Sunday, November 23, 2014

Bird protection in India - some historical bits

Observations on the decline of birds in India go back quite a bit. Given that most of us seem to see a decline in our own short spans, it seems like bird numbers and diversity were a lot higher in the past. Here are some bits and pieces from old sources on the motivations for bird protection.

Among the earliest observations of declines is one from Lucknow by George Reid who wrote in 1887. He speculates on the drought of 1877 as a cause of the decline in the populations of waterbirds. He then points out that the famine following it led to an increase in Singhara cultivation in the few wetlands left leading to a disturbance of waterbirds while also noting the disappearance of bird-trappers in the market. 
"With the average sportsman it is different. Usually one of the here-to-day-and-there-to-morrow type, he has no memories of the past to haunt him (except, perhaps, memories of another kind), and is content if he gets a shot now and again, and brings home a dozen birds composed of equal parts of teal and shovellers. Ye gods ! What a falling off is there!"
"For my part I have never even heard it whispered that wildfowl visit India in less numbers now than they did, say, ten years ago."
"The Crested Grebe, too, is another bird that has become exceeding rare in localities where formerly it was very abundant, but its scarcity now is due to another cause. Slaughtered wholesale and systematically for the sake of its beautiful skin, we now seldom see its silvery-white breast glistening in the sun. Slowly, but surely, too, our beautiful White Herons and Egrets are sharing a similar fate. A price has been put upon their feathery snow-white plumes, and man must needs debase his manhood by pandering to the insatiable vagaries or depravities of fashion." 
"If I have written strongly it is because I feel strongly on a subject that requires immediate attention. The destruction not only of Grebe, Herons, Egrets, Pheasants, &c, but of beautiful small birds of every description, is going on apace, and while the depredators are reaping a rich harvest by pilfering the nation's property—its game birds and the beautiful songsters of its woods and fields—those who ought to protect them by holding aloof are simply participating in their destruction. This state of affairs can only lead to extermination, when, of course, every one will regret the result, but—who would have thought it ? Echo then may well answer—who ?" (Hume adds an editorial footnote here - "An Act has now been passed to put a stop to this wicked and wanton destruction.")
George Reid apparently died on 16th March 1901. (A picture of his gravestone from Lucknow is here). Reid published a catalogue of the birds of the Lucknow museum. The story of the Lucknow decline does not stop there. Enter William Jesse, at the La Martiniere college, who received most of Reid's notes and wrote on the continued decline in 1902.
At the time that Reid wrote, the cultivated area was 2520 square miles, the remaining 1960 being taken up by usar plains, dhak-jungle, jheels, groves, and village sites. In the last twenty years, however, much land has been reclaimed and laid under cultivation—excellent, no doubt, from a political and economic point of view, but disastrous to the sportsman and the naturalist. Even within the last six years I have watched many of my favourite snipe-jheels replaced one by one by "smiling corn-fields," and, doubtless, as time goes on, the area of arable land will increase still further.
After identifying these habitat changes, he also points out the effect of guns:
"The principal offenders are the lower caste Hindus, Chamars, Pasis, Ahirs, and Bhatus, the Mahomedan shikari, and the poorer classes of Europeans, Eurasians, and native Christians. Numbers of gun licenses are issued in India, nominally to protect the crops; but no one, except the man who will not see, ever supposes that a native fires off shots to scare animals ; shouts and yells and hand-clapping do quite as much good, and at a far cheaper rate. Were the gun-barrels for crop-protection reduced to fifteen or eighteen inches, we should have fewer weapons slaughtering the living creatures, male, female, and young without discrimination, in and out of season."
By 1906, William Jesse seems to have become more of an activist and we see him noted as the honourable secretary of an Indian branch of the RSPB and managing a scholarship (£15) at the Meerut College. This leads us into a little bit on the RSPB and its relations to British India. The appetite for plumage in hats had resulted in significant hunting in India. It turns out that the law that Hume was referring to in his 1887 footnote was a bit of a failure. The Wild Birds' Protection Act of 1887 apparently did not do much to prevent smuggling, in fact it was so profitable a trade that it became a routine matter of bribery. As for Jesse's Indian SPB chapter, it was just one of three. There was in 1899 one in Bombay with the secretary E. Comber and another at Junagadh under Labhshankar Laxmidas. Jesse's unit was started a year later in 1900 (Palmer, 1903).

Jesse's note also points out rather tangentially that there was a certain amount of traditional protection to the wild birds provided by the sentiments of locals. He complains:
The native press has only to hint that the Indian is being-unfairly treated to call forth a storm of indignant protest from well-meaning people in England who are totally ignorant of the East and its ways, and are unable to form a proper estimate of the views of both parties. The European is constantly being forbidden to interfere with certain species which the native cherishes, and it does not seem too much to ask that he in in turn should be made to refrain from destroying birds and animals wholesale during the breeding-season. -  Ibis 44(3):478

As for traditional protection, there appear to have been rules among native trappers. Lt.Col. Phillott notes Kashmiris who used heron plumes in their wedding headgear would be allowed to trap on the condition that they would pluck the feathers and release the bird.

