Thursday, March 24, 2011

Rediscovering M

The real M from the book
A little upheaval at home caused some old books to be moved around and I spotted this one called "Some of My Animals" - I remembered how I had found this bargain for a few Rupees in a big house  made up of old books (the  book seller probably lived within it) at Luz while on a walk from Mowbray's Road to the beach in Madras. Like some early natural history reading, I had merely skimmed through and it was not until many years later that I learnt more about the author of this book.

"In a Chelsea flat there once lived
happily together Maxwell Knight ...
Olga, the otter, Sadie the golden marmoset,
Florence the Mona monkey,
Pookie the bush baby,
Polly Hopkins the parrot..."
Although most people did not know much about the author during his lifetime, the KGB had a very good idea about him and when Desmond Morris, who was a good friend of Knight went to Moscow he had a strange experience. The story  was mentioned in an interview of Desmond Morris but there is a more recent article by Desmond Morris himself on this. Morris had escorted two London zoo Pandas to Moscow zoo during the Cold War to have them mated. KGB agents followed him and strangers baited him with offers to show him around top-secret locations and he found his hotel room bugged. He was puzzled and never quite found out  the cause of this until years later - when a book "The Man who was M" was published. During the day Maxwell Knight, who was a friend of Desmond Morris, was making natural history films for the BBC but after work hours  unknown to anyone his real job was as spymaster of MI5. Most of us think of Judi Dench but here was the real M. His pet otter Olga seems to have been named after one of his most successful agents, a spy named Olga Grey, who infiltrated a Soviet spy ring. Olga also visited Bombay to deliver money to the budding Indian communist party, which was then more associated with anti-imperialism than what might be called communism today. Ian Fleming was apparently a friend of M and of course as we all know his main character James Bond was based on an ornithologist in the West Indies.

Maybe someone will figure out who Florence, Pookie and Polly Hopkins really were.

Further reading

Friday, March 18, 2011

A digital tribute

India, despite mentions in history texts of places that rivalled Alexandria, does not have a contemporary tradition of scholarship or public libraries. Indeed the few government-owned collections of books and archives do not welcome readers. In 1991 or so, when I had just got into university, I decided to ask the librarian of the Indian Institute of Science for permission to use the library. Remember that these were different times, no Internet, no TV or cable. The librarian was curious to see my application and informed me with considerable pride that he had "hundreds" of pending applications from Ph.D. scholars who had not been allowed access. He said that he could allow me only if my University made an application to the Institute and so on. It seemed like it was a NO, and after listening to him for a while, I dropped the word that my father was a faculty member at the institute. He was a bit irritated and upset that I had not told him this before and within a few minutes I had a special entry pass. Obviously nobody had educated this man about egalitarianism or public service. Looking back I can only say that this librarian was clearly a hindrance to society and the worst thing was that he was not alone in this business of public disservice. Twenty years later I needed to look up something at the University of Agricultural Sciences and being an alumnus decided to approach the librarian. This time I was told that I had to be a government employee to be allowed access and that if I worked in the private sector he could not let me use the library. As a tax-payer this did not go down well with me and I told him that regardless of whether I was employed or not and regardless of who paid me, he would have to treat me as he would, any other member of the public. Somehow he heeded and asked me to pay a Rs 25 library consulting fee, after which I was happy to find the book I wanted and it was in exactly the same rack it had been years earlier.
Cover in 1972

Archives and libraries unlike museums in India are not welcoming. Even the museums are often not doing as much as their counterparts elsewhere. Perhaps the greatest empowerment in recent times has been the growth of the Internet Archive. The associated Biodiversity Heritage Library project has further enriched life for lay-scholars like me and this sudden wealth of literature access make one feel like one lifetime is not enough. Incidentally, the Digital Library of India has a useful project although their website, like most Government of India websites, looks rather primitive and appears like the work of  high-school -level programmers.  They do not respond to email, so suggestions made are probably trashed. A trick to get the material into usable form is to download it (and you need to have a  hacker bent for this) and re-upload it into the Internet Archive. Last year I decided that the time had come to give back something especially as it was now possible to upload material to the Internet Archive. I bought a Canon CanoScan LIDE 200. It is an inexpensive scanner (under Rs 3000) and a piece of smart engineering. Unlike the arc-lamps of old scanners it uses an array of LEDs and sensors to do the scanning, greatly reducing heat build up and energy usage. It actually draws all its power from the single USB cord that connects it to a computer. For a while  it seemed to be locked to Windows, but I recently discovered how to get the SANE drivers working on Ubuntu and can now heartily recommend this series to home users.
Zafar Futehally (left) in 2000

