Thursday, June 28, 2018

Funding ornithology (and science) for fun and profit

I believe with Thomas Jefferson that one of the chief duties of a citizen is to be a nuisance to the government of his state. - J.B.S. Haldane, 1962
After years of editing Wikipedia entries on the biographies of ornithologists, naturalists, and examining topics in Indian natural history, it strikes me that modern scientists do not reflect enough on the history of institutionalized research. Perhaps the growth of unemployment particularly among the highly educated will have at least one positive effect by pushing more people to understand why history, economics, politics matters, and more importantly, how being a better citizen matters to science. The trouble with "citizen science" (especially in India) is that it is hard to get scientists to be good citizens.

Historically, individual achievement in ornithology has been a function of available leisure which in turn depends on wealth and financial security. It plays out in so many ways, the ability to travel, publish, read, be members of scholarly societies, and in the past to hold private collections. Institutionalizing scientific pursuit is something that began in the Victorian age - and it is a situation that has perhaps not had enough reflection among the powers-that-be. Even in colonial India the ability to institutionalize scientific pursuits depended on the kind of returns offered to the higher powers - sometimes the justifications were pretty devious - the Archaeological Survey of India (founded in 1861) was established by one enthusiastic digger, Alexander Cunningham who wrote in 1851 to W.H.Sykes (of Sykes' lark and warbler fame who had become a director in the English East India Company):
..would be an undertaking of vast importance to the Indian Government politically, and to the British public religiously. To the first body it would show that India had generally been divided into numerous petty chiefships, which had invariably been the case upon every successful invasion; while, whenever she had been under one ruler, she had always repelled foreign conquest with determined resolution. To the other body it would show that Brahmanism, instead of being an unchanged and unchangeable religion which had subsisted for ages, was of comparatively modern origin, and had been constantly receiving additions and alterations; facts which prove that the establishment of the Christian religion in India must ultimately succeed...
Knowing the land was an obvious requirement for colonial control and the surveys of land through the establishment of the Survey of India began quite early in 1767. Establishing botanical gardens (Calcutta botanical garden at Sibpur founded in 1786), the study of botany, and setting up the Botanical Survey of India (founded in 1890) was also somewhat easy considering the obvious economic value of plants and their produce. Geology, with the importance of coal for shipping and for the railways was also of obvious value and the Geological Survey of India (founded in 1851) was one of the oldest research enterprises in India. The Forest Department was established essentially to manage timber supplies for the massive needs of the railways. Medical research, sanitation and public health was something that became institutionalized thanks to rampant disease. Building scholarly societies, managing communications, creating institutional collections/museums, and printing journals were often initiated by groups of individuals. Government support usually came later, after  demonstrating longevity - as with the Asiatic Society of Bengal (founded 1784) (and the Indian Museum established in 1814). Institutions enabled the participation of people from outside the wealthy strata - a notable example in zoology being Edward Blyth although the Indian Museum's primary focus at the time of his recruitment was on antiquities - indeed Blyth lamented that he was "accused" of being an ornithologist! Entomologists managed to make a profession within applied fields relating to health and agriculture but demonstrating the utility of general zoology was hard. The Zoological Survey of India thus was only established in 1916. Their early research clearly indicates a struggle to appear to be utilitarian, with studies on such topics as the damage caused by molluscs to ships or termites to wood. Under these circumstances it seems that early pioneers of bird study in India like Allan Octavian Hume (and older ones like T.C.Jerdon, Hodgson and W.H. Sykes), who knew colonial governance intimately, probably knew that schemes to find monetary support for ornithology would not fly. They had to rely on funding their own hobby.