The Society for the Protection of Birds was started in 1889 with mostly wealthy ladies as members. A rule was that "Lady-Members shall refrain from wearing the feathers of any bird not killed for purposes of food, the ostrich only excepted". In 1904, the Society was granted a royal charter and got its Royal prefix. They also received support from several ornithologists, including Alfred Newton. The Society published many pamphlets and among them was "The Protection of Wild Birds in India" by Surgeon-General George Bidie.* Bidie was in the Madras Medical Service and a successor to Edward Green Balfour at the Madras Museum. He was also a bit of an ornithologist (among many interests including studies on the coffee stem borer in Coorg, the influence of trees on climate) and contributed to the Stray Feathers (where his initials appear to have been misprinted) 

"F. Bidie" = George Bidie (Stray Feathers 9:208)
Bidie seems to have been one of the early members of the RSPB who were working out of India. He seems also to have been quite active in the creation of the laws for bird protection. In 1879, the Madras government had passed some protection laws, a game law, that oddly enough protected exotics and aimed "to provide for the protection of game and acclimatized fish in the district of the Nilgiris." There was also an older Elephant Preservation Act 1873 (& 1879). Balfour provides some information on the scale of the feather trade in the Madras Presidency while George Watt's book provides some idea of the species involved in the plumage trade. 
(1911) Feathers and Facts. RSPB.

"India exported during the trade year 1900-1, £ 9029 worth of feathers and £ 1148155 worth of skins, the later not, of course, all bird skins. That the agitation against hte humanity of the trade has taken effect is shown by the facts that in the year 1896-7 the value of the feather export was £370,990, and that in the year 1897-8 the value of the skin export was £6,935,320." (Daily Mail quoted in Western Daily Press 26-Nov-1902 p. 7 "Bird Protection in India")

The problem with the 1887 law was that it did not prevent the smuggling of skins which had great value in Britain. 

One of the plumes termed as "osprey", actually the nuptial plumes from an egret, was a particularly valuable commodity. It was even part of standard army hat until it was removed by an order passed, thanks to the activists of the RSPB.
The amazing device of the "artificial osprey" is another phase. During twenty years this stratagem wan employed to dispose of Egret plumes to women who did not wish to wear them. It was blazoned abroad in face of repeated exposure from scientific men ; and hundreds of young women in stored and shops were hidden to utter the falsehood and keep up the fraud. All manner of materials were deliberately cited as composing these indubitable feathers ; they were flatly affirmed to be made in factories that were never located, by workers who never existed. The deception was such as to discredit fatally any honest imitation which might be put on the market. A further illustration of the same phase is furnished by the story of imaginary egret "farms," where birds were said to be bred for plumage; of "moulted plumes" which whitened imaginary plains and were avowed to supply the sale-room ; - Bird notes and news
In 1900 there was also a review of the 1887 Act - and the conclusion was that it was a failure since the law applied prohibitions only around towns and cantonments. There was nothing to protect birds in rural areas. It is interesting also that the British government collaborated with the Portuguese in Goa and the French in Pondicherry to prevent smuggling of bird feathers. (Dodsworth)

The Abu Wild Birds Protection Law, 1889

The idea that egrets could be farmed without harming wild bird populations apparently went on for a while and we see a note published in 1914 by George Birch which shows egrets held in cages.

A shocking description is provided by Dodsworth (1910):
From all parts of the country came the same cries of destruction and diminution, which amounted to virtual extermination. Of Impeyan and Argus pheasants throughout the Himalaya, of Peacocks and Black Partridges from Bombay, of Egrets from Sind and Burma and of a host of others including Jungle-cocks, Paddy-birds, Kingfishers, Jays. and Orioles throughout India g enerally. So lucrative was the trade that single districts such as Lucknow in the United Provinces, and Amritsar in the Punjab contributed between them nearly 16,000 Lbs. of plumage annually. Taking as an average 30 skins to the pound, the figures indicated the destruction of nearly five hundred thousand birds in a single year from two districts alone! From Bombay it was reported that a single Railway Station to the north of Sind had exported within a few months 30,000 skins of Black  Partridges, and that over many square miles in the Rohri Division these birds had, within two seasons, been absolutely exterminated by a single  party of professional trappers. Various other reports showed that birds  were netted and trapped, not by thousands, but by millions, without any  regard to season or sex. 
Dodsworth notes further that a "notification, No. 5028 S. R., dated the 10th September 1902, was issued. under the Sea Customs Act, 1878, (VIII of 1878), prohibiting the taking by sea or by land out of British India of skins and feathers of all birds other than domestic birds, except (1) feathers of ostriches, and (2) skins and feathers exported bona fide as specimens illustrative of Natural History. As this prohibition was issued without notice or warning, a large number of representations were received, notably from a trader in Simla, who had in stock skins of Impeyans and black Argus to the value of Kb. 6,000, and from two firms in Calcutta who had in hand 6,000 skins of Impeyan and Argus pheasants, and six cases of Kingfishers' feathers, and to enable them to dispose of their stocks, and to wind up their businesses, the operation of the orders was suspended until the 1st January 1903."

Rhodes Morgan, District Forest officer of North Malabar notes that the White-throated Kingfisher was snared almost to extermination. He noted seeing 5000 skins in a case at Steven's auction rooms sold at sexpence a skin. (Cheltenham Chronicle 27 February 1892, p. 10)

A letter in the  Calcutta Review (1891) volume 92-93:391-406 (by "Young Nimrod") notes a claim by John Rudd Rainey (owner of Khulna Estate, who also wrote about the Sunderbans) that many farmers would sell off ploughs and bullocks and obtain a gun and ammunition as the earnings from bird shooting could be Rupees 200 in three months.

