Pamela C. Rasmussen: A Birds of India Interview
Pamela Rasmussen talks to Bikram Grewal on her approach in preparing Birds of South Asia, her views on taxonomic status of South Asian birds, new discoveries and new projects like AVoCet.
Pamela birding in India, 2010. Pic by Nikhil Devasar
BIKRAM: Congratulations on making, in my opinion, the most significant contribution to Indian ornithology in recent decades. What were your reactions when you stepped into Dr Bruce Beehler’s shoes as the (then) second author of the two-volume Birds of South Asia?
PAMELA: Thank you very much, I’m overwhelmed to hear that this is your opinion. When I started working for Dr. Ripley, I was excited by the opportunity to work on this project, as I’d always wanted to work on a field guide, but the conception of the book then was very different---the idea was for something much less comprehensive. It was only with my increased experience with the region’s avifauna and the concurrent development of other regional guides that our book began to take its present form.
Dr. S Dillon Ripley was presumably your ‘guru’. Share with us some of your impressions about the man.
Unfortunately by the time I started working for him, Dr. Ripley had already started to suffer a number of serious health setbacks that greatly limited our interactions and generally prevented him from coming to the lab. Those who knew him earlier were amazed at his vision, energy, charisma, knowledge, and abilities, all of which seemed well above and beyond other mortals. While I was at the Smithsonian, many people still thought of the era of Ripley’s leadership there as a kind of Golden Age, as he was the driving force behind the huge expansion and flourishing of the Institution.
One of the big criticisms about your work is your excessive dependence on (sometimes very old) museum specimens and your utter disdain of observations by others! Is this over dependence justified?
This would of course be a matter of opinion, as I personally disagree with these characterizations. Other field guides for other parts of the world have followed the same basic protocol of primary reliance on specimen vouchers. Specimens are verifiable, undocumented sight records are not. Early on I had been uncritically accepting all record types, but as I continued to find numerous identification problems I realized that a more scientific approach was needed, one that erred on the side of omission rather than commission. I actually do believe that most sight records by most observers are likely correct, particularly now that there are good identification reference books. However, I chose the approach of not judging records based on hearsay about an observer’s reliability, but rather to evaluate the evidence that was put forward in each case in putting together the regional avifauna’s first hypothetical list.
You are also dismissive of several of Stuart Baker’s records. Why?
The rationale for this was initially published in BirdLife’s Threatened Birds of Asia, which excluded some of his more extravagantly unbelievable records of threatened species. I further explained the issues in the introduction of Birds of South Asia. I have never considered his records to be fraudulent in the sense of Meinertzhagen’s, but many are inexplicable and as no specimens survive to document most of them, as no other ornithologist was able to vouch for them, and as they were seriously questioned at the time by e.g. Ticehurst, I consider the best course is to set them aside as unprovable, while making people aware that the records do exist.
You have often been ‘blamed’ of being a compulsive ‘splitter’, and some experts claim on insufficient evidence. What is your reaction to such comments?
My view is that the South Asian avifauna was long seriously overlumped because, unlike some other parts of the world, South Asia had not received the case-by-case corrective attention from taxonomists over many years which has served to gradually reduce the problem elsewhere. I considered that, rather than wait for the one-by-one appearance over many years of each proposed split, the book was a good venue in which to put forward the best-supported ones, especially as I could include brief taxonomic notes, analysis of vocalizations, and sonagrams. What I could not do in the book is allot the space for the more thorough treatment that would have been more convincing and less controversial. And, despite my intentions to follow through with peer-reviewed journal publication of many of the splits, other subsequent work and time pressures and priorities have intervened.
In fact the charge of compulsive splitting is not borne out. There are numerous cases of splits that have been shown to be valid on additional evidence since the book was published, in several cases splitting further than I did. I am aware of thorough analyses of several other regional splits beyond those proposed by me as well that are still awaiting publication.
Many of your splits are from Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Why is that?
