Saturday, January 30, 2016

The value of outsiders - a bit of big-data

There are many interesting examples from the past where the idea of recruiting someone from an entirely different specialization into an organization pushed the envelope of knowledge. It is quite remarkable to see how organizations rapidly turn dull when narrow recruitment policies are in place. Today many old establishments languish because of inbreeding and the lack of a broad vision. Outsider perspectives are passively discouraged or even actively blocked out.

I have written in the past on Reginald Moreau and his contribution to ornithology thanks to being imported from accounting by C. B. Williams. Here are a couple of other stories from closer home.

A recent buzzword is "big-data". Like other fashionable words in business, this too will pass. But I like to extoll some of the great ideas related to data analysis that took root in India and became less important in later times. One of these was the Baconian ideal of evidence-based reasoning. It is interesting how India became a place where the idea of "facts" (an older word for data) and their collection grew in importance rather early. One of the early forces was W. H. Sykes, the man who brought the "Dukhun" (Deccan) into worldview, was perhaps the earliest data fancier. Sykes was a "statistical reporter" and founding member of the Statistical Society of London and when he returned to England he became an MP and a director of the East India Company where he championed methods of data collection for decision making. Sykes was amazingly interdisciplinary in his early data-collection work. Zoologists know him for the birds and fish that he collected but he was also a great collector of other kinds of data and a bit of an analyst. He calculated the efficiency of the E.I.C. and its army - comparing costs with those of the French. He looked at life expectancy, insurance and a number of ideas that were still unknown.

Sir Gilbert "Boomerang" Walker
Another place where data gathering became quite important was in the study of weather. The Indian Meteorological Department as we have seen earlier was established by an order signed by A. O. Hume (there are claims that Hume "established" the IMD but this is probably incorrect and it seems like more credit might be due to someone Hume did not like - Sir Richard Strachey) and was headed by a geologist Henry Francis Blanford (whose brother, another geologist, would plunge into zoology and be the founding editor of the Fauna of British India series).  One of the things that Blanford unearthed was a link between the amount of snow falling in the Himalayas and the monsoon in the subsequent season. Large scale patterns like the depression in barometric pressure across the country had already been detected before this. It soon became clear that someone with skills beyond traditional meteorology was needed and that was when Gilbert T. Walker known for his mathematical gifts left a teaching position at Cambridge to join the Indian Meteorological Department. He had already become a Fellow of the Royal Society thanks to his contributions to the mathematics of electromagnetism. Early in his career he worked on so much mathematics that he fell ill and needed to take breaks in Switzerland, a period in which he became an expert ice skater! Walker had other interests including boomerangs and had earned himself the nickname of Boomerang Walker. Walker like E.H. Hankin, the microbiologist, took an interest in the soaring of birds in India. When in India, he was frequently seen throwing boomerangs on the grounds of Annandale in Shimla. Here he worked on the physics of boomerangs and the mathematics behind the paths taken and examined parameters such as the twist and angle of the surfaces. Walker also began to examine weather data and developed methods to deal with time-series. Autoregression models today use what are called the Yule-Walker equations. The other contributor was Udny Yule who worked on sunspot patterns. (Interestingly it turns out that Walker's contributions were overlooked for years and one reviewer who had dismissed him was Herman Wold who helped developed the multivariate technique of PLS!) Using these methods Walker found large scale weather patterns across the southern hemisphere - what is now referred to as the ENSO (El Nino Southern Oscillation).

Thomas Nelson Annandale, a director of the Zoological Survey of India, was broad-minded enough to get someone with a statistical and mathematical perspective to examine data collected by physical anthropologists (the main collector was a Herbert Risley who has also been called a "scientific racist"). Annandale chose to hand out the dataset to P.C. Mahalanobis and that led to a major leap in multivariate analysis. The eponymous measure of distance (i.e. the opposite of similarity), Mahalanobis distance, is today one of the most widely used ways to examine the similarity of an object to a predefined group of objects and examine the likelihood of its membership to the group on the basis of a set of variables measured on a continuous scale.

Know an organization that needs to changes its valuation of specialists from other fields?

