Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Your Soundings Green Ooze

When ornithologists plumb the depths of the seas

There is nothing very Remarkable between these places, saving the high ridge of land that comes from the Quoining Land, seen on the back of Mangalore, that receives Basallore hill, and trenches northward far into the Country; the Coast is bold all the Way, and your Soundings green Ooze. Pidgeon Island is six Leagues off the Main, and may be seen as far Northward or Southward; the Channel made between is unquestionably good. There is a small naked rock adjoining to this island, where multitudes of Pidgeons breed; I have taken a great many fine Oysters from thence at low Water, but you must carry Scrapers and long spikes to strike them off. The Latitude of Pidgeon Island is in fourteen Degrees five minutes North.
On the French national library, there is a fragment of a book The port and prospect in and near the river of Mangalore ; A prospect of the Mulkey rocks ; A prospect of Pidgeon Island published somewhere in the 1700s and part of a collection belonging to the cartographer d'Anville. Pigeon Island is what is today called Nethrani Island, known to be one of the best and most bio-diverse coral reefs close to mainland India that has hardly been carefully examined - but that is mainly because the entire island is used for target practice by the Indian Navy who bomb it periodically with torpedoes. It is also said to have the world's highest density of nesting White-bellied Sea-eagles. 

Sounding Leads
What caught my attention was the information given to navigators - "your Soundings green Ooze." Trying to make sense of this phrase led to an examination of navigation practices in the period. Sounding is a word for finding the depth of the sea-floor and it comes from ancient times, well before sounding actually was done using sound - with sonar, reflecting sounds off the sea floor and calculating the distance based on the time taken for echoes. 

Sounding in the old days were done using "sounding leads" - special blocks made of lead or other heavy metals (incidentally the plumb in plumb line - comes from plumbum, Latin for lead). The block was lowered down the side of the ship and had a cavity at the bottom that could be lined with tallow, bees-wax, soap or other sticky material or a small saucer at the end that collected a sample of the sea floor. The sample that came up would tell something about the nature of the sea floor, it could be sandy, rocky or it could come up with foraminifera ooze - and in which case it would go into the log books as sticky green ooze. Navigation on rivers was perhaps a bit easier and made use of a sounding pole with graduations. They too had a cup at the end that allowed sampling of the floor. (The call of "Mark Twain" was made by Mississippi river pilots who found the water depth to be two fathoms.)

Nautical charts routinely indicate seabed types and this tradition was mainly to examine spots for anchorage and not so much for scientific analysis although they were used as indicators for good fishing and for identifying the nature of currents based on the distribution of silt deposits at the mouths of rivers. With the establishment of marine surveys, a more systematic sampling of sediments was undertaken with a view to find larger scale patterns. Drilled cores of the sea bed in the Arabian Sea allow for examination of the deposition of the ooze over time. One of the patterns is that the ooze deposit is correlated with the Southwest Monsoon. It may be related to the flow of nutrients with rainwater runoff and the resultant growth. The data from these cores have been used as proxies to understand long-term patterns in the monsoon and its strength. For an example of the modern techniques available and what they can reveal - see Schmiedl, G., and D. C. Leuschner (2005). But let's get back to an earlier age.

A history of the Indian marine surveys has been written by Clements Markham (but it is worth remembering that he can be unreliable at times - as in his Cinchona history). The first surveys by the navy of the East India Company focused on ports and navigation.  The trend was continued until the ending of the "Indian Navy" (not to be confused with the post-Independence organization) in 1862. In 1873, a Marine Survey Department was established. The Department was headed by Commander A Dundas Taylor and included Staff Commander J.H. Ellis, RN as deputy superintendent. It also included Dr J. Armstrong as surgeon and naturalist. The marine surveys included as part of their study, the mapping of depths, and the examination of marine organisms as well.

One of the early survey assignments for Commander Ellis was aboard the Clyde. In the General Report of the Operations of the Marine Survey of India from the Commencement in 1874, to the end of the official year 1875-76 by Dundas Taylor we read on page 7 that they had an unlikely passenger on board in 1875.
The whole thing about measuring a meridian distance between Pigeon Island and the Laccadives (Lakshadweep) and remaining there for a fortnight seems like a clever ploy initiated by Hume, the Secretary to the Government of India, to hijack the government machinery for his ornithology.