James Buckland, a prominent writer and activist who led the cause of bird protection is quoted as having said:
"As an object lesson on the respect which the feather-dealer pays to the wishes of India—or of any other country, for the matter of that—that she may be allowed to keep her own birds for the benefit of her agriculture and of her people, it may serve a useful purpose to let you know that the plumage of all that is held most sacred in Hindu mythology, all that is most prized for beauty or utility, in the wild-bird life of India, is, to this hour, smuggled out of that country and sold in the London feather mart." - Bird-lore (1914):76-79.
In a news piece in the Exeter and Plymouth Gazette 30 April 1925 (p.5) runs a piece titled "Late Lord Curzon and Bird Life":
In the many tributes paid to Marquis Curzon little or nothing has been said of his love for Nature and his fine work for the preservation of birds. He was the first Statesman, says the spring number of "Bird Notes and News," to bring within range of practical politics the suppresion of the trade in wild birds' skins and feathers. It was in 1900 that the newly formed Indian branch of the Society for the Protection of Birds appealed to Lord Curzon, then Viceroy, on the subject, and the result of his investigation was the Order of 1902 prohibiting the exportation of bird skins and plumage from British India. On his return to England Lord Curzon became a Vice-President of the Society, and made a most powerful speech on the plumage question at its annual meeting in 1913; a Cabinet Committee was subsequently appointed and a Government Bill introduced. A donation from Lord Curzon also headed the Society's fund for erecting bird rests at lighthouses which have saved the lives of many thousands of feathered travellers.

A news piece from 1900 reads:
An Eye for Beauty

Lord Curzon has found it necessary to be very chary in granting permits to shoot to privates in the Indian Army. It appears that Tommy's first idea is to shoot peacocks when he gets into the jungle. Unfortunately, although noble sport, owing to the fact that the peacock is a sacred bird in India, the immediate result of potting one of them is to produce an uprising among the natives. Consequently (says the "Court Journal") only those men who are known to possess strength of mind enough to resist a peacock are to be granted shooting permits. (p. 3. South Wales Echo 12 December 1900)

Punch Magazine, as usual had its wisdom in the form of a poem and a cartoon in September 17, 1887.

A Plea for the Birds.
(To the Ladies of England)

Lo! the sea-gulls slowly whirling
Over all the silver sea,
Where the white-toothed waves are curling,
And the winds are blowing free.
There's a sound of wild commotion,
And the surge is stained with red;
Blood incarnadines the ocean,
Sweeping round old Flamborough Head.

or the butchers come unheeding
All the torture as they slay,
Helpless birds left slowly bleeding,
When the wings are reft away.
There the parent bird is dying,
With the crimson on her breast,
While her little ones are lying
Left to starve in yonder nest.

What dooms all these birds to perish,
What sends forth these men to kill,
Who can have the hearts that cherish
Such designs of doing ill?
Sad the answer: English ladies
Send those men, to gain each day
What for matron and for maid is
All the Fashion, so folks say.

Feathers deck the hat and bonnet.
Though the plumage seemeth fair,
Punch, whene'er he looks upon it,
Sees that slaughter in the air.
Many a fashion gives employment
Unto thousands needing bread,
This, to add to your enjoyment,
Means the dying and the dead.

Wear the hat, then, sans the feather,
English women, kind and true;
Birds enjoy the summer weather
And the sea as much as you.
There's the riband, silk, or jewel,
Fashion's whims are oft absurd;
This is execrably cruel;
Leave his feathers to the bird!

"Bird of prey" - Punch, 14th May 1892
The Extinction of Species - Punch Magazine 6 September 1899

Punch being anti-elite in its subscriber base must have also contributed to conservation through the use of the class differences and prejudices of the more numerous working class against the smaller wealthy class.

The history of the conservation of bird habitats is less well documented. It seems like many heronries have been traditionally protected in southern India (and not as hunting reserves for rulers). These include Ranganathittu (referred to as the colony near Palahally or Seringapatam in older literature) and Vedanthangal.


Other links
* Another pamphlet published by the RSPB was India and her Wild Birds by Sir Charles Lawson


  • Just finished reading a verbose newspaper account - SNIPE SHOOTING AT BANGALORE. (Western Times, 23 March 1839. p. 2) - 302 pairs of snipe shot in 23 days around the cantonment area by J. R. S....Y, A south hammer (nicknamed Devon) as a bet.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Catching flies

A botanical mystery

In southern India, the idiom "catching flies" refers to idling. It is hard to find a reliable source for that! Many years ago Zafar Futehally wrote about the flycatchers in a newspaper article that was titled "It's hard work catching flies". In the course of some idle browsing, I discovered this interesting bit from the pen of an Indian Medical Service officer, someone who clearly had some spare time for thoughts beyond the call of duty. Science as pastime was so common for them that they even had a journal for it - and we can all thank the National Library of Scotland for making these available online.

Scientific memoirs by medical officers of the Army of India

From the Scientific memoirs by medical officers of the army of India (1887)

I have spent a fair bit of time trying to understand its significance but it seems that someone should re-examine this. I know Wrightia tinctorea but not Wrightia coccinea. In the process of reading this I had to re-examine what I knew of insects and flowers. This resulted in my creating a Wikipedia article to cover the subject of trap flowers,  rewardless and deceitful pollination - - but it still leaves the question open - is this really a case of a trap flower? Or is proto-carnivory?

Further reading

Monday, October 6, 2014

An artist ahead of his time

As someone interested in the birds of India and the history of their study, I decided to make best use of a brief visit to the UK in August 2014 to see the Hodgson and Tickell archives at the Zoological Society of London. I was not prepared for the surprise it held for me and it was clear that too little had been written about these works, particularly in a medium that was accessible to the people of South Asia who ought to know more about this legacy. My three hour perusal threw up many questions that need further research and it seemed worthwhile for me to leave some comments for future researchers.