Salim Ali came from a reasonably well-to-do family and was able to make ornithology into a profession for himself but it definitely was not easy. A document available in the National Archives of India (and happily now available online) shows how a 1934 proposal for economic ornithology seeking funds from the government met its end. In his proposal Ali notes "the Bureau of Biological Survey is a branch of the United States Department of Agriculture which employs at great expense a permanent staff of experts to investigate, among other things, the life-histories of birds with special reference to their economic aspect... over many years, a great deal of information has accumulated which is now proving of inestimable value to Agriculture, Forestry and Horticulture, besides being of the greatest importance to pure Science." [underlined emphasis mine] Ali's proposal is fully endorsed and supported by the director of Zoological Survey of India - Baini Prashad. C.G. Trevor of the Forest Research Institute notes that the proposal is restricted in scope to agriculture and that the "entomological branch of the Forest Research Institute has full information on all that has been published on the economic ornithology of India and analysis reveals that it amounts to very little of practical importance." Ali's proposal essentially sought to work along the lines of a 1912 study by Mason and Lefroy which involved the examination of gut contents of birds. This required specialists capable of identifying insects and plant material in the gut and the skills required for this was noted by Trevor as being hard to find. The proposal was also examined by F.J.F. Shaw, the director of the Imperial Institute of Agricultural Research (now Indian Agricultural Research Institute) who forwarded it to the Imperial Entomologist (in 1935 that would have been Hem Singh Pruthi but the document is not signed). Pruthi declares that the principal investigator needs to be an entomologist and generally hints that Salim Ali was unfit to conduct the research. Shaw died of a heat stroke in 1936 and it would be safe to assume that the proposal did not get any further. Ali finally found sponsors for his research through the patronage of the Princely States - which is almost a throwback to medieval times when art and culture could only flourish under royal patronage. In the mid-1960's the ICAR finally began an all-India coordinated research project on birds but it would seem like Ali was not very closely involved. With the growth of aviation and the risk of bird-hits Ali found a new sponsor for bird research.

The only socialist / government institution in India to deal specifically with ornithology was/is the Salim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History (SACON) at Coimbatore. But it turns out that establishing institutions is the easier part. Staffing, nurturing long-term research, collaborating, communicating, demonstrating value, and building institutional values that are independent of government and personal tenure are all skills that are undocumented, intangible and ones that Indian academics seem to fail in. Rigid rules for personnel selection, qualifications, and a general lack of vision that does not see a need for a multi-disciplinarity approach ensure that such specialised government-controlled organizations fare badly or are driven into ruts.

Most of the Survey institutions were established in colonial times when universities were more for teaching than research. With the growth of universities for research, ornithological research in India did briefly do well but revolving around key personnel and often these research groups dissolved - thus there have been spurts of research on physiology, parasitology, behavioural and ecological study. How much of the funds for these studies came from the tax-payer is hard to establish but one can be safe to assume that it was insignificant as far as funds for research go. 

With the growth of neo-liberalism - the idea that the free-market will "sensibly" decide what needs to be funded it is clear that research on birds will be further threatened. Indeed it would be hard to discover what good do birds from the point of view of any potential funding industry. When most bird habitats are threatened by industry, the only potential purpose in funding would be for green-washing. Birds and the threats they face through pollution, fragmentation of habitats by roads, railways, logging, fires, human disturbances are definitely not what industrialists would like to learn about or fund.

It is in this light that calls for "citizen science" need to be evaluated even more carefully than ever before. Whether citizen science projects can help evaluate the impact of the threats to birds such as fragmentation by roads, rails and other projects is largely undemonstrated (in most cases, the systems and the databases are outright unsuited for carefully tailored data gathering) and yet these are precisely the kinds of issues where government- and industry-funded research cannot be trusted. These are the kinds of issues that ought to be examined by good "nuisance-creating" citizens.

Collecting information that directly impinges on ecosystem health cannot be left to people with leisure - indeed people with leisure are probably the ones that distance themselves most from  habitats at risk. Food for thought hopefully.

  • The part on utilitarian roots of institutionalized science in India and the problem of doing ornithology in India is largely drawn from the scheme of a talk I gave at the South London Botanical Institute, London on 11 August 2014.
  • Some years ago I tried to examine what one could learn from Victorian science in a talk at the Regional Museum of Natural History, Mysore on 7 October 2016. [Slides]
  • Salim Ali's 1935 proposal can be found online on the National Archives of India (Registration required) 
    • Identifier: PR_000003020572 
    • File number: Education And Health_Agriculture_1935_Na_F-37-6_35A
A 2017 book looks at how government support altered the field of paleontology. 
"In the 19th and early 20th centuries, North American and European governments generously funded the discoveries of such famous paleontologists and geologists as Henry de la Beche, William Buckland, Richard Owen, Thomas Hawkins, Edward Drinker Cope, O. C. Marsh, and Charles W. Gilmore. In Patrons of Paleontology, Jane Davidson explores the motivation behind this rush to fund exploration, arguing that eagerness to discover strategic resources like coal deposits was further fueled by patrons who had a genuine passion for paleontology and the fascinating creatures that were being unearthed. These early decades of government support shaped the way the discipline grew, creating practices and enabling discoveries that continue to affect paleontology today."

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 it is 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 and one that has hardly been carefully examined - mainly because the 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. A truly unbiased person would be taking a random walk, never reaching any specific destination!

  • 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)