Hume's own note published in his Stray Feathers is a good read:

Reading through Hume, it is clear that he has all the background needed to do his job of identifying locations for lighthouses. He knows for instance the location of the wrecking of the Chaldea in the previous year. He takes an unusual interest in the plant life on the islands during this trip. Strangely he does not mention much about the bird-life of Pigeon Island. He notes the numbers of sea-eagles nesting on the Vengurla rocks that they encounter earlier off Goa. Hume writes:
One object that I had in view in making this trip was to ascertain whether or not the Laccadives were separated by a deep trough from India—a matter which up to this time had remained uncertain.

I had, therefore, indented on the Bombay dockyard for deep sea line, and they supplied some five or six thousand fathoms of splendid looking line. Our Captain, an old Porcupine man, entered most cordially unto my views, and soon after we left Bombay, took the line in hand and began testing and marking it. To our dismay it soon appeared that the line was in many places rotten. Whilst we lay at Pigeon Island, the Captain had a lot of it carefully picked over, all bad pieces picked out and   the  good  carefully  spliced  together.
One really wonders why a marine survey vessel did not have the necessary equipment for sounding already on board. ["Porcupine man" apparently refers to the fact that Ellis worked on the HMSS Porcupine - see this which puts him aboard the Porcupine around 1873 and has nothing to do with the skin disease]
Wallace's 1863 map

Hume's copy of Darwin's Origin of Species.
Courtesy: SLBI

Anyway, what this does make clear is that Hume would have read the work of Alfred Russel Wallace. Wallace's 1863 paper was communicated to the Royal Geographical Society by Clements Markham and Markham would have been closely associated with Hume during the course of the cinchona work under the aegis of his Department of Revenue, Agriculture and Commerce. Huxley had named it the "Wallace Line" in 1868. (Hume had of course read Darwin and Hume's copy of a first edition of The Origin of Species is at the South London Botanical Institute) Hume was also in touch with the geologists of the Geological Survey of India from the time of Stoliczka. Richard Lydekker had joined the GSI in 1874 and in 1879 Hume got him to write about the skeletal structures of birds based on his training in paleontology. Interestingly Lydekker found another now eponymous biogeographic delineation of Australia in 1895. At the end of the Laccadives trip report, Hume includes three bathymetric charts in this issue of Stray Feathers - of the Laccadives, Cherbaniani Reef and Kiltan Island. It is rather interesting considering that printing illustrations was so much of a problem in those times. He also spends considerable space in exploring the origin and geological structure of Betra-par - whether it has a rocky core or if it is entirely formed out of coral reefs. He had samples of the soil tested by the GSI. He collected molluscs that were identified by Nevill of the Indian Museum. Plant specimens were also collected and these were examined by David Prain.
Hume's Laccadive soundings published in Stray Feathers

The engine on the Clyde broke down on February 21 and attempts were made to get it to sail but tacking was not possible as it lacked a keel. With great difficulty they reached Thoothukudi where Hume exited to make his way to Madras but with some travels on the way. Incidentally, the Gunboat Clyde was manufactured by the famous Wadia family (which produced the geologist D N Wadia). The builder was Rustomjee Ardaseer, son of Ardaseer Cursetjee, the first Indian Fellow of the Royal Society. Commander Ellis' report includes the rest of the saga. (The Clyde 1857 was a 300 ton steam gunboat capable of carrying 18 guns and had a 60 HP engine - see )

Hume writes:
At last we made Tuticorin, and I had had enough of the old "Clyde," to which I here bade farewell, devoting the rest of my leave to Southern India, the Pulneys, and Neilgherries, of which I need say nothing here.
I fancy that he would have visited his good collaborators S.B. Fairbank in the Palnis, Margaret Cockburn in Kotagiri, his collector W R Davison in Ootacamund, and his cousin Edward Balfour (who left India in 1876) in Madras before taking the train back towards Calcutta or Shimla.

We tend to think of most of the colonial ornithologists as mere collectors making use of their presence in a particular location but these and other examples from Hume's work clearly indicate that he had underlying theories and sought to find evidence either in support or against them. This is especially useful as a lesson for beginner birdwatchers - Max Nicholson wrote in his Art of Birdwatching - "One cannot observe without a theory, and what seems the simplest of ornithological tasks - to go out of doors and look out for something worth recording- is in reality one of the hardest ... It is a mistake to imagine that complete impartiality and freedom from preconceived ideas is the qualification for the perfect observer. The cow has a remarkably open mind, yet it has never been found to reach a high degree of civilization." Ernst Mayr is supposed to have expressed a similar idea which Joseph Hickey recalled as "everybody's got to have a problem." Mayr expected even ordinary bird enthusiasts to have big biological questions at the backs of their mind so that they might make more critical observations.