A bust of Hodgson in the library of the Natural History Museum, London.
Oddly, this bust is not mentioned in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
This bust was bequeathed by Mrs Hodgson in 1913 to the museum.
"...It must also be remembered that, while Gould himself was a skilled craftsman, many of the books that bear his name were illustrated by others, including H.C. Richter, Edward Lear and Joseph Wolf. Indeed, some would regard the last-named as the greatest bird illustrator, particularly in his birds of prey, which combine accuracy with power. One must, I think, qualify this statement by 'of the western world', because the bird paintings from India and China surpass anything that the West has yet produced, and only these, perhaps, come in the category of great art.- David Lack, Review of Fine Bird Books, 1700-1900 in New Statesman 1953, reprinted in Enjoying Ornithology. p. 176

For years, I have wondered what those examples of Indian art might be that Lack saw as superior to the work of someone like Joseph Wolf and I finally have a candidate. Having seen other works from India belonging to the Mughal and Company schools of art, the claim seemed inaccurate. Most of the pictures of this period are flat, lacking perspective and often too small to be accurate. The draft drawings by Hodgson's artist(s) in the 1850s are however entirely different and do indeed rival the best works (including for example, those by Joseph Wolf) of the period, not only in artistry but for the care taken in capturing accurate postural detail from life.
Have you got the latest batch of drawings - twenty two sheets? And are they not wondrous work for a Nipalese? I have some more now executing which I dare any artist in Europe to excel and they are rigidly correct in their minutest detail.- Hodgson to James Prinsep cited in Datta & Carol, 2004, p. 138.

I only examined some bird plates in Volume I of Hodgson’s folios (of 8 volumes, 1125 sheets on birds and 487 on mammals [Cocker & Inskipp (1988):33-34]) and it is clear that these paintings are drafts, but they probably offer more for the researcher than clean final plates (the ones held at the Natural History Museum, which I have not seen). It might help if the draft versions and the final scanned images can be brought side-by-side to compare the styles and corrections incorporated. The draft illustrations in the ZSL are particularly interesting because of the numerous notes and corrections around the images as well as on the back of the sheets. These offer insights into the nature of the collaboration between Hodgson and his native assistants.

?चुरि थे?/ हे?. भौरा वास - some association with bees? for Microhierax

तरि वास - “inhabitant of the terai”

(Plate 40) A typical plate with multiple views, anatomical insets, notes. [Image rights belong to the ZSL]
Inset showing structure of sternum, furcula, toes and wing emargination details [Image rights belong to the ZSL]

Morphometric notes taken by the artist

मादिन (female)
  • चुच् से पुछ (bill) tip to tail
  • चुच् मुख से (bill) tip from face
  • चुच् माथ से (bill) tip from forehead
  • दीचा ? दीचा=ऊँचा =height of bill (A.Pittie)
  • चौरा - width (of what?)
  • पुछ tail
  • दाहिना (right? [what?])
  • फैलाई spread (wing span) (Sanyukta)
  • गोर
  • अंगुली नखसमेत toe with nail
  • पिछे अंगुलि rear toe
  • वजन weight

* the script used is not modern Devanagari. It appears to be somewhat similar to “Kaithi” as described by Eastwick but does not seem to match the description of Grierson.

Close up of the head of Falco peregrinus peregrinator - detail even in the pattern on the iris (and this is a draft)
[Image rights belong to the ZSL]
Hodgson published several notes on anatomy in the Journal of the Asiatic Society, particularly relating to mammals such as the red panda, Ailurus and the pygmy hog, Porcula. In a paper on Elanus (which he refers to in the text by its native name of Chanwa [Hodgson, 1837a]) published in the Madras Journal of Literature and Science, he shows some interest in the use of anatomical traits for bird classification. His foundations of taxonomy were based on the Quinarian system of Swainson which believed in a hidden order followed by the Creator, one based on a repeating pattern involving the magic number of five. The same Elanus paper is also interesting in that Hodgson explores behavioural similarities for the purpose of classification. It is possible that he never published such notes in the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal where he would probably have deferred to Edward Blyth as the expert. Many of the illustrations include peripheral sketches of the furcula, sternum, tongue and feet. He was certainly well aware of the use of comparative anatomy in classification, but it seems like he trained his artist to look at these aspects as well.

Caption for illustration of Porcula salvania

लुफा भोटिया वॉली (? Bhotia valley dialect - see postscript) छोटा जंगली सुवर (small jungle pig) साल वन वास (dweller of Sal forests)

There were several script variations in use in Nepal and India in the mid-1800s. As someone with a working knowledge of Hindi, Sanskrit and modern Devanagari script, I was readily able to follow most of the writings and to understand the content. The fact that I was among the few that could read it indicated that these artefacts were not available to those who could appreciate it and to my mind there must be no shortage of interest particularly in the South Asian region. Based on the success of several online crowd-sourced transcription systems, one can expect that these can be readily transcribed if scans of the material were available online.