Friday, October 9, 2015

The mantis guide to keeping geckos away

Many insects show resemblances to organisms that are well-protected. Some are examples of mimicry while a few others may be cases of convergent evolution. The evolution of behaviours that aid resemblance is often much harder to notice. For one, there is too much dependance on specimens and too little attention given to observation of living organisms. I have heard of a wonderful field botanist who would be unable to walk more than a kilometer an hour simply because the plants he saw on the way kept him so busy and occupied. It seems that the more trained one is as an observer, the more there is to see. Those with roving and restless eyes on the other hand quickly get bored and have a burning desire to seek novelty in far away places.

Here is something that you might spot right around your home. This nymph of a mantis in the genus Amorphoscelis waggles its abdomen in the style of a reptile. The most likely model, that is the species it has evolved to mimic, is a gecko in the genus Cnemaspis. These diurnal geckos are the most common ones found on tree trunks and they are most likely potential predators of these mantises. This aggressive stance presumably keeps geckos away.

The video below, rather poorly taken with low end equipment, shows this behaviour. I have seen the species in my strip of garden in Bangalore but this one was in the Eastern Ghats of Tamil Nadu. Notice how the mantis leaps and continues to run at the end of the video. Even this is extremely geckoesque.


And here is a very different and large gecko (genus Eublepharis) showing very similar tail waving behaviour. I have not found any videos of Cnemaspis as yet.

Illustrating the fact that behavioural observations have much to offer is a 2012 study of cryptically coloured moths and how they choose to sit on tree trunks. See the movie links at the end of the study.
Also see my older posts on lycaenid tails, spider mimicry and ant mimicry. And for some truly amazing caudal luring (the opposite of what is happening here) see this video of the spider-tailed horned viper. The tale of tails is long and complex.


Saturday, August 15, 2015

Hammers, chisels, birds and beards

Imagining the history of the earth is an old pursuit. From fascinating tales of floods and elaborate fantasies of rat-designed Norwegian coastlines, ideas on landform origins have been built up by piecing jig-saws of evidence from fragments of coastline, fossils, magnetometry, isotope markers and a growing range of tools. The early geologists had far fewer tools but that was probably made up for by a great deal more excitement. Imagine calculating the rates of deposition of sediment and calculating the age of cliffs to find that it did not meet Biblical teachings. Early geologists had to tread with caution, but it was probably much easier if you were far away in places like India. 

The profession of geology in India can be traced to the period when travelling from Europe to the colonies in India became faster with steamships. Steamships evolved from using auxiliary paddles to propellers and screws. Steamships required coal and it was not always easy to store enough for a journey or even to stash along the route. The geology of coal was essentially a study of old forests, paleontology, and the people involved in its quest in India saw the land through a scientific lens (and toolkit) that differed from that of the physician naturalist (and of course that of the parson naturalist). The geologists tended to have a much keener sense of spatial patterns, associations with climate, patterns of dispersal and how land barriers may have worked to separate populations and create species.

We have already seen how Professor Robert Jameson's geology classes, attended by the likes of T.C. Jerdon and Charles Darwin had an enormous influence on them despite Darwin's claim that "the sole effect they [Jameson’s lectures] produced on me was the determination never as long as I lived to read a book on Geology, or in any way to study the science"! It is unsurprising that geologists in this period were fairly well-rounded naturalists.

The Geological Survey of India (1870)
Hammers, chisels, birds and beards
There is an interesting old picture of the members of the Geological Survey of India in 1870. All of them are bearded, several from Ireland, and a couple of Europeans (a Moravian and a German) influenced by studies in Austria. Of this bunch, the man at the extreme left - Ferdinand Stoliczka, would contribute greatly to ornithology before dying young of altitude sickness. Standing fourth and fifth from left are F.R. Mallet and Valentine Ball who were also keen ornithologists. Ball was also into ethnology and when the first railway lines were being laid, he would advice the government on the best paths in central India to connect the coal fields of the Chota Nagpur Plateau with the port of Bombay. Both Ball and Mallet were Hume collaborators. Ball even joined Hume on the Andaman expedition and his name lives on in Otus balli. We get some idea of their zeal for collection from the writings of another Czech/Austrian who came replace the paleontological position held by Stoliczka. Otokar Feistmantel notes how they would travel with a large retinue of servants, three elephants and lavish field tenting arrangements. He pointed out that he was free to use the gun as he liked - something that only the royalty could do back in Europe. Feistmantel's also notes on how European life in Calcutta revolved around the beach also make for interesting reading in modern times. The grand work on the Fauna of British India series was put under the editorship of a geologist W. T. Blanford while his brother H. F. Blanford went on to lead the creation of the Indian Meteorological Department, the order for its establishment being signed by Hume himself (although Blanford gives more credit to Richard Strachey, one of Hume's "opponents" in the Agriculture Department)

More recent ornitho-geologists like J├╝rgen Haffer took to geology as a secure career with the added prospect of travel. He however worked extensively on bird speciation in South America. He also wrote a biographical note on his mentor Ernst Mayr and bits on the history of European ornithology.

