Thursday, March 05, 2009
A Black Eagle, skimming the treetops, slips over us in a shallow, hesitant glide, as we emerge from the verdure vaults onto the main road. It disappears over the tree line as quickly as it appeared. Its brooding, dark plumage displays the bulging reined-in power of a raptor. Its diagnostic yellow legs seem sinister in their contrast. Quickening heartbeats and a deep sense of satisfaction at this sighting encapsulate the joys of this trek. But let me start at the beginning.
The hamlet of Bhágmandla (880 m.) is beginning to stir when we reach it at 7.45a.m. on the last day of the millennium. We had started from Peremboocolly Estate (coffee, cardamom, pepper) near Chettalli (1,390 m.), where we are staying, while it was still dark, at 6 a.m. The drive via Madikere (1,170 m.) is bracingly cold and uneventful, except for some spectacular views of the fog-filled stillness of luminescent valleys lit by the spontaneity of a lightening dawn. Pausing to admire one such panorama, we see humps of hills porpoising away into the distance in fading hues of blue as they merge with a silvery horizon. The air we inhale is as fresh as a cut cucumber, and as refreshing.
Entering Bhágmandala we spot some pilgrims, returning from a dip in the sangam of the Káveri and the first of her tributaries, the Kannike. "Yes, there is a short-cut to Tala Káveri. You can walk to it," informs a dripping gentleman, wrapped in a soaking white cotton dhoti, shivering in the early morning zephyr, or perhaps with the religious fervour of his cleansing! For it is
believed that once a year, even the mother of all Indian rivers, the holy Gangá, travels through subterranean channels, to bathe in the Káveri, and purge herself of the detritus of sin left behind by an overload of repentant sinners. Such is the purity of this Dakshin Gangá (the southern Ganges).
A helpful police official directs us to park the vehicle in the police station's compound. I suppose that is the safest place he can think of when we tell him our plan, promising to come for the vehicle after five to six hours! While Amitabh drives away to park the car, Prakriti and I ready our packs, stamping at the cold and watching our breath hang in visible clouds as though
we exhale steam. Soon Amitabh joins us and we start off down an inconspicuous path, leading away from the open area (used by buses to make a 'U' turn) past a school and some government offices. Here we walk under large canopied trees growing on either side of the path. A Black-headed Oriole flits from one to the other, calling as it disappears inside the foliage. Excitedly we peer into the greenery, but the golden bird has vanished.
Ahead is a narrow, cultivated valley across which begins the hill we've come to climb. The entire golden-yellow field is covered with stacks of the dry brown crop, neatly arranged in rectangular blocks. The rising sun lights up the entire valley like a richly textured, warm quilt. Little and Median Egrets and a Paddy Bird (in breeding plumage) peck about almost desultorily
in the fallow field. A White-breasted Kingfisher glowers down its scarlet beak from an overhead wire, concentrating on the field below. In the distance, Red-rumped and Common Swallows appear like musical score on an azure sheet, as they perch in rows on stretches of overhead wires. A few glossy black Jungle Crows mope around for they haven't yet found a victim to chivvy. Some confident Jungle Mynas strut and swagger in a part of the field, as though optimism at the break of day is an auspicious sign! It is at least contagious, for we stride across the fields with alacrity, giddy with lung-fulls of invigorating oxygen and eager for some good birding.
Our destination lies a short five km. away (eight km. by the metal road) – not the sort that is reached after hiking a couple of days through uninhabited country, where even the sound of a distant engine's roar does not intrude. But we are promised a trek punctuated with intervals of solitude and top-class, deeply satisfying birding! Since there cannot be a better way of ending one millennium and ringing in another, we jump at the opportunity.
We find ourselves climbing a slope that is devastated. Habitat decay due to overuse of resources radiates like concentric ripples on the surface of a pond around all human settlements, and Bhágmandla is no exception. On our left, shrubs and trees have been thoughtlessly hacked for firewood. Debris of this carnage lies around on the much-used path, as mute evidence. On our right is a barbed wire-enclosed private estate with young bushes of coffee. I wonder for how long nature will allow our myopia to ravage her finiteness.