The idea of soundings and sea depth measurement to examine continental boundaries and thereby bio-geographical boundaries did not stop with Hume. He seems to have influenced his collector W R Davison as well. When Davison went on to take up a position at the Raffles Museum in Singapore (the Straits Settlement in those times), he decided on delineating his area of specimen collecting, which included numerous islands, using a cutoff at a distance where the sea floor depth exceeded 50 fathoms (Professor Kevin Tan of Singapore in his history of the Singapore museum has many biographical details on Davison including his tragic death - see Tan, 2015).

Postscript - a Bangalore connection

(Actually posted as a message on the list - bngbirds on 30 Sept 2013) Hickey mentioned above was himself inspired by Nicholson and wrote a book called the Guide to Bird Watching as part  of his Master's degree! This book inspired a Mrs M.D. Wright, wife of a forest officer in India at Dehra Dun. She counted birds and wrote a remarkable piece in the Journal of the BNHS in 1949. She also influenced Dr Joseph George who conducted studies on drongo numbers and published many notes in the Indian Forester. Dr George went on to establish a lively group of bird-watchers in Bangalore.

Interestingly, Salim Ali seems to have glorified the idea of the "unbiased observer". The debate around having paradigms or frameworks for observation has obviously taken place before and I would subscribe to the view of Goodin (2006) that allowing for a multiplicity of biases is more helpful that claiming to be unbiased, which really is a state that is unachievable.

  • George, J. (1957). Birds of New Forest. Indian Forester, 83(11):674-687.
  • George, J. (1957). Birds of New forest. Indian Forester, 83(12):724-737.
  • George, J. (1962). Birds of New Forest: 1957-1962. Indian Forester, 88(6):442-444
  • George, J. (1958). Bamboo Nestboxes. Indian Forester, 84(11):687-692.
  • George, J. (1958). A Young Dark Grey Cuckoo-shrike. Indian Forester, 84(5):286-287.
  • George, J. (1960). Tolerance of Birds to Ascu - and Creosote - Treated Nesting Sites. Indian Forester, 86(12):753-754.
  • George, J. (1961). Bird Counting. Indian Forester, 87(9):572-575. [reprinted in 1961 NLBW 2(12)]
  • Goodin, Robert E. (2006) The Epistemic Benefits of Multiple Biased Observers. Episteme 3(3):166-174.
  • Wright, M.D. (1949) A bird count in Dehra Dun. J. Bombay Nat. Hist. Soc. 48(3):570-571.

Further reading

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

The human imitation of bird sound

The sounds of the natural world have an incredible way of teleporting us. If we woke up blindfolded suddenly in an unknown place, we can probably tell night from day and the trained ear could tell the habitat, the vegetation and probably the continent. The richness of a habitat is apparently easily detected just by hearing or examining the richness of natural sounds. A place that has evolved undisturbed has a wide usage in time and space; and a wide range of frequencies. The intrusive sounds of humans and their creations alter all that. The ugliness of being in a beautiful landscape scarred by the drifting sounds from loudspeakers is one that is easily felt in places like India but the pain is felt by very few. It however destroys the peace of many other organisms, destroying their ability to find prey, mark territories and find mates.

Gorst's promotional brochure from the University of Iowa archives
This teleportation ability has been used by some educators of the natural world and one of them was the American bird educator Charles Gorst.  He used his training in ornithology and preaching to spread a wonder for birds coupled with whistling skills that have been recorded for posterity (see the recordings at the end of the Wikipedia article on Gorst). It is especially incredible that Gorst made a living out of this. I am quite sure his shows must have been very impressive especially to young audiences, I remember the impact a plastic record of the "songs of the humpback whale" (1979) distributed as a sleeve with an issue of the National Geographic had on me. We know remarkably little about Gorst or indeed several others who were involved in the use of mimicry to transport their audience while also educating them about the natural world. There were also many others including Gilbert Girard (see his visiting card), Joe Belmont, Percy Edwards (David Attenborough had a radio show on him but hearing this is browser dependent), "Edward Avis" (YouTube), and Alec Shaw who seem to have made a living but mostly from entertaining their audiences rather than using it for educational purposes. There appears to have been a profession of siffleur (from French) and there still are international whistling competitions but all this is quite different from what in the past must have been a skill for survival. We know a bit from hunting communities and their use of animal imitations including the recent research on the honeyguide and the Yao people who talk to them. All this has of course been written about and the naturalist and film-maker Jeffrey Boswall wrote a very interesting piece on the human imitation of birds in 1998 that is worthy of reading (link at the end).