Limited study and data had been available on birds of these island groups, and it seemed the general tacit assumption that most of their taxa must be subspecies of mainland birds, as well as that birds from the two island groups must be each others’ closest relatives. With further comparative study of morphology and vocalizations (recordings of which were just becoming available at the time), it became clear to me that neither pattern was upheld and that endemicity in these insular avifaunas had been seriously underestimated.
You have paid singular attention to the northeast India, especially the South Assam Hills. Why do you feel that this region is so ornithologically important?
The northeast had long been the most difficult part of the region in which to work, despite being the most biodiverse and holding many poorly known, highly range-restricted species. The work that had been done was typically limited to small areas, so vast areas remained almost unknown. When I put together the regional specimen database on which I relied extensively, it became clear that a huge amount of data in the form of specimen records was available for many areas of the northeast, but had never been incorporated into the published record. This was particularly true for Walter Koelz’s major collections from Assam through the Mizo Hills that is now housed in the University of Michigan Museum of Zoology---some bits of it had been published, often only as ill-defined subspecies names now in synonymy, but most had not been. Because Koelz had collected in so many different areas in the mid-20th C, it became possible to map regional distributions far more thoroughly, and to compare patterns of geographic variation using his material, in combination with the smaller regional NE collections of others such as Stevens, Ripley, Hume, Godwin-Austen, and others.
Similarly you seem to have worked particularly hard on the Laughingthrushes and Wren -babblers. Where their exact taxonomy ‘overlooked’ by earlier researchers?
Many of these are primarily north-eastern taxa, and they therefore experienced the general taxonomic neglect of this subregion’s avifauna. The skulking nature and relative scarcity in collections of wren-babblers in particular, combined with what we now know is age- and sex-related plumage variation, contributed to a lot of confusion regarding their species limits. And, the availability of tape recordings of these birds with their relatively stereotyped songs has contributed greatly to our ability to better interpret species limits.
The revised taxonomy used in your book has caused many an Indian ornithologist to tear their hair out! What are your justifications for this taxonomy?
I think I’ve answered this above.
You are almost as famous for uncovering the Meinertzhagen fraud, as you are for your pioneering work. Any further progress on his misrepresentations?
Dr. Robert Prys-Jones and I have intensively analyzed Meinertzhagen’s Asian bird collections, and have documented a very high incidence rate of fraud that has had a pervasive negative influence on our knowledge of the region’s avifauna, as well as the fact that some of his specimens are verifiably genuine and important. We hope to finish our long manuscript on this fairly soon.
What did you feel when you had the Forest Owlet in the sight of your binoculars?
You can imagine the thrill when we realized what we were seeing! But my first thought would be better described as terror, because at that moment I fully expected the bird to fly off without us seeing it properly, in which case we would never have been sure, or that we would not have been able to document it well enough to convince others. As it happened the bird just sat there, so we were able to get diagnostic video footage, and the only person I know who still doubted our rediscovery was Humayun Abdulali.
Unfortunately your book is not readily available in India, and when it is found it is far too expensive for the average birdwatcher. What were the reasons of it scanty presence in India?
The book was a very expensive one to produce and publish, and given the fact that other, low-cost guides were already available by the time it appeared, the market was very limited. This meant that our publisher had no other viable options with regard to costing and distribution method. In fact anyone who could afford it could purchase it on the Internet, but I realize the price was prohibitive for many.
Since the publication of your book, several new records have emerged (this time with photographs!). Is a new edition in the offing, incorporating these sightings?
As Birds of South Asia has just gone out of print, a second printing will come out in 2012. This printing is being made possible through the cooperation of Michigan State University with the Smithsonian Institution and Lynx Edicions. It will incorporate the most important new records, such as new species and cases in which hypotheticals have now been properly documented. It is not technically a new edition, however; for one thing we must keep the same page layout and pagination. Given the extremely rapid advances happening now in Indian ornithology, in a few years a major revision will surely be necessary.
Your book breaks new ground by providing birders with accurate vocalizations of birds. How important are calls in the accurate identification of birds?