Here the artist notes that the species is found only in winter (and migratory) [Image rights belong to the ZSL]
The number in red is 789 and can be traced to Aquila imperialis in the catalogue (1846)

Reading through these notes one finds most often a statement on the habitat of the bird at its foot. They sometimes include one or more local names and sometimes notes on seasonality which make use of the English month-names transcribed in Nepali. Hodgson often made use of the distinctive local names in his scientific publications. He was perhaps among the few ornithologists in the region to incorporate local names into his proposed binomial names. Examples of these include his genera Sacfa, Lerwa, Cochoa and such species names as "salvania" (for little pig of the “sal van” or sal forests as in Porcula salvania). He was also, of course, among the major opponents of Lord Macaulay's idea of education through the medium of English and making his opinions known through such notes as his "The Preeminence of the Vernaculars, or the Anglicists answered". His use of local names to form binomials however did have opponents (mainly Jerdon) and he was forced to offer substitute classical names in 1841:
Although I think the prevalent humour of the day, which cannot tolerate any other than Greek and Roman names of genera in Zoology, is, in good part, absurd and pedantic, yet as I am told that continued non-compliance therewith on my part will be considered by most persons as a sort of excuse for past and future appropriations of my discoveries in this branch of science, as described in your Journal, I have now the pleasure to transmit to you a series of classical substitutes for my previous local designations. - Hodgson, 1841

The habitat notes include generalizations such as "always found in the mountains" or "always found in the Terai" which suggest that these are based either on the artist who had intimate knowledge of the bird or a hunter. Carol Inskipp pointed out that the artist and the hunter were different people. That Hodgson had trained hunters to collect specimens, we know from the notes of J.D.Hooker published in the biography by W.W.Hunter. He had to use hunters to obtain specimens from some areas as there were restrictions on his travel. [Cocker & Inskipp (1988):27-28] We do not know the identity of the artists for the specific plates, although it may have been Rajman Singh. There are however two styles in the depiction of the eyes in the birds which suggests more than one artist being involved. On the back of each plate, one finds a table of measurements. These were clearly made by the artist to aid in drawing the bird to scale, however the measurement also includes weight. It is clear that the plates were made to scale, and noted in Gray’s catalogue for each plate associated with specimens. On most pages, this table of measurements is translated into English presumably by Hodgson, however this does not appear to have been done with care. On one plate, matching by the unique numeric measurements, I found that the [peeche ka ungli] (=hind toe) measurement was copied into English against “weight”. This comes as a bit of a surprise given that Hodgson was an eminent orientalist and Tibetan scholar, but we see in some of his Asiatic Society notes that he had someone else do the transcriptions in Devanagari.

Plate 35. A different artist? Note feather shapes and highlight of eye. 

Hodgson was interested in local research on the flora and fauna and it was quite clear that he did not enjoy the fact that most of the ornithological expertise, based only on skins and no field knowledge, at that point of time was in London (or Paris). He complained quite openly about this:

...Whilst the face of our land is darkened with skin-hunters, deputed by learned Societies to incumber science with ill-ascertained species, no English zoological association has a single travelling naturalist in India; nor has one such body yet sought to invigorate local research, numerous as now are the gentlemen in India with opportunities and inclination for observation such us need but the appropriate aid of those bodies to render the investigations of these gentlemen truly efficient towards all the higher ends which the Societies in question are constituted to forward !" - Hodgson, 1837b

Is there then a possibility that Hodgson wished to include the names of the birds in Nepal for a work on birds that would also aid the people of Nepal? The book he wished to produce did not get enough subscribers in any case. [Cocker & Inskipp (1988):35] Carol Inskipp pointed out to me that the idea seems unlikely given the cost of producing such a work apart from noting that the final plates lack the Nepali notes.

Structural details, relative positions of the feathers -
line of scapulars and tertiaries indicated
[Image rights belong to the ZSL]

The notes and corrections on shape pencilled over or alongside the paintings are also quite revealing. Plate 155 showing the Black Baza is particularly interesting. The feather patterning is shown with great care (a biography of Joseph Wolf for instance points out that prior to him, raptors were drawn with many errors in feather patterning - however as pointed out earlier the ancient Egyptians were exceptionally good artists) and along the edge there are line marks indicating the end of the scapulars and the line of the tertiaries and it seems to me to be one of the earliest illustrative works that takes structural differences into account. Modern field guides of course routinely make use of such relative positions of the wing tip and tail for identification. Plate 161 has a note that the colour of the iris is conjectured to be brown. This being the rare exception, one would presume that all others were made from either live or freshly killed birds as mentioned in Gray's 1846 catalogue (also in the 1863 second edition, preface ii).

The way the highlight of the eye is drawn to produce a lively effect is done in style that could be specific to the artist. Some of the earlier (by numbering) paintings show a very different style, sometimes seemingly off-scale. These appear to be the work of a different or less well-trained artist. The toes on the feet are always drawn with good perspective, and they stand in contrast to the art of the same period in the so-called Company style [Archer, 1964] of art (compare the positions of the toes for instance in the works of Shaikh Zain al-Din or Bhawani Das for Impey)

There is clearly a lot to be examined and discussed but making the material accessible to researchers in other parts of the world would be a great step to take.

Image rights notice

All images other than the bust of Hodgson are property of the Zoological Society of London and may not be copied or used in any other publication without the prior permission of the Society. These images are reproduced here with the kind consent of the Zoological Society of London.

I am grateful to the ZSL for permission to view their holdings, librarians Michael Palmer, Emma Milnes and particularly Ann Sylph for her encouragement and assistance. Carol Inskipp provided many comments and insights from her earlier studies of the paintings. In no particular order - Ganesh Paudel, Nepal; Dr Jaysankar Jayaraman (CIFT, Kochi), Aasheesh Pittie and Lathashree Kolla (and her friends) helped in understanding the writings and the nature of the script. Wikimedia Foundation, USA supported my visit to London to attend Wikimania 2014; and Wikimedia UK's work at the ZSL was useful in making me plan my visit.