Alec Shaw performing

Surprisingly, there is a recent book on the topic - Eco-sonic media (2015) by Jacob Smith - that has an excellent socio-historical analysis. It appears that early recording technology did especially well in capturing high pitched tones from whistling that made whistled records especially popular among audiences. Smith notes that mixing whistled imitations with music was something that may have been pioneered by George Washington Johnson, the first African American artist to sell records. Another analysis of how labours from around the world contributed to sounds is about shellac records (78 RPM). Shellac was produced by insects, processed in colonial India and exported to the US where these bird records were sold and they were played using spring-wound phonographs with wooden horns that made use of cactus needle styluses. The author calls them "Green Discs" but nothing can of course be greener than the originals of the natural world.

Further reading (and listening)

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Shocking tales from ornithology

Manipulative people have always made use of the dynamics of ingroups and outgroups to create diversions from bigger issues. The situation is made worse when misguided philosophies are peddled by governments that put economics ahead of ecology. The pursuit of easily gamed targets such as GDP is preferrable to ecological amelioration since money is a man-made and controllable entity. Nationalism, pride, other forms of chauvinism, the creation of enemies and the magnification of war threats are all effective tools in the arsenal of Machiavelli for use in misdirecting the masses when things go wrong. One might imagine that the educated, especially scientists, would be smart enough not to fall into these traps, but cases from history dampen hopes for such optimism.

There is a very interesting book in German by Eugeniusz Nowak called "Wissenschaftler in turbulenten Zeiten" (or scientists in turbulent times) that deals with the lives of ornithologists, conservationists and other naturalists during the Second World War. Preceded by a series of recollections published in various journals, the book was published in 2010 but I became aware of it only recently while translating some biographies into the English Wikipedia. I have not yet actually seen the book (it has about five pages on Salim Ali as well) and have had to go by secondary quotations in other content. Nowak was a student of Erwin Stresemann (with whom the first chapter deals with) and he writes about several European (but mostly German, Polish and Russian) ornithologists and their lives during the turbulent 1930s and 40s. Although Europe is pretty far from India, there are ripples that reached afar. Incidentally, Nowak's ornithological research includes studies on the expansion in range of the collared dove (Streptopelia decaocto) which the Germans called the Türkentaube, literally the "Turkish dove", a name with a baggage of cultural prejudices.

Nowak's first paper of "recollections" notes that: [he] presents the facts not as accusations or indictments, but rather as a stimulus to the younger generation of scientists to consider the issues, in particular to think “What would I have done if I had lived there or at that time?” - a thought to keep as you read on.

A shocker from this period is a paper by Dr Günther Niethammer on the birds of Auschwitz (Birkenau). This paper (read it online here) was published when Niethammer was posted to the security at the main gate of the concentration camp. You might be forgiven if you thought he was just a victim of the war. Niethammer was a proud nationalist and volunteered to join the Nazi forces in 1937 leaving his position as a curator at the Museum Koenig at Bonn.
The contrast provided by Niethammer who looked at the birds on one side
while ignoring inhumanity on the other provided
novelist Arno Surminski with a title for his 2008 novel -
Die Vogelwelt von Auschwitz
- ie. the birdlife of Auschwitz.

G. Niethammer
Niethammer studied birds around Auschwitz and also shot ducks in numbers for himself and to supply the commandant of the camp Rudolf Höss (if the name does not mean anything please do go to the linked article / or search for the name online).  Upon the death of Niethammer, an obituary (open access PDF here) was published in the Ibis of 1975 - a tribute with little mention of the war years or the fact that he rose to the rank of Obersturmführer. The Bonn museum journal had a special tribute issue noting the works and influence of Niethammer. Among the many tributes is one by Hans Kumerloeve (starts here online). A subspecies of the common jay was named as Garrulus glandarius hansguentheri by Hungarian ornithologist Andreas Keve in 1967 after the first names of Kumerloeve and Niethammer. Fortunately for the poor jay, this name is a junior synonym of  G. g. anatoliae described by Seebohm in 1883.