And from there we get to even more modern geologists who do not even have to travel to propose very interesting hypotheses in ornithology. In a series of articles by a team of geologists the idea is proposed that grain size and soil properties create a somewhat narrow window of opportunity for large hole nesters and that the mechanical properties needed to support such burrows without collapsing are met by a specific soil type:- loess. The authors examine the breeding distributions of birds with loess deposits and find a substantial overlap. This naturally makes everyone worry that confirmation bias involved but the idea is clearly a very testable hypotheses and probably needs a lot more reading that it is getting especially within the ornithological community.

With modern academic specialization, it seems that geology and ornithology are never packed into the same person nor are persons from the fields teaming up. So it comes as a nice surprise to see some bold and fresh thinking in a recent series on the distributions of large hole burrowing bee-eaters. Looking at the citations of these series, it is a bit depressing to see that ornithologists do not seem to think too highly of the work. Heneberg points out that the original work does not take biological variables into account which is clearly why we need more interdisciplinary (if not antidisciplinary ie against subject boundaries) attitudes. As someone who was at least marginally trained in soil science, I found it rather interesting and was wondering how interesting it would be to conduct such studies in India on soil types and hole nesting birds. I would certainly encourage anyone who is not in the academic rat-race to take an interest in such ideas and appreciate the beauty of interdisciplinary scientific hypotheses, even if it eventually turns out to be more complex.
The overlap of loess deposits and the European bee-eater breeding zones from Smalley et al. (2013).
All rights belong to the author and publisher and are used here under a fair use rationale.

Thinking about this locally and from a precautionary perspective, it might be worth examining the soil type at Naguvanahalli, Srirangapatna where the blue-tailed bee-eaters nest. If the soil type is indeed special and restricted in its distribution, it might call for more concerted conservation action.

PS: I found this video above and it shows blue-tailed bee-eaters burrowing into near-horizontal ground, I am not sure this is actually documented anywhere! Ali & Ripley in their Handbook. Volume 4:106 mention this nesting habit for Merops superciliosus persicus.

Another bit of footage from Azerbaijan, thanks to Tatiana Petrova.


Do also look at the blog of the author Ian Smalley  -

It has taken a while to write out this piece, mostly because it has taken quite a while to research and write Feistmantel's biography on Wikipedia. Anyone having issues accessing these papers are welcome to write for a copy.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

An exotic London feast and its effects

On January 21, 1859 a bunch of subscribers to the journal The Field met at the London Tavern, Bishopsgate. At the head of the table was Richard Owen of Iguanodon fame and there was David W. Mitchell, artist and secretary of the Zoological Society of London and Francis "Frank" Buckland among others. Servings included a large pike, American partridges, a bean goose and meat from an African eland that had died at the Zoo. Several speeches were made after this exotic banquet, and the consensus was that one could have eland and game birds in the English countryside for everyone to hunt, eat and enjoy. Professor Owen later wrote in the newspapers on the delicacy of eland and the need for an "Acclimatisation Society".

Luton Times and Advertiser - 29 January 1859
The idea of such a society was not new, the French had established one in 1854, but the rumbles that emerged from these French, English and later Australian acclimatisation societies can still be felt in India.
A stream in Mukurthi National Park