Taken aback by this unexpected scene we grit our teeth in helplessness and hope that the vegetation ahead is intact. Pausing to survey the damage I espy a movement in the tangle of woody undergrowth. Black-capped Babbler! The adaptability of birds is amazing! It seems like we've stumbled upon a small mixed feeding party. Four Black-capped Babblers rocket exasperatingly from twig to twig, denying me the view that is balm to a birder's soul, till one pauses, bewildered at this contorted thing with enormous eyes! In that moment I have my bird! A few White-eyes, emitting their Tanpuraesque background drone and, a male Monarch Flycatcher, brilliant highlighter-blue, are fellow-hunters. It's amazing how such dazzling birds as the Monarch do not stand out in their surroundings, like neon signs do in urban malls. There are others too, hunting behind the bush. A Tailor Bird "towhits", followed by the mysterious calls of unfamiliar birds. My peninsular birder's ear cannot decipher them. But this sense of mystery is essential for the enjoyment of wilderness. What is there to relish in life if all is known and catalogued and the uniquely human sense of wonder, lost? A lone Brown Shrike observes the scene, perched at the tip of a twig, so still in its vigil that the two seem to merge. Ahead, mercifully, greens begin to dominate browns.
The sound of avian arguments floats from ahead. Walking past a screen of vegetation we see a tree with a profusion of small blood-red flowers. A species of Erythrina perhaps? The entire feathered neighbourhood seems to have descended for breakfast on its branches. Prominent in numbers and belligerence are Black Bulbuls. They seem to spend more time squabbling and chasing each other than feeding. A Crimson-throated Barbet raps out his monologue from the topmost branch. Four Black-crested Bulbuls guzzle nectar among the higher branches. They belong to the southern race Pycnonotus melanicterus gularis – evident from the telltale ruby-coloured spot on their throats, as though stained in the act of stealing nectar from these blossoms!
An hour has passed and this seems a good spot for a bite and a steaming cup of cheer. Sandwiches, fingers of tangy sweet oranges, wafers and hot tea – and before us this amazing drama of nature. Better birding is hard to come by!
Rapidly approaching shrill whistles are heard from beyond the tree line. Four male Scarlet Minivets burst into view overhead, pursuing a single yellow female. They seem inflamed with passion while she seems drained of all blood! There is a temporary respite for all when they too settle into the resplendent tree. Two Bronzed Drongos traipse after aerial insects from its branches. A dashing Blackheaded Cuckoo-Shrike arrives.
The blossom-studded tree stands in the private estate and may have survived the axe for precisely that reason. But here is an example of its role, its vital nuts-and-bolts utility as an ecological fulcrum in the wilderness. We savour the interdependence that hums here, the co-mingling of life. In the simple act of flowering – a manifestation of its sexual effusion suffused with colour, fragrance and plentitude – it procreates with the unwitting help of other, altogether different Classes of life! Insects, birds and mammals! Unaware of their bizarre dual role in this little skit except that of the gourmand, they descend to the orgy. From flower to flower and from tree to tree they pub-hop, clandestine pollinators and dispersal agents. Its sex for some and food for others. Nature works in intricate ways. Even cyberspace pales when you begin to think of the inter-connectedness of a hundred million species!
With orange-scented fingertips we brush at crumbs, rinse cups and rise to proceed. The path begins to climb and the estate gives way to woods that slope away from us, affording good visibility into the canopy. The hill rises on our left, also shrouded with vegetation. Ferns decorate its dew-drenched shoulder. The path itself seems infrequently used and is generously tenanted
with a variety of mosses and lichens. A gentle silence breathes through the world, reflected in the wholesome satiety of moist leaves carpeting the forest floor, in the companionship of duetting Indian Scimitar Babblers, in the convoy of black ants marching purposefully across our path. Conversation ceases as we realise the worth and effectiveness of other senses.