The real reason for my buying the scanner however was a bunch of old material that had landed in my custody. This was gifted to me by Padmashri Zafar Futehally, and some of the material came from the collection of late Dr Gift Siromoney, a polymath at the Madras Christian College.  Some additional material had been gifted by Dr. R. K. Bhatnagar, when he was retiring from the entomology department of the Indian Agricultural Research Institute in New Delhi. Having earlier extracted information out of these pages into the BirdSpot database, my initial hope was to hand it to a library that could demonstrate that they welcomed scholars - but such an animal does not appear to exist. There are many "bibliophiles" who are interested in the physical book, the smell, the binding, the feeling of owning a non-duplicatable piece of history. In my case the piece of history I was holding was rapidly disintegrating into breakfast for Thysanura and Blattaria and my decision was to scan it even if it meant damaging the original physical form. And so several months later, working each evening after work,  had them all scanned and compiled into PDF documents. These were then subsequently uploaded into the Internet Archive. The Internet Archive runs an OCR on this and although there are errors in the process, it makes the entire text searchable and thereby giving it an edge over the hardcopy version. One can run a Google search with "keyword" to find material on the Internet Archive.
The quest in 1982

The Newsletter for Birdwatchers is a very interesting private circulation serial. Started in the mid '50s, produced using a mimeograph (or cyclostyled as known in India - usually by a hand-cranked instrument produced by a company called Gestetner) and later moving to newer printing technology, it gathered notes on birdlife from across India. Perhaps citizen science is the neologism for this but some of the observations recorded in it are significant and have even been incorporated into the second edition of the "Handbook of the Birds of India and Pakistan" - the ten volume work whose first edition was produced by Salim Ali and Sidney Dillon Ripley.

The scanned volumes of the Newsletter for Birdwatchers
[01 + (2)] [02] [03] [04]
[05] [06  + (6)] [07] [08]
[09] [10][11+(12)] [12+(4)]
[13] [14] [15] [16+(10)]
[17 (missing 1,3,8,9)] [18+(2+6)] [19+(1+7)] [20(3+4)]
[21] [22] [23] [24] (missing 1-2)
[25(5-6)+(9-10)][26+(3-4)+(7-8)] [27+(3-4)]

[Index 12-13] (Note: the frequency of publication changes)

[28(1-2)] 28(3-4) [28(5-6)] [28(7-8)] [28(9-10)] [28 (11-12)]
[29(1-2)] [29(3-4)] [29(5-6)] [29(7-8)] [29(9-10)] [29(11-12)]
[30(1-2)] [30(3-4)] [30(5-6)] [30(7-8)] [30(9-10)] [30(11-12)]
[31(1-2)] [31(3-4)] [31(5-6)] [31(7-8)] [31(9-10)] [31(11-12)]
[32(1-2)] [32(3-4)] [32(5-6)] [32(7-8)] [32(9-10)] [32(11-12)]
[33(1)] [33(2)] [33(3)] [33(4)] [33(5)] [33(6)]
[34(1)] [34(2)] [34(3)] [34(4)] [34(5)] [34(6)]
[35(1)] [35(2)] [35(3)] [35(4)] [35(5)] [35(6)]
[36(1)] [36(2)] [36(3)] [36(4)] [36(5)] [36(6)]
[37(1)] [37(2)] [37(3)] [37(4)] [37(5)] [37(6)]
[38(1)] [38(2)] [38(3)] [38(4)] [38(5)] [38(6)]
[39(1)] [39(2)] [39(3)] [39(4)] [39(5)] [39(6)]

Editorial board in 1962
It has been some time since these scans have been available on the Internet Archive. The hundreds of downloads since and numerous other untracked page views are a clear indication of how many people are interested in such content and just how many have been denied access all along is anyones guess. With material such as this becoming available, the concept of "grey literature" changes. The definition making used of the idea that it was not widely published no longer holds.  This post is meant to be a tribute to the founder of the newsletter who turns 91 tomorrow on 19 March 2011 as well as the numerous contributors, many of whom have passed. If there is anyway in which the contribution of the newsletter to Indian ornithology can be surpassed, it could only be by improving access, preferably by producing a high quality open-access-and-freely-licensed journal or database system especially for collating occurrence records and short notes.

The physical versions of the above newsletters languish with me. If there is any archive that is interested in having it I shall be happy to deposit them. Any takers?

Should anyone be interested in obtaining help on contributing scans of materials (non-copyrighted  works, unpublished manuscripts, archived notes, government of India publications or even out-of-print orphan works) or have access to the material marked as missing above and are willing to fill in the gaps, please do let me know.

8 June 2011 - Mr S Sridhar has since made the issues from 2000 onwards available here.
19 Feb 2013 - The physical versions were passed on to the library at ATREE (thanks to NA Aravind)
Some scans of clippings of newspaper articles by Zafar Futehally are now available here and here.
27 Feb 2013 - added links to some later blog posts
26 Aug 2013 - Mr Futehally passed away on the 11th of August 2013.
22 Apr 2014 - Thanks to Shanthi and Ashish Chandola, who paid for and obtained photocopies of some of the missing issues from the BNHS. These are being / have been scanned and uploaded but the quality is poor and some pages may have been missed either in photocopying are or missing in the BNHS library copies. The substantially missing issues are 17(1), 17(3), 17(8), and 17(9).