Frank Buckland, the kid under the table. 
The belief at the time was that animals were placed on the earth for humans to benefit from and for Buckland the zoologist and key founder of the British Acclimatization Society, the main  benefit was in eating them. He called himself a zoophagist and he had tried leopards, mice, hedgehogs, crocodiles, turtles among numerous other species. Whenever an animal died at the London Zoo, he was interested in trying it out. But these acts hardly caused the kind of damage that the Acclimatisation Society that he founded would unleash in places like Australia and New Zealand. Buckland studied anatomy under Henry Gray (of Gray's Anatomy fame) and a classmate of his was Francis Day.[Collins] Day went to India in 1852 as an Assistant surgeon in the Madras Presidency. Between his medical duties, he also spent time looking at fishes, in Cochin (1861) and later in the Nilgiris.  The Nilgiris were already compared with the Scottish highlands and it seems that just a few elements were missing. In 1866, back in England, Day and Buckland went to collect trout eggs in the Hampshire stream near Southampton (so that time spent before getting to the ship would be minimized) for release in the Nilgiris.  The first attempt to stock the Nilgiris failed and in 1867 he repeated these experiments. His experiments did not go unnoticed, the Neilgherry Excelsior from June 1866 had a satirical piece on "Dark Night, Esq., F.L.S., F.Z.S .... we have no doubt Government, who seem quite struck with the production, will see the propriety of allowing Dr Night to reside on the hills on full pay, and continue piscatorial researches which redound not only to his own but to his country's honour." Dr Day persisted and by 1868 he had stocked the Pykara river and the Ootacamund lake with around three hundred fishes of ten species including the trout Salmo trutta.  By 1869 he becomes such an expert on the fishes of India that he is assigned to special duty to inspect the fisheries of India and in 1871 he was made Inspector-General of Fisheries. Buckland, meanwhile, also became an Inspector of Fisheries. In 1902 rainbow trout were imported into the Nilgiris. Other species such as Russian carp and tench were also recorded in 1904. Surprisingly little is to be found on the impact of fish introduction in the Nilgiris, most research on fisheries talk about them only in glowing terms. 
Wattle expanding over the grasslands in Mukurthi (October 2013)

The editors of the 11th edition of Encylopaedia Britannica apparently thought it fit that the entry on Acclimatization be written by Alfred Russel Wallace, and he spends considerable effort on a definition  (v. 1:114-121 ):
The process of adaptation by which animals and plants are gradually rendered capable of surviving and flourishing in countries remote from their original habitats, or under meteorological conditions different from those which they have usually to endure, and at first injurious to them.
The subject of acclimatization is very little understood, and some writers have even denied that it can ever take place. It is often confounded with domestication or with naturalization; but these are both very different phenomena. ... A naturalized animal or plant, on the other hand, must be able to withstand all the vicissitudes of the seasons in its new home, and it may therefore be thought that it must have become acclimatized. But in many, perhaps most cases of naturalization there is no evidence of a gradual adaptation to new conditions.
An appendix to the entry is from Frank Finn of Calcutta:
 A great deal has been said about the upsetting of the balance of nature by naturalization, and as to the ill-doing of exotic forms. But certain considerations should be borne in mind in this connexion. In the first place, naturalization experiments fail at least as often as they succeed, and often quite inexplicably. Thus, the linnet and partridge have failed to establish themselves in New Zealand. This may ultimately throw some light on the disappearance of native forms; for these have at times declined without any assignable cause.
 Secondly, native forms often disappear with the clearing off of the original forest or other vegetation, in which case their recession is to a certain extent unavoidable, and the fauna which has established itself in the presence of cultivation is needed to replace them.
 Thirdly, the ill effect of introduced forms on existing ones may often be due rather to the spread of disease and parasites than to actual attack; thus, in Hawaii the native birds have been found suffering from a disease which attacks poultry. And the recession of the New Zealand earthworms and flies before exotic forms probably falls under this category. As man cannot easily avoid introducing parasites, and must keep domestic animals and till the land, a certain disturbance in aboriginal faunas is absolutely unavoidable. Under certain circumstances, however, the native animals may recover, for in some cases they even profit by man's advent, and at times themselves become pests, like the Kea parrot (Nestor notabilis), which attacks sheep in New Zealand, and the bobolink or rice-bird (Dolichonyx oryzivorus) in North America. Finally, it should never be forgotten that the worst enemies of declining forms have been collectors who have not given these species the chance of recovering themselves.   

