and flora, as witnessed by portfolios on websites such as India Nature Watch, and Oriental Bird Images. Photographers are combing the country for pictures of the unique and the undocumented. It is a fantastic time for Indian ornithology.
You are the Indian representative of the International ornithological Committee in India. What do they do here in India?
The International Ornithological Committee was recast as the International Ornithologist’s Union in August 2010, during the last International Ornithological Congress in Brazil. Actually, I am an Associate Representative—a person whose name has been proposed for membership, but who is not yet elected, and so has no voting rights. However India has six member ornithologists in the IOU, since many years. Till this change of focus and formation of the IOU, the IOC comprised a body of 200 eminent world ornithologists, and its main work was conducting the four-yearly Congress. Now, having broadened its scope to include different categories of memberships, its objectives and purpose have been substantially enlarged to encompass a wider range of issues, among which are dissemination of information, promotion of international cooperation among organizations, strengthening locally-based research, and reaching out to amateur ornithologists. A fund has been mooted for the first time to meet envisaged expenses.
More than a decade ago there was an effort to form an organization in India, called the Ornithological Society of India (OSI), with Shri Zafar Futehally as its Chairman. Despite several meetings, it petered out. One of its objectives was to try and get the IOC to hold a Congress in India. However, the future of cooperation with the IOU looks bright, and organizations, and individuals should contact them directly.
You attempted (With Ranjit Manakadan) to standardise common and scientific names of the birds of the Indian Subcontinent. Subsequently Tim Inskipp and then Pam Rasmussen came up with their versions. How relevant is your version in today’s date?
Ranjit was preparing a list of English names of birds for the BNHS, and I realised that it was a good opportunity of adding to it the correct, and full scientific nomenclature of each species, thus making it a proper checklist of the birds of India, something that was lacking in such a compact form. Asad Rahmani, Director of the BNHS, agreed that this was a good idea, and encouraged us. Ranjit’s part was preparing the list of English names; mine, of compiling the full scientific nomenclature of each species, including binomen, author, and year of publication. Though I say it myself, I think we produced a neat document that was published in Buceros. It should be updated periodically, for nomenclature and taxonomy are both in constant flux these days due to the revolutionary techniques of studying DNA to determine the status of avian taxa in the phylogenetic tree.
Though Indian ornithologists began using ‘our’ list extensively, the BNHS itself seemed uncertain: their The book of Indian birds by Salim Ali (13th edition; editor, J. C. Daniel) converted all English and scientific names to our Buceros list, while their periodical publications seem to have tilted towards the Grimmskipp names. The Manakadan & Pittie list, as it is known, is in a unique position of adapting to the latest changes quickly, as it is now an online document. Like other countries, India too needs a credible ‘national’ checklist that is monitored and tinkered, and followed by ornithologists and scientific publications in our country.
I believe that the naming game is tourism driven. Birding has become a global phenomenon and the global birdwatcher does not like to confuse bird names. This move towards standardisation has robbed us of localised English names that have been in use for decades, and introduced some hilarious names in their place. In the final analysis, however, I must confess, it is the names given in popular field guides in circulation today, whether Ali, Grimmett et al., or the Ripley Guide, that will prevail.
In the second edition of our list I had written, “Change that benefits everybody is good. But change for the sake of change is another thing. The globalization of bird names impoverishes the unique culture, history, character and literature, the very fabric, of a nation’s ornithological history. Indian English names of birds are as cherished by us as are American English names by the Americans and UK English names by the British.”
Your ‘dictionary of scientific bird names originating from the Indian region’ is personally fascinating to me. Are their many people in India who are really bothered with larger aspects of bird, other than just watching birds?
The meaning of words is a fascinating subject, especially if you are using a name regularly, without knowing what it means. I was always interested in etymology, and when I got a copy of James A. Jobling’s wonderful Dictionary of scientific bird names, it was a great revelation. I realised that there were so many birds that carried Latinised names that had originated from the Indian Subcontinent, that compiling them together would make an interesting document. I scoured the indices of the FBI and Handbook, listed names that sounded from this region. Then I tracked the original papers in search of etymology. Often the meaning was not given, and I had to search various ethnic dictionaries, query friends for suggestions, and trawl the Internet. It was a thrilling journey, and I still consider it time well spent.
The BNHS recently co-published a dictionary of bird names, authored by Satish Pande. I am sure their survey revealed a market for this type of book. But to answer your question, there is an increasing number of birdwatchers nowadays who go beyond birdwatching, by researching various aspects of a bird’s life, or general aspects of ornithology. This is possible because of the humongous amount of information available on the Internet, and the ease of communication that the digital revolution has brought about. Unlike the nineteenth century, when it could take up to six months for ornithological news to travel from Europe to the orient, or vise-versa, today, if a bird is sighted where it has not been recorded before, the entire world knows about it in a second! And ornithology is, after all, an evolving science, and so its history is always gripping.
You are India’s leading bibliophile when it comes to birds. Did this obsession grow with your passion for books?