Coming around a bend I see a brown flycatcher perched low in the sun-dappled undergrowth. Muscicapa muttui! According to the Hornbill, 1966 (2):9, the bird was named after a favourite servant "Muttu" by the famous expert on Sri Lankan avifauna, Layard, while he was based in Sri Lanka, the Brown-breasted Flycatcher (also known as Layard's Flycatcher) leads an enigmatic, seemingly furtive existence in its peregrinations across the subcontinent from the northeastern tip to its wintering quarters in the Western Ghats and Sri Lanka. Dull brown in colour, except for a glistening white throat, a pale lower mandible and large eyes like moist dark brown papaya seeds, it seems uninteresting after the panorama of colour we've just left behind. It is confiding. It is quiet. It hunts flying insects with deadly accuracy, flitting after them in the shadowy region below the canopy, like a well-oiled avian missile. The mystery that shrouds its life, its ecology, its mysterious wanderings through our country, its stubborn insistence on inhabiting patches and corridors of evergreen and moist-deciduous forests at just that altitude – knock me onto the floor. I am non-existent in its world, except as the perpetrator and destroyer of its habitat. I wonder whether this exasperatingly beautiful, intricately mysterious world will ever forgive humanity's hard footfall upon its soil!
Amitabh has gone ahead, after an orange-skirted apparition. The Malabar Trogon has him thrilled to bits. Neither of us has seen one this close or so clearly. Such a perfectly square-tipped tail! Speechlessly we gape at its exquisite symmetry. At the drape and finery of its plumage. At its uncanny ability to juxtapose a bit of greenery between us. What wouldn't I give to metamorphose into a branch of that leafy hillside, and be blessed by the touch of a Trogon!
Prakriti, tiring of the climb and impatient to end it, points out a Greater Racket-tailed Drongo. Suddenly we are surrounded by birds. Sunbirds, Minivets, Flycatchers, Yellow-browed Bulbuls, a White-throated Ground Thrush. This is another mixed-hunting party that moves through the forest in an incredible show of cooperation, understanding and, non-violence. Its members cannot comprehend such human values but have none-the-less been selected by evolution to enact them! Each species exploits a unique niche for its food. There is no transgression, no trespassing and no bad blood.
Near the top of our climb we emerge from the tree cover to see another estate on our right. This one has very few trees on it. The plains of Kodagu stretch to the horizon. On a lone, pepper draped, densely foliaged tree, as though clinging to the last vestiges of its disappearing world, is a White-bellied Tree Pie. It hunts caterpillars and swallows them with relish, wiping its
beak beside it on the branch like a truant child might use a tablecloth! Then preens its feathers. I have never witnessed a better distribution of white, black, grey and brown on such a small canvas! I would love to loiter and soak up more 'atmosphere'. As I am sure would Amitabh. But there are promises to keep.
On the edge of the hill's shoulder, above and behind us, is a tree that's taller than its neighbours. Five Chestnut-headed Bee-eaters sally-hunt insects from its branches. After a concentrated chase they return in a sweeping, satisfied arc to their perch where the snack is swallowed. Again and again they perform. In this magnificent amphitheatre – with its azure backdrop, its chequered earthy coloured surroundings lit by the oblique rays of a rising sun – their act is so graceful in its simplicity, so unattainable in its perfection and alas so threatened by our callousness that a mixture of emotions – rage, helplessness, futility – jam in my throat. From a branch of the same tree, cantilevered over the valley, a Golden-backed Woodpecker hangs upside-down and knocks on wood.
When we hit the main road, we can see the temple-complex at Tala Káveri, still about a kilometre away. It is noon and we are hungry. Perching on the parapet of the road, facing another valley, we pass around soft juicy apples, bone-dry biscuits and another steaming cup. A Kestrel wafts delicately overhead. With effortless ease she slides on eddies of thermals, surveying the
slopes of the valley for victuals. At the suspicion of one she hovers in mid-flight, as though pinned against the blue sky. Dissatisfied, she planes away to a different part of her beat. Another hoverer, the exquisite, ruby-eyed, Black-shouldered Kite plays the nearby thermals, produced by the gradual heating of the bald hilltops. In the southern portion of the Western Ghats, forests give way to grasslands after a certain elevation. But here I suspect the denudation of these precincts by human hand, not biogeography.