Hampshire Advertiser 1 August 1863, p. 3
The Bombay Cynthia is a silk moth

Even before the trout, the Nilgiris were affected by another import that was far worse. The idea of an Acclimatisation Society was born in Paris. A branch opened in Algeria just as the British Society was born and a few years later branches sprouted in Australia. English settlers in Australia were especially unsettled by the strangeness of the land- trees that shed bark instead of leaves, mammals that laid eggs and had pouches and so on- and sought the familiarity of plants and animals they knew from England. At the same time, there was the idea that some of the Australian plants might do well in other parts of the world. In 1827 Kew Gardens helped introduce the Australian Acacia longifolia to the Cape region. Acacia saligna went to southern Africa in 1833, A. cyclops in 1835, A. mearnsii in 1858, A. pycnantha in 1892. Ferdinand von Mueller of the Acclimatisation Society of Victoria was particularly involved in these Acacia transfers.  It seems like some specimens would have passed through India around the same time. Acacia mearnsii has unfortunately done too well on the Nilgiris, at the cost of grassland habitats. Interestingly a forest officer Charles Lane Poole resigned protesting the introduction of Australian trees in the Woodbush district of Transvaal on the grounds that it would destroy the indigenous forest. No such qualms seem to have been recorded among the foresters in India.[Carruthers et al.] The story of Eucalyptus is harder to unravel. Several species were collected on Captain Cook's voyages and were tried at Kew. It has been claimed in some sources that the earliest plantations in India were by Tipu Sultan at Nandi Hills around 1790. This is interesting and considering the statements on Nandidurg and its vegetation at the time of its siege it would seem like all the rest was planted later. According to Doughty, Tipu got the trees from seeds obtained by Dutch traders. The French, although friendly with Tipu seem to have had an interest in Eucalpytus that came much later with Prosper Ramel, a member of the French Societe Zoologique de l’Acclimatation who met Ferdinand Mueller in 1854 and became a rabid Eucalyptus fan (he even proposed smoking them). Ramel saw the utility of E. globulus in drying up swampy ground.[Doughty] Tipu did take a great interest in horticulture, trees and botany. An especially intriguing bit is that Tipu obtained the notes of Hope's botany lectures taken by Francis Buchanan-Hamilton when a certain Boswell who had borrowed it from Buchanan-Hamilton accidentally left the book in a trunk at Sathyamangalam when it was overrun by Tipu's men. The notes were discovered in Tipu's library after the Siege of Srirangapatnam in 1799, they had been carefully bound in leather.[Noltie] Perhaps someone will be motivated enough to research the specific Eucalyptus trees at Nandi Hills and try to trace their origins. These are quite interesting in that they appear to have a different kind of bark. 

One of the members of the British Acclimatisation Society was Robert Maitland Brereton, a railway engineer posted briefly in Nasik, central India. He promised to obtain some Indian game birds and deer. Viscount Powerscourt offered to get junglefowl and seeds of useful plants from Mysore. Edward Blyth also made offers but it appears that he was more interested in money. H.E. Watts wrote in 1864 of the pre-eminence of India as a sourcing area for introduction into Australia. He made a list of the best game birds to introduce that included the snow-partridge (Tetraogallus himalayensis) "five times the size of the common English bird, and of most exquisite flavour". As late as 1960, this species was trapped in Pakistan and introduced into the Ruby mountains in Nevada, USA where they still persist in the wild.

The work of the Australian acclimatisation societies involved introducing the skylark, blackbird, starling, chaffinch, Java sparrow and Indian myna! There were wealthy individuals like Eugene Schieffelin who made it his life's mission to introduce all the birds mentioned in Shakespeare into the United States of America. They still suffer from the starlings he introduced in 1890.
Some attempts to reclaim the Nilgiri grasslands from pine (2012)

Francis Day was also a Hume collaborator, especially active during the Sindh expedition of 1871. Day's work in fisheries required him to work with the Department of Revenue, Agriculture, and Commerce where Hume was a secretary (1871-79). 
There is apparently a book (that I have not seen) on the history of acclimatisation societies  -
  • Lever, C. 1992. They dined on eland: the story of the acclimatisation societies. Quiller, London
Recent surveys have not found brown trout in southern India, suggesting that the species has been eliminated.
Animal trade and movement out of India seems to have been quite intense until as late as 1938. See this note on the shipwreck of the City of Salisbury.
  • Carruthers, J., L. Robin, J. P. Hattingh, C. A. Kull, H. Rangan, and B. W. van Wilgen (2011) A native at home and abroad: the history, politics, ethics and aesthetics of Acacia. Diversity and Distributions 17 (5):810-821.
  • Collins, Timothy (2003) From Anatomy to Zoophagy: A Biographical Note on Frank Buckland. Journal of the Galway Archaeological and Historical Society 55:91-109.
  • Doughty, Robin (1996) Not a Koala in Sight: Promotion and Spread of Eucalyptus. Cultural Geographies 3:200-214.
  • Whitehead, P.J.P. & P.K. Talwar, 1976. Francis Day (1829–1889) and his collections of Indian Fishes. Bulletin of the British Museum (Natural History), Historical Series 5(1): 1–189.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Bird-lore from India