Meanwhile inside Auschwitz, the Polish artist Wladyslaw Siwek was making sketches of everyday life  in the camp. After the war he became a zoological artist of repute. Unfortunately there is very little that is readily accessible to English readers on the internet (beyond the Wikipedia entry).
Siwek, artist who documented life at Auschwitz
before working as a wildlife artist.
Hans Kumerloeve
Now for Niethammer's friend Dr Kumerloeve who also worked in the Museum Koenig at Bonn. His name was originally spelt Kummerlöwe and was, like Niethammer, a doctoral student of Johannes Meisenheimer. Kummerloeve and Niethammer made journeys on a small motorcyle to study the birds of Turkey. Kummerlöwe's political activities started earlier than Niethammer, joining the NSDAP (German: Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei = The National Socialist German Workers' Party)  in 1925 and starting the first student union of the party in 1933. Kummerlöwe soon became a member of the Ahnenerbe, a think tank meant to provide "scientific" support to the party-ideas on race and history. In 1939 he wrote an anthropological study on "Polish prisoners of war". At the museum in Dresden that he headed, he thought up ideas to promote politics and he published them in 1939 and 1940. After the war, it is thought that he went to all the European libraries that held copies of this journal (Anyone interested in hunting it should look for copies of Abhandlungen und Berichte aus den Staatlichen Museen für Tierkunde und Völkerkunde in Dresden 20:1-15.) and purged them of his article. According to Nowak, he even managed to get his hands (and scissors) on copies held in Moscow and Leningrad!  

The Dresden museum was also home to the German ornithologist Adolf Bernhard Meyer (1840–1911). In 1858, he translated the works of Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace into German and introduced evolutionary theory to a whole generation of German scientists. Among Meyer's amazing works is a series of avian osteological works which uses photography and depicts birds in nearly-life-like positions (wonder how it was done!) - a less artistic precursor to Katrina van Grouw's 2012 book The Unfeathered Bird. Meyer's skeleton images can be found here. In 1904 Meyer was eased out of the Dresden museum because of rising anti-semitism. Meyer does not find a place in Nowak's book.

Nowak's book includes entries on the following scientists: (I keep this here partly for my reference as I intend to improve Wikipedia entries on several of them as and when time and resources permit. Would be amazing if others could pitch in!).
In the first of his "recollection papers" (his 1998 article) he writes about the reason for writing them  - the obituary for Prof. Ernst Schäfer  was a whitewash that carefully avoided any mention of his wartime activities. And this brings us to India. In a recent article in Indian Birds, Sylke Frahnert and others have written about the bird collections from Sikkim in the Berlin natural history museum. In their article there is a brief statement that "The  collection  in  Berlin  has  remained  almost  unknown due  to  the  political  circumstances  of  the  expedition". This might be a bit cryptic for many but the best read on the topic is Himmler's Crusade: The true story of the 1939 Nazi expedition into Tibet (2009) by Christopher Hale. Hale writes about Himmler: 
He revered the ancient cultures of India and the East, or at least his own weird vision of them.
These were not private enthusiasms, and they were certainly not harmless. Cranky pseudoscience nourished Himmler’s own murderous convictions about race and inspired ways of convincing others...
Himmler regarded himself not as the fantasist he was but as a patron of science. He believed that most conventional wisdom was bogus and that his power gave him a unique opportunity to promulgate new thinking. He founded the Ahnenerbe specifically to advance the study of the Aryan (or Nordic or Indo-German) race and its origins
From there Hale goes on to examine the motivations of Schäfer and his team. He looks at how much of the science was politically driven. Swastika signs dominate some of the photos from the expedition - as if it provided for a natural tie with Buddhism in Tibet. It seems that Himmler gave Schäfer the opportunity to rise within the political hierarchy. The team that went to Sikkim included Bruno Beger. Beger was a physical anthropologist but with less than innocent motivations although that would be much harder to ascribe to the team's other pursuits like botany and ornithology. One of the results from the expedition was a film made by the entomologist of the group, Ernst Krause - Geheimnis Tibet - or secret Tibet - a copy of this 1 hour and 40 minute film is on YouTube. At around 26 minutes, you can see Bruno Beger creating face casts - first as a negative in Plaster of Paris from which a positive copy was made using resin. Hale talks about how one of the Tibetans put into a cast with just straws to breathe from went into an epileptic seizure from the claustrophobia and fear induced. The real horror however is revealed when Hale quotes a May 1943 letter from an SS officer to Beger - ‘What exactly is happening with the Jewish heads? They are lying around and taking up valuable space . . . In my opinion, the most reasonable course of action is to send them to Strasbourg . . .’ Apparently Beger had to select some prisoners from Auschwitz who appeared to have Asiatic features. Hale shows that Beger knew the fate of his selection - they were gassed for research conducted by Beger and August Hirt.
SS-Sturmbannführer Schäfer at the head of the table in Lhasa