It would be simplistic to say that the Káveri exists because of creatures like the White-bellied Treepie and the Brown-breasted Flycatcher. But they wouldn't survive in another environment without the forests that blanket these Western Ghats. And where would the river be without these trees? And us? Where would we be, our history, our culture, the very fabric of our civilisation, without the river? The presence of these birds, as indeed of all other creatures in their appropriate habitats, indicates the health of our surroundings. If we view them as traffic lights on the super highway of our un-controlled 'development'– we might avoid accidents. In their happiness is our happiness. In their survival, ours. Would you now rather say that we exist because of the Flycatcher?
King of the river:
The Káveri is home to the Mahseer, a Cyprinoid fish with such spunk that sport fishing aficionados make a beeline for its banks. This magnificently multi-hued, large-scaled fighting fish has a wide-ranging, omnivorous diet that includes fallen flowers, aquatic plants, seeds, insects, earthworms, molluscs, crabs, smaller fish, water-snails, and shrimps. Hundred-pounders
were often caught 60-70 years ago, five foot monsters with 38-inch girths! The record fish was hooked by G.P. Sanderson and was estimated to weigh 150 lb! Officially, J. deWet Van Ingen landed the granddaddy of south Indian Mahseer in 1946 from the Kabini River, an enormous fish, 5'6" long with a 41" girth and a 10" diameter maw. It weighed all of 120 lb! These sizes are the stuff of dreams today, with the 20-40 pound fish found that inhabit the waters mere shadows of their ancestors. When caught, these fish are promptly released back into their waters. Nirad Muthanna of Bangalore holds the record for an Indian angler (see picture), a massive 99 lb. Golden Mahseer landed along the Kabini after an hour-long battle in September 1999. But life is not easy for the Mahseer any longer. Large fish survive only where commercial angling is allowed. Elsewhere they are not allowed to vegetate at leisure in the fertile waters of the Káveri and its tributaries, not allowed to feel the river run through them when they propel themselves upstream to spawn in slow flowing stretches of clear water. The despicable use of dynamite has devastated vast portions of the river and the life that it supports and dams prevent Mahseer from swimming upriver to their breeding grounds.
Pittie, A. 2000. Trekking to Tala Káveri. Sanctuary Asia XX (6): 34–38.
One winter day, two years ago, two friends and I visited the Kasu Brahmanand Reddy National Park (KBR Park). It was early morning and bright sunshine was trying hard to dissipate the night’s chill. Oblique rays of sunlight sculpted the landscape into crisp textures, surrounding us with clarity rarely found in a large urban agglomeration, like Hyderabad. The park was alive with birds and one of my friends, an Englishman, could not restrain his amazement when he blurted, “they are popping from every bush, aren’t they!” Birds love such days. So do bird watchers! There were at least half a dozen types of warblers scrambling in the undergrowth or falling off the tips of leaves from the outer periphery of tree crowns. A pair of rufousbacked shrikes spoke in a muted sub-song. The ruby-eyed, silver feathered, blackwinged kite—master predator of open scrub and grassland habitats—swung up over the tree line, in one smooth arc, displaying grace and power and joy. Purple sunbirds fussed from branch to branch, one male, resplendent in iridescent purple, flashed red epaulets on quivering wings, as he displayed to a drab olive colored female. Avian music rose from the plants all around us, and filled the air with sounds of sweet exuberance. Such moments are generally experienced in wilderness areas. To be able to experience them within a large city is truly fantastic. Such is the charm of an urban forest!