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The vanishing browns

Circa 1984 (IISc Platinum Jubilee publication)
Open habitat and bare ground is perhaps something that humans do not like. If one looks over the plains of India, (courtesy of an ATR 72) there is a striking pattern - black roads stretch over brown and yellow-green lands and where the vein-like roads meet are patches of dark profuse tree growth. Where more roads meet, these green patches are larger. The similarity to the roots of a gigantic tree or a fungal colony on a Petri dish is striking. The roots of trees or fungal mycelia help gather and centralize nutrients.  A faculty member at my university used to emphasise this movement of nutrients from the countryside through agricultural produce to get discarded in the cities thereby becoming nutrient sinks. These nutrients then enrich the vegetation within the cities.
Grass and scrub (1986, own photo)
Looking west from the northeastern edge. The two tall Araucaria trees
were favourite perches for a pair of visiting Red-necked Falcon.
These grasslands were home to jackal and hare as well.
Harriers, Black-winged Kite, Kestrels and Rollers were regulars here.

Looking back at an aerial photograph  of  the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) from 1984 tempted me to try out  the new Google Earth. The latest version has a nice history time line allowing one to see changes in cover over time. I could not help noticing the same phenomenon of human spread causing the intensification of green cover. After spending about twelve years watching birds in the campus of the Indian Institute of Science and  noting the changes, it appeared then that the birds most at risk were those of open land. In those times, the northern end of IISc with its gravelly airstrip was bordered by low grass, scrub and open land. This held breeding populations of White-throated Munia, Yellow-wattled Lapwings, Pied Bushchat, Indian Robin, Red-wattled Lapwing, Plain Prinia, Jerdon's Bushlark, Paddyfield Pipit, Indian Nightjar and Ashy-crowned Sparrow-Lark. Bordering the swimming pool where CEDT stands today was a low marshland where Baya Weaver and Tricoloured Munia could be found. While swimming in the afternoon, one just had to look up to see the occassional Painted Storks soaring above or the Brahminy Kite that nested on the Eucalyptus adjoining the pool.  The bare ground below the famous union-jack Ficus benjamina grove opposite the central office was the usual haunt of hoopoes. This was also a coppersmith hotspot. The wetland was filled up later the water draining to the Sankey Tank. The open lands got used for buildings and trees cover took over rapidly. The open land is now either built up or covered in trees and is now devoid of lapwings, larks, robins and nightjars.
Increasing green cover in campus in 2007 (Google Earth)

By 1988, the Common Iora had already been declared as locally extinct on the campus. It was however regularly seen at the Lalbagh botanical gardens and at the UAS campuses at Hebbal and GKVK. By 2000, even these places lost their Iora populations. It was said that Large-grey Babblers were found on the IISc campus in the 1960s (according to Prof. K.K. Neelakantan's notes seen by Dr S. Subramanya). In the late 1980s, the nearest locations for them were in the south near the Valley School. I have early memories  of Indian Robins that ran on the sand driveway at the entrance of the Guest House  although in the 1990s they were restricted along the northern boundary wall. These too are now no longer present, and gone also are the Plain Prinias.

Brown to green - 2010 (Google Earth)
According to BirdLife International (1994) grassland and desert birds make up 6.3 and 9.3 percent respectively of all threatened birds. That includes things like bustards, florican, cranes, coursers and others (perhaps several waders from the steppe and tundra as well).

IISc grassland (looking towards CPRI) around 1990
When habitats change, some birds leave and other birds turn up. Around 1996-97, the White-browed Bulbul, formerly absent on campus occupied habitats adjoining the Jubilee Park. In 2011, some participants of a competitive birding event photographed an Orange-breasted Green Pigeon! On a chance visit to the NIAS campus which now stands where the Yellow-wattled Lapwings nested, I saw Black-naped Orioles (and it seems to have become a regular winter visitor by 2012). In recent times there have also been cases of the Indian Grey Hornbill, another large frugivore, turning up in Lalbagh. It would demonstrate some knowledge if it was possible to predict what will go next and what would take their place as habitats change inside our campuses and cities. With the Indian Institute of Science taking over a new campus in Chitradurga, it seems like they have a clean slate to work on! Hopefully, they will use their scientific training in managing their landuse this time round.

5-Jan-2015 - The British Library has an interesting old map of Bangalore and here is how IISc aligns over it. A single tongue of water draining into Sankey tank still exists, running in front of the old CES building, beside the Sadashivanagar police station. A remnant of the long tongue that turns around Yeshwanthpur runs as ditch along the southern wall of Kendriya Vidyalaya IISc (we ran inside it as kids!).

Further reading
Himachal Pradesh from above - Google Earth - this is the post monsoon view
The green patches amid brown is probably what one sees in the dry season.