In all, Hale makes a clear case that the Schäfer mission had quite a bit of political activity underneath. We find that Sven Hedin (Schäfer was a big fan of him in his youth. Hedin was a Nazi sympathizer who funded and supported the mission) was in contact with fellow Nazi supporter Erica Schneider-Filchner and her father Wilhelm Filchner in India, both of whom were interned later at Satara, while Bruno Beger made contact with Subhash Chandra Bose more than once. [Two of the pictures from the Bundesarchiv show a certain Bhattacharya - who appears to be a chemist working on snake venom at the Calcutta snake park - one wonders if he is Abhinash Bhattacharya.]

My review of Nowak's book must be uniquely flawed as  I have never managed to access it beyond some online snippets and English reviews.  The war had impacts on the entire region and Nowak's coverage is limited and there were many other interesting characters including the Russian ornithologist Malchevsky  who survived German bullets thanks to a fat bird observation notebook in his pocket! In the 1950's Trofim Lysenko, the crank scientist who controlled science in the USSR sought Malchevsky's help in proving his own pet theories - one of which was the ideas that cuckoos were the result of feeding hairy caterpillars to young warblers!

Issues arising from race and perceptions are of course not restricted to this period or region, one of the less glorious stories of the Smithsonian Institution concerns the honorary curator Robert Wilson Shufeldt (1850 – 1934) who in the infamous Audubon affair made his personal troubles with his second wife, a grand-daughter of Audubon, into one of race. He also wrote such books as America's Greatest Problem: The Negro (1915) in which we learn of the ideas of other scientists of the period like Edward Drinker Cope! Like many other obituaries, Shufeldt's is a classic whitewash.  

Even as recently as 2015, the University of Salzburg withdrew an honorary doctorate that they had given to the Nobel prize winning Konrad Lorenz for his support of the political setup and racial beliefs. It should not be that hard for scientists to figure out whether they are on the wrong side of history even if they are funded by the state. Perhaps salaried scientists in India would do well to look at the legal contracts they sign with their employers, the state, more carefully.

PS: Mixing natural history with war sometimes led to tragedy for the participants as well. In the case of Dr Manfred Oberdörffer who used his cover as an expert on leprosy to visit the borders of Afghanistan with entomologist Fred Hermann Brandt (1908–1994), an exchange of gunfire with British forces killed him although Brandt lived on to tell the tale.
To the above list one should add -  Jean-Marie Derscheid.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Museum poetry

Beryl Patricia Hall (1917-2010) may not be a familiar name to many who study birds these days but  there is a good chance that those interested in the taxonomy of birds would have come across the name ""B.P. Hall". The chances drop however for a little book of poems written with Derek Goodwin - it is called Bird Room Ballads - and was privately printed in 1969 with just a few copies around the world perhaps. The title is clearly inspired by Kipling's Barrack Room Ballads and the first entry is even titled as "the law of the jungle"! 

Pat Hall appears to have been another of those ornithologists who was influenced by R.E. Moreau thanks also to her wartime work in Africa. A couple of obituaries including one by Robert Prys-Jones make for useful background reading but sadly Bird Room Ballads is largely an inaccessible gem of ornithological humour. Here are a few gems of wisdom in verse:

The latest on Picathartes based on molecular techniques puts it as a basal member of the clade that includes the flycatchers and warblers and is a sister of the corvids. Picathartes can also make the claim to fame of getting David Attenborough his first job as an anchor.

Nome, Alaska 1968
86th A.O.U. Congress, - Field Trips.

Forty birders in a bus
Seek bristle-thighed Numenius;
And all are anxious to discern
A black-billed, pale, non-Arctic tern.
Among the peeps they hope to note
A "Western" with a rufous throat.

Some are tickers-off of lists,
While two are super-optimists
Who hope on tape to hear each bird
Above the chatter of the herd.

Among the forty-odd of course
Photographers are there in force
They stealthily approach each nest
Step by step in line abreast
So none does better than the rest.