Detailed and organized taxonomic surveys have not been conducted inside KBR Park. But ad hoc amateur listings of the flora and fauna provide ample evidence that it is a veritable storehouse of local Natural History. Frankly, these creatures have as much right to exist in their habitat, undisturbed, as we have to do so in ours. Their proximity and their presence enrich us. But it is the fashion of the day to evaluate the economic value of everything and not be satisfied by the mere existence of something. So I give some examples of how KBR Park, by its very existence, contributes considerably to our well being. It is a major green lung in our city, and it is free. The government need not spend a single Rupee in its upkeep, as it is natural, unlike parks like Sanjivayya Park, Indira Park and Public Gardens. The vegetation of this Park requires neither water nor fertilizer. It is self-sufficient, as indeed Nature herself is! It cleans the air and absorbs atmospheric, vehicular and sound pollution. It is a natural sponge during rains, preventing runoff, thus allowing water to seep into the soil and recharge subterranean rills. It is the catchment area for water bodies within the city, like Hussain Sagar and Durgam Cheruvu, which the government is promoting as major tourist sites. More ‘benefits’ of the Park can be listed, but these should suffice. How much, pray, is clean air and drinking water worth, to us, beleaguered and gasping that we are, for these basic elements of survival? The answer is obvious and it does not require wisdom to realize the worth of the Park. Just, common sense!
To preserve the nature of this unique Park, its atmosphere of an urban wilderness, there are certain dos and don’ts, which would normally form a management plan for the Park. Indeed, the drawing-up of such a plan should be the first action of the managers of the Park, the A.P. Forest Department. Surprisingly, a plan does not exist! I have been a regular, wide-eyed visitor of this verdant oasis and give below some observations and suggestions on the current management practices in the Park, with reference to the habitat and the public.
The most important physical feature of the Park is the wall that encloses it. But for this wall, the Park may not have been what it is today! Therefore it follows that the maintenance of this wall be a primary objective of the management. Any broken portion should be repaired immediately so infiltration, human as well as animal, is curtailed. Woodcutters and poachers wait for such opportunities and may actually cause damage to portions of the wall to ply their trade. A break in the wall opens the habitat for our mammalian commensals—pariah dogs and feral cats. Their accidental introduction into the Park will cause havoc with a fauna that has got used to the absence of such ferocious predators. Ground nesting birds will suffer drastically. The other points of entry for these creatures are the two gates to the Park. These are kept open at different times of the day and are so wide that a persistent dog can slip through easily. A simple “cattle baffler” of spaced out pipes laid over a pit in front of the gates, will prevent unwanted animals from getting into the Park. I have seen dogs sporting red collars, within the Park. These poor creatures have reportedly been collected from various parts of the city, castrated or spayed and released at random, by animal welfare organizations. Many are seen loitering on the roads, petrified and lost. Some fatally ill, since the operation demands rest, which they do not get.
Deadwood is an essential ingredient in the organic cycle of the Park. In it reside insects savored by woodpeckers. When it falls, insects and arthropods break it down so that it is absorbed gradually into the soil, replenishing nutrients constantly, in a classic cycle of self-sufficiency. This deadwood should not be removed from the Park.
As a policy, exotic flora and fauna should not be introduced into the Park. Every action should be scrutinized so that exotics do not inadvertently slip in. Lantana is rampant today and Parthenium gaining ground fast. Thoughtless acts like importing red laterite soil for repairing paths has resulted in the import of seeds of these exotics! The forest department should also stop planting trees within the Park. They should realize that it is a dynamic ecosystem where the results of such acts cannot be fathomed and generally result in the degeneration of the habitat. It should also desist from releasing animals like blackbuck, cheetal, etc., for the area is too small and will be over-grazed by these ungulates in no time. The unwitting transformation of a habitat cannot be part of any management policy. Safeguarding the uniqueness of a habitat, should.
