Tuesday, February 24, 2015

The use and abuse of birds in India

It is clear that that the earliest human settlers in India would have tried various sources of food including eggs and bird meat. Finding the former or catching the latter would have required observational skills and a great deal of knowledge of bird habits. The skills required would have been far greater before the advent of fire-arms. With increased hunting, population pressures and the availability of alternate food sources these skills have been lost along along with a form of indigenous knowledge. Some of these techniques have been documented by travellers and later colonial naturalists. 

One of the earliest illustrations of hunting in India is from around 1596 in a book edited by A. Philippo Gallaeo with art by Jan Van der Straet [=Joannes Stradanus] (1596) Venationes   Ferarum,   Avium, Piscium. A copy of this treatise on hunting can be found on the wonderful French digital library. One of the less fantastic scenes is one that shows the hunting of ducks/geese from the head of the Indus river. There are numerous other techniques illustrated including the use of owls to attract mobbing birds, throw nets, clap nets and nooses, falconry, traps and deadfalls, stalking with cattle as cover.

"Anseram agreste genus stagnante in aqua capit Indus.
Ipse cucurbita habet tectum caput illecebris
Allicit: esuriens anser visas involat escae.
Indus pascentem facile capit arte volucrem." 
This describes use of cucurbits/gourds as a floating mask under which the hunter hides and swimming among the birds, he pulls them underwater. Later observers describe how earthen pots are floated in water for a few days until the birds get used to them. A hunter then swims with his head in one to get close to the birds. (Folkard, 1864)

Another plate describes fishing with what definitely appear to be pelicans. May perhaps have been practiced given that fishing with anhingas has also been reported.(Stonor, 1948)
Fishing with pelicans(?)

An account on the bird market at Lucknow published in the Pioneer and mentioned in the Western Daily Press (5 Dec 1889 p.6) has this bit on folk medicine. The brain of the male sparrow was supposed to cure various diseases. The blood of an owl was supposed to make someone who drinks it insane. Eating crow was supposed to keep your hair black and prolong life! The Indian roller was used in rites and set free after plucking a feather. The feather was worn as an amulet that warded away the evil eye. Birds of good and bad omen were apparently in great demand. 

One of the people who documented the birds involved in superstitious beliefs in southern India was Edgar Thurston. Thurston was one of the later successors of Edward Balfour at the Madras Museum, a mad enthusiast for the mix of scientific racism and physical anthropology that was in vogue in that period. Strangely enough, he seems to have joined hands with Hamilton Davey, one of A.O. Hume's associates involved with the South London Botanical Institute upon his return to England. Anyway Thurston describes some bizarre folk beliefs such as the idea that a person who saw crows copulating would die unless a close relative broke into tears. He documents a case where a boy sent his father a telegram purportedly informing the father of the son's death - so as to jerk some tears and prevent imminent death (Thurston: 69)! 

A Ba:l chhathri (horsehair nooses on a trellis)

Harper writes in 1903 on bird-catchers (and again from Lucknow!) and their technique of using jointed bamboo sticks extended slowly over a bird before catching it in the birdlime smeared on the tip. A bird-catching technique that is popularly known in the scientific literature as the "Bal-chatri" and widely used by raptor researchers has its origin in India. It is amazing that the etymology of the name of this trap was widely misquoted in literature until William S. Clark visited India and heard the correct pronunciation from some Indians and published a note on its etymology in 1992. Some of us listened to his talk in Bangalore that same year.

We have already seen the sad story of the plume trade and its impact on India.
Trafalgar Square minus its pigeons

Another story of interest is that of the pigeons. In August 2014 I visited London and walking down to Trafalgar Square I was quite surprised by the actions taken to rid it of pigeons. A little more than a century ago, pigeons became quite an obsession for a man named W.B.Tegetmeier. He was interested in living a very frugal life, a Bohemian who raced pigeons and enjoyed cock-fights until he rose into the higher rungs of the local social ladder especially through his association with Charles Darwin. Tegetmeier recognized the value of homing pigeons as carriers of messages and he was instrumental in getting the army interested. One of the offshoots of that was the setting up pigeon posts in India. The Lincolnshire Echo notes in a news piece published on 13 December 1894 that the 19th Hussars had established the Assaye Flying Club in Bangalore with the aim of demonstrating the use of homing pigeons in war. There was later on something called an India Pigeon Service in the North-West Frontier. Not many might be proud of being an I.P.S. officer today but the Lancashire Evening Post (3 August 1945) carries a report on a proud local, Sergeant T. Walker of Kendal, working with the Service in the North West Province. It states that "no patrol now leaves any of the frontier forts without pigeons as an aid to their endless watch on the activities of the warrior tribesmen." (Those warrior tribes, incidentally, were brought upon the British by the "work" of Charles Napier, whose statue also stands in Trafalgar Square)
Quail trappers with decoy birds. From Harper (1903)

One of the strategies for ridding Trafalgar Square of its pigeons was the use of falcons. Falconry, it would seem was a Persian introduction to India as it was to Europe. There is however a single claim to the contrary based supposedly on a Sanskrit text called Shyenavinod by a Raja Somabhupati and dated to 1029 AD. The original and the provenance of this text is unclear/not demonstrated and it is much more likely that this is a contemporary of Syainika Sastra (available online) translated into English in 1910 and based on Sanskrit text by a Kumaoni Raja, it turns out that this is actually dated to a post Mohammedan conquest period. The translator even notes that the Syainika Sastra uses words from Turkish and Persian. One the most detailed sources on falconry in India is by Colonel Emilius Delme Radcliffe. Radcliffe also wrote the entry on falconry in the ninth edition of Encylopaedia Brittanica. However other methods of catching birds with birds probably existed in antiquity. The use of decoy birds to attract male partridges and quails seems to be traditionally well understood.
Syainika Sastra

An extract from Edward Balfour's Cyclopaedia of India and of Eastern and Southern Asia on birds was printed separately as Birds of Eastern and Southern Asia (I had made a request for this through the Biodiversity Heritage Library and it has recently been made available online from a copy in the Natural History Museum at Tring) and it has some very interesting bits of historical (and ethno-ornithological) information. A later botanical encyclopaedist, George Watt also puts in some interesting summaries on the trade value of birds and their derivatives. I was particularly interested in the bits on guano extraction which however is included under "manures" (p. 769) which states that guano was extracted mainly from Kurnool and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands suggesting that the former was mainly bat guano and the latter mainly that of edible nest swiftlets.