4-November-2014: I discovered a line of text by Hodgson where he calls S.R. Tickell as his brother-in-law. A little further digging, aided by Henry Noltie, led to the fact that Hodgson's brother William who was in Bengal was married to Samuel Tickell's sister Mary Rosa. William died in 1840 and Mary went back to England and remarried. Tickell was an excellent artist and was with Hodgson in Nepal and it is possible that he may have worked with Hodgson's artists. Of course his wife Ann Scott was also a bit of an artist as indicated in his description of Sacfa hodgsoniae (dedicated to his wife "... whose accurate and tasteful delineations of Himalayan scenery will do much to attract attention to this fine field of scientific research.")

3-March-2015: Noticed that Hume had access to many of Hodgson's paintings and he uses a few anatomical ones in his notes on flycatchers (mentioned in the Yarkand notes - with Henderson).

17-July-2016: K. Ramnarayan pointed out to me that what I had interpreted as Bhotia valley could be Bhotia boli which is Bhotia dialect. He pointed out that there is an ambiguity in b and v in the central Himalayas. This seems to be a good match as this is indicated next to the local names indicated.

26-April-2016: The Calcutta Journal of Natural History has been digitized by the Biodiversity Heritage Library and in its pages are several illustrations of interest.
"Admirable illustrations from the pencil of my Newar artist are subjoined in this paper, and they are the more necessary in that this species has never been depicted, and that the only other species or Gracilis, is miserably distorted in Horsfield's delineation. I have added some organic illustrations of the genus from the same skilful pencil." [Hodgson - Observations on the manners and structure of Prionodon pardicolor, Calcutta Journal of Natural History 8: 40–45. (1847)]
14-December-2016 : Discovered a lithograph printed in the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal that actually includes credits to Raj Man Singh. A number of art-works accompanying Hodgson's papers appear exactly like Raj Man Singh's works but carry only the names of the lithographers (and skip the artist). This Petaurista nobilis and another species of Petaurista from 1843 stands out.

22-October-2018 : Noticed this piece by Hodgson - where he supports the use of the local name of "Maina" - "The Indian Stares [Starlings] seem to have perplexed systematists most wo[e]fully, though, I fancy, there is not one of us exiles 'in the land of the sun,' but readily recognises the propriety of the native genus Maina." - Hodgson, B.H. (1836). "Additions to the ornithology of Nepal". Journal of the Asiatic Society. 5: 770–781.


Grierson's script illustration
Eastwick's script illustration

More links to explore

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Naming the birds

Linnaeus apparently trumps internet popularity measures. I needed some easy visual depictions of bird taxonomy and suddenly found that things I had known to work no longer did. ManyEyes told me that my browser had an outdated Java VM. Updating it led to an error claiming that my security settings were too stringent (the dataset exists). Then I found Tableau Public

For the data, I went to the IOC worldbird names list (4.2) and downloaded the XLS file. I deleted the blank lines, the genus lines and retained only the subspecies for polytypic forms and the main species line for those that were monotypic. I then took the author column, removed the brackets, split it so that the year went to another field and then I was able to quickly produce a few visuals. Note however that this depicts the authors of the names and that usually refers to the descriptions of the species. The exceptions are when names are revived or when replacement names are used.

An interactive version (updated 9 July 2014)

Here are a few snapshots that look interesting. Remember that this is species/subspecies (genus descriptions are not included).

The biggest bird namers

The big bird namers by decade

The big namers in the biggest decades using a treemap

If species distributions are included, it might make for some more interesting views. It would likely show how the dominant contributions move from Asia to Africa and then to the New World tropics.

PS: There is definitely a login related problem on Tableau Public. It works intermittently so success perhaps depends on the load on the web-server.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

A not-so-great hedge

Many would have heard about the "Great Hedge of India" or the book on it by Roy Moxham. This was supposedly a British innovation started in 1803, meant primarily to block the free movement (a.k.a. "smuggling") of salt so as to be able to impose a salt tax or customs duty. It was also referred to as the  "Customs Hedge" (e.g. in Hume's Nests and Eggs ... ). The idea of live hedges appears however to be much older in India and is probably lifted from the Mysore and Madras regions.

Bound-Hedge, s. A corruption of boundary-hedge, and applied in old military writers to the thick plantation of bamboo or prickly-pear which used to surround native forts.
 1792-"A Bound Hedge, formed of a wide belt of thorny plants (at Seringapatam)."- Wilks, Historical Sketches, iii. 217. [Hobson-Jobson]

Dr. M.B. Krishna recently forwarded an old map of Bangalore (from the British Library collection)  made in 1800 by a certain James Ross (more on this man in the footnote) under the command of Colin Mackenzie (who pops up yet again!) and it shows a nearly circular hedge marked as the "Bound Hedge of the Cusba of Bangalore". A little research showed that this defence was a widespread practice in the Mysore and Coromandel regions. Large cacti and some Euphorbia patches are found around the Nandi Hills and Savandurga and it is possible that some of them are really old remnants worthy of special protection. The hedge around Bangalore is perhaps less known.

Here is the relevant part of this very interesting map. The lake at the top with the bund along the road is presumably Hebbal lake. "Yesmunjepoor" is probably Yeshwanthpur.

The Bound Hedge of the Cusba of Bangalore (1800)

It seems like Bangalore just grew over this leaving no remnants of this hedge. It would seem like the hedge either passed through or went very close to the campus of the Indian Institute of Science. There were some patches of Acacia and bad land that may have been part of this but it is also likely that some of these were cleared up to become parts of roads that we have today. 

Looking up more on this "bound hedge" led to several bits and it seems to be very specific to India. Most deal with the "bound hedge" around Tipu's fort at Srirangapatnam or the one around Pondicherry. Sidney (1868) writes about the "bound hedge" around Madras, which apparently was being extended around 1758 according to Barlow (1921) but may have been even older as it finds mention in 1748 in the diary of Ananda Ranga Pillai.