Bird-lore, taken in a narrow sense, is often considered to lack enough ornithology as it largely consists of stories made-up to explain reality or to package other ideas in the manner of religious and moral texts. Naturally the kinds of stories vary with the epoch and place of origin, and tends to say more about the society in which it arose than the life of birds. It does however indicate an awareness of birds around them. More careful observations on bird-life can be more implicit and found in the methods mainly of bird trappers and bird keepers. The use of male partridges as decoys to lure other males implies a certain knowledge of territorial behaviour. The positioning of bird-lime on roost sites implies a knowledge of roost-site fidelity and so on but such interpretation requires a knowledge of ornithology. Bird-lore tends to be harder to interpret but is useful in identifying species that are (or were) common enough to make an impression on people.

Some of these stories have a way of capturing the imagination of children and have helped in the cause of popularization and conservation.
One of the early Audubon journals was called "Bird-Lore"

Like a lot of ornithology research in India the study of folk-knowledge and folk-lore appears to be impoverished possibly due to the lack of contact between those with a scientific literacy and ordinary folk in the countryside as well as a lack of motivation to document folk beliefs. There are also few avenues for publication where they might be seen by those interested in birds. I have not seen any comprehensive review but have recently examined a rather extensive body of work by Sarat Chandra Mitra (M.A., B.L., corresponding member of the Anthropological Society of Bombay, elected ordinary member of the Asiatic Society of Bengal in 1898). There has been no biographical note on him, he seems to have held a position as lecturer in Social Anthropology at the University of Calcutta in the mid-1920s, a Professor in 1929, and was a major contributor to the Quarterly Journal of the Mythic Society, an organization founded in 1909 at Bangalore (its first president, perhaps somewhat surprising to modern scientists, was the first director of the Indian Institute of Science, Morris "Rare Gas" Travers!). S.C. Mitra seems to have published on bird-lore (and plant lore too!) in a spectacularly long career,  1898 to 1960 , documenting folk beliefs from around where he lived and travelled, particularly Bengal and further northeast and he appear to be careful with the identification of the birds but not always careful enough. He may have had received some bird knowledge from Ram Brahma Sanyal and possibly Dr Satya Churn Law (again someone whose biography needs work especially given that he was perhaps the earliest Indian author to publish in the Ibis, and among the earliest Indian bird photographers in the field - he photographed the ashy-crowned sparrow-lark in the wild in 1924).

Mitra usually separates his myths into two categories - "didactic myths" intended to teach morals or ideas and "aetiological myths" intended to explain something about a bird. Here is a sampling, the number in square brackets refers to the series number that he uses (n.s. is new series). The kingfisher is the bird said by the Andamanese to have stolen fire from Biliki - the creator of the earth - and brought it to their ancestors. Mitra notes that in Europe the wren was supposed to have tried to steal fire and had its tail burnt into a stub.[27]  The hornbill holds its bill up apparently because it was created from a cowherd cursed for not giving water to a holy cow. It now holds up the bill seeking water from the rain.[28] A Garo story explains how the racket-tailed drongo and the rat used to groom each other. The rat did a good job and the nice tails were parted in the drongo. The drongo did a terrible job, leaving the tail of the rat hairless![2] When the birds discussed the length of day to be decided, the spotted owlet apparently wanted the night and day to be 9 (current) days long. The other birds smacked the owlet on his head making it flat. The white wagtail however declared the current day and night lengths which were apparently much appreciated. The other birds stroked the wagtail and this resulted in its small size. Mitra concludes from this that - "Most likely, the Lhota Nagas have the custom of physically punishing a member of their community, who may give an opinion which is not acceptable to the other members of their tribe" and appreciating a person by stroking or patting their body.[45] There are also a number of intricate and complicated stories related to call interpretations.