Along the road a voice cries "Stop!
A Snowy Owl!" and out they hop.
Back again and on their way;
A ptarmigan makes more delay.
A Tattler next? "You must turn round
I thought I saw one on the ground!"
The driver tries, as in a jeep,
But in a trice is axle-deep.

But if the wretched man had hope
That eighty hands would help him cope,
His birding world he little knew.
One by one went out of view
While by the bus disconsolate
Three wives were left to contemplate
How many hours they'd have to wait,
And whether food would be kept late.

Sketch: A.M. Hughes

Monday, June 19, 2017

A libel story

A visit to the Biligirirangan Hills just as the monsoons were setting in led me to look up on the life of one of the local naturalists who wrote about this region, R.C. Morris. One of the little-known incidents in his life is a case of libel arising from a book review. I had not heard of such a case before but it seems that libel cases are a rising risk for anyone who publishes critical reviews. There is a nice guide to avoid trouble and there is a plea within academia to create a safe space for critical discourse.

This is a somewhat short note and if you are interested in learning more about the life of R.C. Morris - do look up the Wikipedia entry on him or this piece by Dr Subramanya. I recently added links to most of his papers in the Wikipedia entry and perhaps one that really had an impact on me was on the death of fourteen elephants from eating kodo millet - I suspect it is a case of aflatoxin poisoning! Another source to look for is the book Going Back by Morris' daughter and pioneer mountaineer Monica Jackson. I first came to know of the latter book in 2003 through the late Zafar Futehally who were family friends of the Morrises. He lent me this rather hard to find book when I had posted a note to an email group (a modified note was published in the Newsletter for Birdwatchers, 2003 43(5):66-67 - one point I did not mention and which people find rather hard to believe is that my friend Rajkumar actually got us to the top of Honnametti in a rather old Premier Padmini car!).

I came across the specific libel case against Morris in a couple of newspaper archives - this one in the Straits Times, 27 April 1937, can be readily found online:

Statements  Made In Book Review.

Major Leonard Mourant Handley, author of "Hunter's Moon," a book dealing with his experiences as a big game-hunter, was at the Middlesex Sheriff's Court awarded £3,000 damages for libel against Mr. Randolph Camroux Morris. Mr. Morris did not appear and was not represented. The libel appeared in a review of "Hunter's Moon" by Mr. Morris that appeared in the journal of the Bombay Natural History Society. Mr. Valentine Holmes said Major Handley wrote the book, his first, in 1933. and it met with amazing success.

Mr. Morris, in his review, declared that it did not give the personal experiences of Major Handley. Mr. Morris wrote :"There surely should be some limit to the inaccuracies which find their way into modern books, which purport to set forth observations of interest to natural  scientists  and  shikaris.

"The recent book. 'Hunters Moon.' by Leonard Handley, is so open to criticism in this respect, that one is led to the conclusion that the author has depended upon his imagination and trusted to the credulity of the public for the purpose of producing a 'bestseller' rather than a work of sporting or scientific value."

Then followed some 38 instances of alleged Inaccuracies.

Mr. Holmes said that at one time Mr. Morris was a close friend of Major Handley, but about 1927 some friction arose between Mrs. Morris and Mrs.  Handley. In evidence. Major Handley said that, following the libel, a man who had been a close friend of Ms refused to nominate him for membership of a club The Under-Sheriff. Mr. Stanley Ruston said there was no doubt that the motive of the libel lay in the fact that Major Handley had seized some of the thunder Mr. Morris was providing for his own book.

Naturally this forced me to read the specific book which is also readily available online

The last chapter deals with the hunter's exploits in the Biligirirangans which he translates as the "blue [sic] hills of Ranga"! It is also worth examining Morris' review of the book in the Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society which is merely marked under his initials. I wonder if anyone knows of the case history and whether it was appealed or followed up. I suspect Morris may have just quietly ignored it if the court notice was ever delivered in the far away estate of his up in Attikan or Honnameti.

The review is fun to read as well...

Meanwhile, here is a view of the Honnametti rock which lies just beside the estate where Morris lived.
Honnametti rock

Memorial to Randolph Camroux Morris
Grave of Mary Macdonald, wife of Leslie Coleman, who in a way
founded the University of Agricultural Sciences. Coleman was perhaps the first
to teach the German language in Bangalore to Indian students.

Sidlu kallu or lightning-split-rock, another local landmark.