It is said that the town of Conjevaram was surrounded by a bound hedge "chiefly of agave americana" (Hamilton, 1820) but that sounds like an unlikely jump for a New World plant for that point of time. For a more detailed botanical description of the bound hedge at Srirangapatnam, see Pennant:

"The Bound hedge, the frequent concomitant of the fortresses of Hindoostan, appears here in great strength. It is the practice in the Polygar system of defence, and copied by the civilized natives from the wild warriors of the forests. Of the latter, the fort of Calicoil and that of Palam Courchy are strong examples.... These local defences are formed of every thorny tree or caustic plant of the climate. Palmira trees, or the Borassus flabelliformis, are the primary. These are planted to the depth of from thirty to fifty feet. In the interstices of the trees, which are very closely placed, are confusedly sown or set, the following plants. Pandanus odoratissimus, or wild pine; see my preceding volume, p.241; Cactus tuna, Euphorbia Tiraculla, or milky hedge. The juice of this is so caustic as to scald not only the human skin, but the hide of a horse, on whom it may fall in forcing through this infernal hedge. Several other sorts of Euphorbia; The Aloe littoralis of Koenig, Convolvulus muricatus, and other Convolvuli. The Mimosa cinerea, horrida, instia, and another, as yet undescribed, armed with most dreadful thorns. The Guiliadina unite their powers; intermixed is the Guiliadina Bonducella, G. bonduc, and another not laid before the public, to which Koenig gives the epithet lacinians, which it fully merits. The Calamus rotang, or rattan, and the Arundo bambo, often assist in the impenetrability. The last is remarked to be admirable for the purpose, since nothing equals it in resisting the edge of the ax, or the subtile fury of fire. ..."
Note: I have unfortunately not yet actually read Moxham's book and would like to know if he mentions bound hedges. There is also apparently an MS by William Sargeant on the topic.

25 May 2014: James Ross (aged 23) was apparently someone who ran afoul of his superiors. He was one among several "Native boys" (India born Europeans) who had been trained at the surveying school in Madras. He was accused of several misdeeds during his service. Hunting instead of doing his work, mistreating servants and others and last but not least of seducing a dancing girl at Nanjangud. His superior John Mather ordered him to release the girl from the home the pair had been found in and Ross threatened violence. Ross was finally sent back to Madras with an armed escort! (Robb, 1998)

October 2014: I met Roy Moxham in London on 11 August 2014 and he was aware of bound-hedges.

Further reading

Monday, April 14, 2014

Hideous and patent symmetry

Urban parks such as the ones in Bangalore are largely controlled by the BBMP, who in turn contract it to vicious, uninnovative, and exploitative contractors who then use underpaid "gardeners" (usually a family that has been displaced from rural areas due to the lack of jobs, indebtedness or other problems). The parks themselves begin as a little plot of land that lies under high-voltage electricity lines or has been set aside  because of other legal obstacles to sale. The work begins by using equipment to level the ground, followed by a fence, typically a rectangular path, a central lawn, a flower borders, a bunch of concrete seats, circular gazebos and so on. The whole thing is so clichéd, so "hideous" that it is hard to begin a criticism. The problem is that alternative visions are so rare, yet they exist in many places. There is (or at least was, maybe it is called Chittoor Reserve Forest) a wonderfully wild park not too far outside the town of Chittoor that I thought was quite interesting in the way it had been let to go wild. There are similar wilderness areas in many small towns, but larger cities seem to have a way to destroy them. The usual approach involve the removal of existing vegetation, addition of exotic annuals for their flowers. The removal of undergrowth, artificial surfacing of paths, the inclusion of a very stereotypical playground, excessive lighting (powered by an undue fear of snakes) and various other actions that if avoided would have left the place far more satisfying to the urban dweller who needs a little bit of wild nature. The cost involved in enriching a place is actually zero, but because there is money to be made, there are hordes of people on the line waiting to destroy the few accessible wilderness areas - and why would they event want to be creative! This idiocy is not limited to city governments alone, the beautiful scrub forest of about 1800 ha of the GKVK campus of the University of Agricultural Sciences in Bangalore has been destroyed right under the eyes and noses of extremely knowledgeable and sensible people. Numerous species of insects have their type locality as GKVK. 
Saving even the campuses of educational institutions is a fight against the powerful

I was recently made aware of a beautiful essay by the great Indian naturalist M. Krishnan that, sadly enough, is not sufficiently well-known. It makes for such a lovely reading even fifty years on and it is clear that few people listen or learn. Thanks to Shanthi and Ashish Chandola for sharing the original which I post here. While modern writers talk about active processes like "rewilding", Krishnan uses a more passive term.


The Sunday Statesman 
March 7 1954
M. Krishnan's Country Notebook

If I had a five acre plot of outlying cultivation as so many ryots have, a stony field at the foot of a hill or the edge of the scrub that would gradually repay the effort of reclamation, I would not make the effort. I would abandon my field to weeds and shrubs, even help it actively to run wild, and count myself as much a patriot as the man who, by sustained toil, adds it on to the struggling agriculture of our grain-hungry country.

And if I lived in a mansion set in an immaculate garden, with lawns and smooth paths and every annual in place, or if I were in charge of a spotless city park laid out in a geometrical pattern and with ornamental trees in rows - why, then too I would let my garden or park run wild, in part at least, and encourage thick bushes festooned with greedy creepers and the rank undergrowth.