In southern India, the only major review of bird-lore (and folk-lore in general) was by Edgar Thurston. Thurston is a somewhat strange figure. A successor of Edward Balfour at the Madras Museum, he seems to have held views quite different from the founder. He appears to have held the view that the museum was throwing pearls before swine. It appears that his main interest was in a form of physical anthropology known as scientific racism. When he found visitors at the museum of a curious physiognomy, he would seek to know their origins and measure their skulls! Imagine my surprise when I discovered that after his return to England he collaborated with one of A.O.Hume's botanical associates - F. Hamilton Davey. That Hume and Edward Balfour were cousins may have had something to do with this.

Probably the most bizarre belief that Thurston documents is one about a clerk who received a letter about the demise of a loved child of relative. The death was apparently untrue and the reason for writing that letter was that the sender had seen two crows mating. Apparently if you saw crows in the act, you would die unless a relative shed some tears! (Thurson p. 69)

Silver and clay offerings made to deities to prevent crop damage (Thurston 1912)
It seems like making up some bird-lore as part of children's books might be something for writers to consider. A Welsh birder friend (Alan Morley) has an endearing description of the Malabar barbet which he describes as looking like a little child that has mischievously put his mouth into a bottle of strawberry jam. (Picture courtesy of Nanda Ramesh, Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons) Just a few publications have been produced on ethno-ornithology in recent times and it is somewhat unfortunate that Indian natural-history and bird study periodicals have entirely neglected this field. One of the few recent publications of merit is the one on Soliga bird knowledge by Samira Agnihotri and Aung Si.
List of publications by Sarat Chandra Mitra on bird-lore (incomplete):
  • Mitra, Sarat Chandra (1898) Bengali and Behari Folk-lore about Birds. Part I. Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal. 67(2):67-74.
    Mitra, Sarat Chandra (1899) Bengali and Behari Folk-lore about Birds. Part II. Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal 68(?):14-29.
  • Mitra, Sarat Chandra (1923) On an aetiological myth about the spotted dove. No. II. Quarterly Journal of the Mythic Society :23-28
  • Mitra, Sarat Chandra (1924) Studies in Bird-Myths. No. III.—On two Aetiological Myths about the Sky-Lark. Quarterly Journal of the Mythic Society 14(2):106-110.
  • Mitra, Sarat Chandra (1924) Studies in Bird-Myths. No. IV.—on a Second Aetiological Myth about the Indian Cuckoo. Quarterly Journal of the Mythic Society 15(1):48-50. 
  • Mitra, Sarat Chandra (1926) Studies in Bird-Myths No. X.— On three Aetiological Myths about the Spots on the Peacock’s Tail-Feathers. The Quarterly Journal of the Mythic Society 18(2):145-147.
  • Mitra, Sarat Chandra (1926) Studies in Bird-Myths. no. X.— on a Probable , Etiological Myth about the Jungle Babbler. The Quarterly Journal of the Mythic Society 17(1):63-64. 
  • Mitra, Sarat Chandra (1926) Studies in Bird-Myths No. XI-On an Aetiological Myth about the Indian House-Crow. Qtly. J. Mythic Society 17(2):143-144. 
  • Mitra, Sarat Chandra (1927) Studies in Bird-Myths, no. XVII.—on an Etiological Myth about the Carrion-Feeding Habit of the Indian white-backed vulture and the smaller white Scavenger Vulture. Qtly. J. Mythic Society 18(1):61-64.
  • Mitra, Sarat Chandra (1928) Studies in Bird-Myths no. XXI.—On an Aetiological Myth about the Golden-Backed Woodpecker, the Indian Spotted Woodpecker and other Species. Quarterly Journal of the Mythic Society 18(4):288-291.
  • Mitra, Sarat Chandra (1928) Studies in Bird-Myths, No. XXII.-on a Second Aetiological Myth About the Indian Black-Headed Oriole. Quarterly Journal of the Mythic Society 19(1):67-68. 
  • Mitra, Sarat Chandra (1928) Studies in Bird-Myths, No. XXIII.-on a Bird-Myth From the District of Tippera in Eastern Bengal Qtly. J. Mythic Society 19(1):69-72.
