Monday, May 4, 2015

Bird-lore from India

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

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

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


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



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

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

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

The best way to initiate the young Indian student in nature-study would be for the teacher to take him for a walk, out of school-hours, into a garden or country-lane and familiarise him with the following particulars about the trees or plants that they may come across in the course ...
This article is a going to be shaped from time to time. These references will also feed into Wikipedia entries on the specific birds.
Further reading

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