I would do these things from no sense of cussedness or ennui, but because in a small way I would be contributing towards a less sterile life. We can grow more food by less wastefully extensive agriculture-an incredible extent of countryside is cut up and wasted by our loose agriculture and communications. And in towns and cities one can no longer find a bit of wasteland, leave alone woodland. Even the bird life of these places has been banished by an ugly craze for ferro-concrete architecture and tidy, well-tamed gardens.

In the old days urban gentlemen lived in bungalows with large, tree-filled compounds, and it was part of their gentlemanliness not to bother overmuch about the further reaches of their domain. Today the urban rich, when they do have a bit of garden space, have flowering trees near the road and rectangular lawns in front of the house in herbaceous borders; cannas flank the drive and crotons in pots decorate the portico, and if there is a plot in the backyard they grow anaemic tomatoes in it.

Our public parks display a hideous and patent symmetry; wide, hard paths intersect one another at right angles, rows of flaming Cassias and Poincianas stand stiffly in attention, there are sandpits and short-mown lawns for the children and concrete benches for older visitors. There is not enough undershrub and bushes anywhere to tempt a mongoose to stay or a warbler to nest. There is no lebensraum for the lesser fauna even.

Off and on, during the past thirty years, I have watched the bird life and lesser beasts of a city area dwindle and vanish, and I know at first hand how our extensive agriculture can drive out wild life in rural areas.

Even now it is not too late, if we follow a sensible plan of non-reclamation in the countryside and encourage gentlemanly neglect in city gardens and parks, to bring back the charm of wild life to these places. What many people (including enthusiasts for our fauna) do not realize is the power of nature to recoup, left to itself. The following extract from an editorial in The Times (London) of Dec 18, 1953, is significant:-

"Many cities in Britain have their acres of bomb-devastated land, once covered with houses but now overgrown with vegetation. Thee are places of great interest to naturalists; they can see what plants most readily and most permanently colonize ground on which no plants have grown, perhaps, for centuries past. Not only plants but also insets and birds and even mammals have been demonstrating how nature pours into any vacuum that is offered, and then stages a battle there for survival... In all, 269 kinds of wild flowers have now been recorded in the City of London, their seeds brought there within these last few years by air, in the fodder of horses, and by other agencies including birds. For birds, too, have been quick to colonize the ruined cities."
No need, of course, for our cities to face a blitz for the welcome return of nature - though it is true that ruined buildings offer splendid scope for wild things. Plant a section of every park and garden with native jungle trees (not forgetting a few fig trees) and thick bushes, allow creepers and the undershrub to grow, and the birds and smaller beasts will come back.

In the countryside all that is needed is to tighten up agriculture so that intervening wasteland can run wild, and be available to wild life sufficiently in large blocks. Unfortunately our wild life preservation effort is directed mainly towards the denizens of forests; the fauna of the open scrub receives little attention from anyone-excepting professional trappers.

When I was a boy I had ample opportunities for watching minor wild life in a city and in the countryside. Those opportunities are now gone, or are going. It is such a pity, and so wrong that urban children today should grow up in ignorance of the common wild life of the soil. The idea that our fauna should be penned up in national parks and preserves, and that our children should visit these pens or some remote countryside for a glimpse of the great heritage of nature that is theirs, revolts me. There is room enough for man and birds and beast in this hospitable land, if only men would be less covetous of space and curb their urge to claim and tame every plot of land in the neighbourhood for the sake of grain too hard won, or may be the sight of a row of Poincianas.

I have found a source for this hideous idea of aesthetics in the writings of M.S. Randhawa. In a 1964 pamphlet published by the ICAR we see the typical thoughts of what "beauty" is all about. Over time this has become so common that few people are even able to re-examine these ideas. The emphasis in the writings of administrators like Randhawa is on colour, placement and linearity. Here are a few of his statements from this pamphlet.

Colourful trees and flowers play an important role in making our cities and towns beautiful. They refine the minds of the inhabitants and also provide shade and shelter.

Most of the social conditions and tensions which develop in slums of congested cities are due to the fact that man is isolated from his natural environment. Vegetation and sun are the ancient influences which have fashioned our body and spirit. Our towns have snatched men from essential conditions of living-sun, space, and verdure. Unless the conditions of nature are established in man's life, he cannot be healthy in body and spirit. Hence, it is necessary that people in towns are brought in touch with nature by development of parks and avenues.

... We are indebted to Professor Lancelot Hogben for the term "bio-aesthetic planning which may be defined as conscious planning of the flora and fauna with the object of beautifying the country."

... Lancelot Hogben writes : "What generally gains admiration for the beauties of the English countryside is not nature as such. Untouched nature is generally monotonous. English park lands and hedgerows, and many of our woodlands are the result of human interference, sometimes by the deliberate action of enthusiastic pioneers of bio-aesthetic planning like John Evelyn, and sometimes as relics of past cultivation".

It is only in the nineteenth century that educated people began to admire the beauty of the mountains and forests. Since then the pendulum has swung to the other extreme. There is in some of us an undiscriminating and irrational adoration of nature. People who have never grown a herbaceous border of annual flowers in their own house, burst out into panegyrics on seeing a clump of anemones or potentillas in the hills. It is far from my intention to decry the beauty of alpine flowers in the Himalayan meadows as compared with the annual flowering plants in our gardens in the plains. On the other hand, I hold that in the magnificent setting of the Himalayan snows a planned alpine garden will look much better than anything nature has ever produced.
One can only imagine the clashes between the Randhawas of Indian administration and the Krishnans speaking out as mere citizens.