  • Mitra, Sarat Chandra (1928) Studies in Bird-Myths, No. XXIV—On a Lushai-Kuki Aetiological Myth About the Jungle Babbler. Quarterly Journal of the Mythic Society 19(2):150-151.
  • Mitra, Sarat Chandra (1931)  Studies in Bird-Myths No. XXXV Quarterly Journal of the Mythic Society 22(1):97-100. link
  • Mitra, Sarat Chandra (1929) Studies in Bird-myths No. XXVII-On an Andamanese myth about the Malayan kingfisher and the Black-capped purple Kingfisher. Quarterly Journal of the Mythic Society 20(1):42-43.
  • Mitra, Sarat Chandra  (1929) Studies in bird-myths, No. XXVIII - On a south Indian aetiological myth about the Malabar pied hornbill. Quarterly Journal of the Mythic Society 20(2):135-136. (This also mentions a specimen of the Malabar Pied Hornbill from Periya in Wynaad at the Lucknow provincial museum in the 1890s. I am fairly certain that this hornbill has not been recorded in recent times from this area! How did that specimen get there? Based on the 1883-1888 report of the Lucknow museum it seems that W.R.Davison, Hume's bird collector, then living in Ootacamund contributed this specimen. Hume had been included a member of the museum committee.)
  • Mitra, Sarat Chandra (1929) Studies in Bird-Myths, No. XXIX—on a Lushai-Kuki Aetiological Myth About the Great Horn-Bill. Quarterly Journal of the Mythic Society 20(3):233-235.
  • Mitra, Sarat Chandra (1930) Studies. in Bird-Myths, No. XXX—On an Ancient Indian Aetiological Myth About the Enmity between the Crows and the Owls.  Qtly. J. Mythic Society 20(4):307-308.
  • Mitra, Sarat Chandra (1931) Studies in Bird-Myths No. XXXV. The Quarterly Journal of the Mythic Society 22(1):97-100. link
  • Mitra, Sarat Chandra (1933) Studies in Bird-Myths. No. XLIII. [On a Romanian aetiological myth about the evolution of the cuckoo and the hoopoe]. The Quarterly Journal of the Mythic Society24(1):60-64.
  • Mitra, Sarat Chandra (1933) Studies in Bird-Myths. No. XLIV. [On a Hottentot Aetiological myth about the origin of the African Heron's Curved Neck.] Qtly. J. Mythic Society 26(2): 177-178.  
  • Mitra, Sarat (1934) Studies in Bird-Myths No. XLV. [On a Lhota Naga Aetiological Myth about the origin of the flat head of the spotted owlet, and of the small size of the white-faced wagtail and of the Hodgson's pied wagtail.] The Quarterly Journal of the Mythic Society 24(3):284-287.
  • Mitra, Sarat (1934) Studies in Bird-Myths No. XLVI. [A few Moroccan superstitious beliefs about the night heron]. The Quarterly Journal of the Mythic Society 24(4):361-362. 
  • Mitra, Sarat (1935) Studies in Bird-Myths No. XLVII. [On a Papuan myth about the battle of the birds and the ant]. The Quarterly Journal of the Mythic Society 26(1):113-114.
  • Mitra, Sarat (1936) Studies in Bird-Myths. No. XLVIII. [On a Tibetan didactic myth about the outwitting of the crow by a frog]. The Quarterly Journal of the Mythic Society 27(3):255-256. 
  • Mitra, Sarat (1937) Studies in Bird-Myths. The Quarterly Journal of the Mythic Society 28(2):111-113. 
  • Mitra, Sarat (1938) Studies in Bird-Myths. The Quarterly Journal of the Mythic Society 28(4):312-313.
  • Mitra, Sarat Chandra (1943) Studies in Bird-Myths New Series No. IX. on an Ancient Indian Didactic Myth about the Indian Sparrow Hawk’s Intelligence and Cleverness. Quarterly Journal of the Mythic Society 33(4):329-331.
  • Mitra, Sarat Chandra (1943) Studies in Bird-Myths-New Series No. IX on a Punjabi Didactic Myth about the Peacock’s Pride and Foolishness. Quarterly Journal of the Mythic Society 34(2):217-219 .
  • Mitra, Sarat Chandra (1944) Studies in Bird-Myths-New Series No. X. Qtly. J. Mythic Society 34(2):110.
  • Mitra, Sarat Chandra (1945) Studies in Bird-Myths-New Series No. XI. Qtly. J. Mythic Society 34(4):224-226.
  • Mitra, Sarat Chandra Studies in Bird-Myths. No. XXXVIII. [On an ancient Indian myth about the battle of the birds and the sea]. 481-483.
This article is a going to be shaped from time to time. These references will also feed into Wikipedia entries on the specific birds.
Further reading