Actually it grew out of my desire for readily available information. When I began birding, two publications contained papers and articles on birds, the JBNHS and the NLBW. The only book in fashion, and available, was SA’s BIB, and the expensive HB. But I realised that fresh information was pouring in constantly through the journals. I began indexing these under species’ names, and area, so I could keep up with new insights. Initially I maintained longhand foolscap sheets, filed alphabetically in a ring binder. Then I graduated to 5”x3” indexing cards, then computers. Somewhere along the way, Tim Inskipp, who incidentally might be the leading ornithological bibliophile for the Indian Subcontinent, advised that my database was shaping into an important archive, and that I should try and include everything published on birds. So everything has gone in, including books, journals, theses, newspaper articles, unpublished reports, Internet reports, etc. I feel that ultimately, a user has to decide what he/she wants from my database.
I have been able to compile this database because of two things. I am a touch typist, and I persevered, despite the hours upon hours spent pouring through libraries and their contents, juggling scientific names, counting pages, and plates, and scouring text and art with a critic’s eye.
Your book “Birds in Books” is one of the most impressive documents I have seen in recent years, what were the traumas and travails involved in the writing and production of the book?
My friend, Ravi Singh, CEO of WWF-India, had often heard me talk about my bibliography, and how I wanted to put it online. Once he told me, “Forget the online stuff. What you need is a book on the shelf.” Frankly, that was what I too wanted, and so I began to think about how my large database could be converted into a book. That I could limit it to just books on South Asian ornithology came to me some time later, and I began working towards it.
Though pretty voluminous, this book was not traumatic, in that it got written over twenty years, as I collected and filed information on bird books. Computer software makes this process seem so easy. So in the final stage, there was no trauma. My friend, Rishad Naoroji, who has published the fantastic Birds of prey of the Indian Subcontinent, introduced me to my publisher Rukun Advani, who readily agreed to publish the book under his imprint, Permanent Black. I was fortunate in my meticulous editor, Rivka Israel, who smoothened the text. But the greatest help I received was from two people. One was Edward Dickinson, in the UK, and the other, Murray Bruce, in Australia. I have had the pleasure of meeting the former, but the latter, never. Murray and I communicated over email, and he shared his knowledge extravagantly with me. Edward took the manuscript on a holiday to Scotland, and worked on it there! Both of them hugely improved the work in terms of accuracy and content.
In a way I was also working on shaky ground. There were no extant bibliographies for South Asia. Those that did exist were family monographs or area specific databases, and either fragmented, or dated. The search for what was published in the interregnum was a fantastic journey.
I also had to learn the art of describing the physical geography of a book, an entire world with its own terminologies, and technicalities.
Tim Inskipp pointed out that the one big omission from your book was the books published by the Zoological Survey of India. What were the reasons for this?
The only reason they are not in is that I left them for the end. That was my mistake. You see whenever I came across ZSI publications in libraries, I was sure that they would be easily available when I wanted to buy them, and that I would enter them into the bibliography after owning copies, from the comfort of home. But unfortunately the ZSI sales office in Kolkata is a dinosaur when it comes to selling their books. I sent several reminders and waited over a year for them to respond, to no avail. And then the book just had to get printed. I decided that I would go ahead, for I did not know when I would get hold of copies. Ultimately I had to request relatives in Kolkata to buy the lot and send them to me.
After a controversial start, INDIAN BIRDS seems to have stabilized under your editorship. What are the problems you face in steering this ship?
It could be said that IB was born as a result of a controversy, but once it was launched, initially as the Newsletter for Ornithologists, we were quite clear about our goal. We wanted to raise the bar of ornithological reporting / writing in India, of course, in the amateur/citizen scientist segment that our publication fitted into. Very soon we realised that we filled an important niche, and that people really looked forward to every new issue. It is now seven years, and IB is doing well on the contributor’s front, i.e., we have a full file, but I would there were more subscribers.
My greatest problem is that I cannot keep up with the flood of articles and papers, and often disappoint contributors with delays. Most are patient, and understanding, but some get restless, which is to be expected.
We had also decided, when we began, that we would assist people with their manuscripts and try to use all qualifying contributions. This is a time consuming business, and at times really painstaking. But ultimately the results are rewarding.
I think that printing full colour issues has paid off, and we at IB have to thank all the generous photographers for this emulatory largesse.
What are your plans for the future and what mountains do you have yet to climb?
I have long wanted to place my full bibliographic database online, at the disposal of the birding community, and am happy to tell you that some friends are making this dream a reality. There is no point in sitting on such a lot of information without sharing it. It is also of the nature that requires constant updating, and therefore the Internet is the best option as a searchable database. Keeping abreast with publications on the ornithology of South Asia is a full-time affair, and needs constant attention. I still have to work a great deal on the database, adding keywords, annotations, etc.
Indian BIRDS is an ongoing labour of love, and my goal is to strengthen its subscription base.
I would like to make the BSAP a truly vibrant and contributory organization, whose members are committed citizen scientists and help strengthen Indian ornithology.
I am turning a couple of ideas in my head. Lets see what transpires.
Edited by: Sumit K Sen