Trails will deteriorate drastically due to the action of water. Sound engineering of paths through low-lying areas will solve the problem. Water will not be constrained to flow through narrow pipes below trails, and invariably washes away the soil around the pipes. In such places, small arch bridges would serve the purpose better. The number of trails should not be increased. Neither should their total length nor width. Of primary concern is the environment through which the trail passes. Minimum interference is the best management policy for any wilderness area
Management of visitors
Education is the best ‘use’ the Park can be put to. As an open-air laboratory of Natural History it provides ample opportunities for schools and other educational institutions for nature education. Concepts of nature study like water regime, soil regime, ecology, etc. can be taught with live specimens and in a dynamic habitat! The department should design and provide necessary educational material in the form of information boards, checklists of fauna and flora, life-histories of prominent species and/or Families, etc.
If the department decides to maintain a portion of the Park as a core area, open only for internal maintenance and special faunal and floral studies, this area should be strictly out of bounds for the public and should be ‘policed’ by the department. A wilderness area cannot be allowed to degenerate into a sports complex even in its buffer zone. Recreation within the Park should be restricted to pursuits related to Natural History only. But KBR Park has a unique problem. It is used by people for walking, in the morning and evening, for physical exercise. Under the law, this is an illegal act within a national park.
When a residential area was planned in Jubilee Hills, the government would have set aside enough land for parks and other recreational activities. If such areas exist, they should be developed and ‘walkers’ redirected to them for their perambulations. If they do not exist, where have they gone?
We cannot create wilderness areas like the KBR Park. It is an enlightened society that recognizes this fact and uses it to advantage, even if it means to let something merely exist!
Benishaan mangoes will always have a flavour in my life that is steeped in the dry heat of the forests of Warangal. When I sit before a bowl-full of this rich aromatic fruit, its hugely opulent bouquet takes me back to that May in 1980 when a group of us had gone to Eturnagaram Reserve Forest. It was hot, very hot. We would pile into a small Willis 4-wheel drive, chauffeured by a short, rustic man, full of wry wit—but with enough patience and bonhomie to survive the crazy ordeal of driving our zany bunch around in the tinder-dry jungles.
It was beedi-leaf season and most of the animals were disturbed by the inflow of hundreds of humans, brought in on daily wages to collect the leaf that is smoked all over India. In search of wilderness, we had come to this forest, like long-weary desert travelers in quest of an oasis. The romance of being ‘on safari’ gave us an unbelievable stamina to tramp through ankle-deep leaf-litter, dry enough to make our feet sound like a chugging train; through mazes of thorny bushes whose sharpened defenses seemed to have atrophied in the heat and parchedness of this land into small, bitter curves of resistance; through the middle of tiny damp floored creeks—whose soddenness could not seemingly evaporate through the almost grotesquely green branches overhead. These so thick and intermeshed that chinks of sunlight fought their way gingerly to reach the numberless shadows and make it a permanently dim dawn below.
The stench of rotting vegetation underfoot stirred by our cautiously palpating, splashy feet, make us pucker our noses awhile. But how long can a man walk through unknown country—brushing aside generations of webs woven to trap thin, vaporous chemicals ensconced within precariously gossamer bodies of arthropods; ducking, so a branch does not scratch an eye; peering up into the world of tense, silent leaves, pressing upon us their humid weight sucked up through numberless trillions of cells in an endless cycle as old as life itself—to glimpse a movement, an odd-shaped leaf, a shadow darker than those around it, so dark in fact that the brilliant aquamarine were subdued into invisibility; the thing upper-most in our minds—to experience novelty! To see, to comprehend, to inhale pristineness! The agony and the ecstasy of this suspense is too much for a wrinkled nose to stand on. It has to fall into normality, alert for other, unknown whiffs that might pump adrenaline, rather than let the methanish vapor of disintegrating fiber distract it!
