One of the joys of being in India is the complete lack of access to a good library, and that makes one keep a list of books to find so that you know how to make the best of limited time when one get an opportunity to visit a well-stocked library. It took me nearly ten years before I finally managed to browse through Max Nicholson's Art of Birdwatching (1931) on a brief visit to the library of the Zoological Society of London. I had been looking for the context in which he had talked about how a so-called "open mind" was absolutely useless for scientific enquiry [a belief that starkly contradicts the argumentative Indian].
"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 civilisation."
Nicholson also inspired another writer across the Atlantic. This was Joseph Hickey, a student of literature who moved to ornithology. I had heard of his work through a rather tenuous series of connections.
|From The Auk|
One of the leading lights of bird study and popularization in India, Dr Joseph George, a major influence on the Bangalore bird-enthusiasts circle, had undertaken several of his earliest and pioneering studies on bird populations in Dehra Dun. In 1948, a Mrs M.D. Wright conducted a census of birds in Dehra Dun and wrote out her observations in the Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society. One of her inspirations was the book by Joseph Hickey, A Guide to Birdwatching (1943). It is unclear if Dr George actually took part in her census but she influenced his own studies in Dehra Dun (since he cites her work) and they doubtless met and I strongly believe that Dr George actually read this book too given his own censuses of birds in Dehra Dun. It was not until a few weeks ago that I got my hands on Hickey's book thanks to the Internet Archive and their emergency pandemic-response library which allows in-copyright books to be borrowed and read online. Now Hickey was influenced by many giants including Ernst Mayr and Aldo Leopold. He recounted among his ornithological mantras, the one from Ernst Mayr about having a long term line of enquiry while watching birds - in Mayr's words "everybody's got to have a problem". On the first person Hickey met on the field watching birds, he writes:
Now an Indian Civil Servant interested in birds had to be examined and I searched the internet for Charles Johnston and found one that was interested in theosophy (but the Wikipedia entry then had no mention of any interest in natural history). I found also that a Johnston had been active in New York birding circles but was not sure if the two were the same until I found an entry on the Theosophy Wiki. The other major Theosophist (at least briefly) and ornithologist was Hume and I had to check for encounters between the two. It seems that the two could not have been in great contact. Johnston was married the niece of Madame Blavatsky (with whom Hume had fallen out) and entered the Indian Civil Service only in 1888, well after Hume's exit from government service. Johnston worked only for two years before suffering from malaria led to his resignation and he moved to the United States in 1896 after treatment in Austria. His close friends in New York included fellow theosophists W. Q. Judge and Clement Acton Griscom, Jr. (1868-1918) who was the father of the ornithologist Ludlow Griscom. It would appear (esp. from the absence of any mention in the Bombay Natural History Society journal) that Johnston began his serious bird studies only in the United States and may well have been an important influence in Griscom's life. Allan Cruickshank's Birds around New York city (1942) includes many notes by Johnston, who is described as an "experienced and meticulous observer" (p. 289).
The pleasures of meeting a kindred spirit are much more subjective but they are nonetheless real and they often ripen into lifelong friendships. In grade school it never occurred to my chums or to me that bird books were written for anyone other than boys, and that grown men and women liked to watch flickers and killdeers just the way we did. Our beloved scoutmaster, the Reverend Basil Hall, had given some of us a helping hand, but bird study still seemed like a boys' game. It was an almost stupefying shock when Richard A. Herbert and I, aged 14, quite by accident found an elegantly dressed gentleman watching a chickadee one February day in New York City's Bronx Park. Charles Johnston, who looked not unlike Charles Evans Hughes to us, had been a distinguished member of the British Civil Service in India. He was kindly and apparently ready to answer questions. He answered them for two full hours, probably with no little amusement. The decades between us seemed to vanish and from that point on, our bird study took on dignity and purpose. He helped us many times more in the years that followed.
I tell this story to illustrate how an interest in ornithology can span any barrier, and how people of widely diverse cultures can rapidly find a common bond of understanding. There are several ways to get in touch with other bird students. One is to attend meetings.
- Hickey, Joseph (1975). A guide to bird watching. New York:Dover. [This Internet Archive copy (which can be borrowed) is signed by Hickey. This book was his master's work, under the supervision of Aldo Leopold!]
- Wright, M.D. (1949). A bird count in Dehra Dun. J. Bombay Nat. Hist. Soc. 48(3):570-572.
- Birding by sight and sound
Dr Joseph George (1st October 1921 – 9th July 2012) was educated at St Joseph's College, Trichy and at St. John's College, Agra, He researched polymer chemistry under Herman Francis Marks at the Brooklyn Polytechnic Research Institute between 1946 and 1948, returning to the Forest Research Institute at Dehra Dun. He worked for a while at the CBRI, Roorkee and at IPIRI, Bangalore.