Extremely important! For many bird species vocal identification is key, even if the bird can be seen, which of course is too often not the case. What I tried to do in the book is make voice information accessible and uniformly treated. I wanted to be able to show how each species differed vocally, rather than relying on the often uninterpretable and unstandardized descriptions created opportunistically over many years by many different observers. While there are a few people who are naturally very good at vocal ID, most of us have difficulties in this area and therefore need all the help we can get.
Several new birds are still being discovered. Do you think more avian surprises still await us?
Of course, but it is impossible to predict with any hope of accuracy. Who would have guessed there could be a striking new Liocichla in Arunachal? Despite this spectacular find, I suspect it is more likely that some cryptic new species is out there, particularly in some out-of-the-way part of the northeast. Look at the Mishmi Wren-babbler, and how easily something like that could be overlooked.
Tell us a little about the re-discovery of the Banggai Crow and the new-to-science Togian White-eye, as you were involved with both finds.
Credit for these field discoveries goes to Mochamad Indrawan and his colleagues. He invited me to work on the scientific analysis of his specimens. I still have not been to either the Banggai or Togian islands, though they are high on my list!
In the case of the Banggai Crow, Indrawan rediscovered the bird on Peleng Island, and my contribution was to help demonstrate that what he had found was the same as the two AMNH syntypes, all that was previously known of the bird. In addition we reviewed the case for validity of the taxon Corvus unicolor to show it was not just a form of the widespread Slender-billed Crow Corvus enca. Just as we were finishing these analyses, Filip Verbelen came back from Peleng with photos and recordings that confirmed the distinctiveness of C. unicolor, and we invited him to join authorship.
In the case of the Togian White-eye, Indrawan had taken a single specimen, which he had sent to the MSU Museum so that I could take it to other museums for comparison with known taxa. We then collaborated on the species description. Again this distinctive taxon, which lacks a white eyering but has bare dark bluish orbital skin instead, was independently seen and sound-recorded shortly afterwards by Filip Verbelen!
Of all the far-off places you have visited, which is the most exciting bird-wise and why?
That is very difficult to answer! There are so many amazing places for birds, and I haven’t been to many of them.
Of course Indian birds will always remain special, and I’ve been very fortunate to be able to visit Gujarat, Ladakh, Assam, and some other areas recently, and see and sound-record many of the stunning specialities there. Most recently I was in extreme northern Chile very briefly, and though it is species-poor the combination of restricted-range oasis birds, Humboldt Current seabirds, and altiplano birds was exceptionally exciting. Over Christmas break I was in southern Africa, where I was especially overwhelmed by Namibia’s richness and regional diversity. But New Guinea has got to rank high---the birds-of-paradise are unsurpassed anywhere, and so many of the other birds like jewel-babblers and paradise kingfishers are truly special, perhaps especially because you have to work so hard to see them.
You were personally involved with Avian Vocalizations Center at Michigan State University, or AVoCet, which boasts no less than 11,301 recordings from over 3,558 species in 51 countries at present. Can you tell our readers a little more about this ambitious project?
Project AVoCet actually started as an outgrowth of the work I did on vocalizations for Birds of South Asia. This showed it was feasible to bring together recordings of most species for a major region, and under the logical extension that this could be done on a global scale, I obtained funding to initiate the project. At the time I started Project AVoCet, other online vocalization databases either did not exist or were geographically restricted, but that has of course changed dramatically. AVoCet emphasizes documentation of ecological and identification data and editorial control that make recordings especially scientifically valuable, and it holds many recordings from out-of-the-way places with high endemism, including quite a few species still unavailable on other sites. With continued development and contributions from diverse recordists, it will only get better!
Which is the next mountain you plan to climb?
Pamela, thanks for talking to us
Pamela Rasmussen's image above by Craig Ludwig is licensed under the Creative
Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license. A copy of license can be found here
Important links and references:
Ruffled Feathers by John Seabrook (pdf)
On producing Birds of South Asia - Pamela C. Rasmussen (pdf)