One day we walked, waded, paddled, and dawdled through the shallow Dayyam Vagu’s cool waters. Hopping gingerly from sandbank to sandbank, like city-dwellers jumping road puddles—we soon realized the futility of it all and simply took off our footwear. Pleasure is walking through calf-deep water, in 40 degrees centigrade, stopping now and then to immerse cupped-hands into the liquid and splash it over one’s head—otherwise so hot as to cook the brain within! At times the walk became palpably purposeless. We kept at it unconsciously, sub-consciously aware of a hidden pursuit. Then some one saw the magical glide of the giant malabar squirrels. Stunned momentarily into silence we stood rooted, while the water flowed below, gently reminding us of natural history. No swinger of ropes within a big top can stir joy so spontaneously in my heart — as did those squirrels that afternoon. Mundane chores of daily life disintegrate into motes of nothingness in front of a facile gliding squirrel! How unaware, how unconscious of our awe, how miraculously distant from our petty troubles! No poet can describe its simplicity. Its perfect, arcing, well oiled falls—from tree to tree!
These forays of ours into the ‘unknown’, would last all day. We would cover 20-25kms at times! Humidity, like invisible rain, made life miserable. The nights were one big sweltering discomfort. Mosquitoes, and so repellent; which used to make the skin clammy. And the total dearth of breeze, as though we were stuck in the Doldrums. Discomfort like this drove me out of bed. I could never make myself go beyond the wash of yellow light, into the darkness. It was something more than the sudden chill I had felt when one night, walking down the path from ‘our’ hut to the one in which BC and M were staying—my feet in Hawaii chappals—I stopped in mid-stride and switched on the torch. There, between my feet, as though caught in the act of some skullduggery, was a 3 inch long black scorpion, waving its tail overhead like a flag. All pretensions of field natural history vanished and within the beat of that second I craved to be an ordinary armchair naturalist! The torch, thenceforth, was kept open. Moon or no moon. I never mustered enough guts to venture into the realm of darkness, so sharply defined by the harshness of the bare electric bulbs. Prominent among my inhibitions must certainly have been some incomprehensible fear. The heart would flutter inside me when I scampered to the dining room, to wake up one of the boys for bed tea. But why did I get up into those early hours, just about to light? Was it because I was an early morning baby and the newness of the world which surrounded me, so drastically different from the soupy comfort of my mother’s womb, still knocks within my breast a beat that hearkens me to rise early in strange places?
There were times during the day when everything became dead quiet, but not at dawn. A dawn chorus lifts the curtain of darkness with its enthusiasm. Bubbles of sound burst forth through the thinning blackness like ribbons of light heralding dawn. How many people who throng to music concerts have risen at break of day to listen to the greatest orchestra on earth? It is said that music springs from the earth, yet so few pay heed to this earth-poetry. It’s spontainity however, needs neither audience nor applause. An end in itself, it is audible to those who comprehend. Have you ever hear the koel utter a false note? Have you ever felt the flow of a magpie-robin’s song falter? Has not the stentoreous sarus clashed like the cymbals of the very earth? Has not the screech of a parakeet embedded itself into your heart? Into this event I used to wake up and listen enraptured as wisps of darkness melted away all around me.
And believe me, it is no different in the city. Wake up one early morning, before the rays of a rising sun have brought the primal blush in the sky, and listen to bird song. There will be fewer musicians, no doubt, but the notes will be neither less true, nor less heart stopping. The koel will let forth in summer and often the dumpy little staidly dressed, pied bushchat, an unobtrusive bit of black feathers, pour lilting notes in short golden arias. But you have to listen. And once you get the tunes into your head, you will recognize the voices anywhere in your life, in whatever situation you be, and will smile to yourself at their familiarity. That will be your intimate and secret treasure.
The call of one family of birds always struck me. The cuckoos. Whether the bi-syllabic call of the familiar koel—urbanized, swank, prankster—or the ventriloquial utterances of the others. The Indian cuckoo, the hawk-cuckoo, the plaintive cuckoo and the pied-crested cuckoo. Their penetrating, persistent calls, like the seconds-hand of earth’s clock, would echo, reverberate, rebound and filter through the woods all day. Like long distance calls, perfected over ages. Wherever we tramped, these birds seemed to follow with their song-lines, themselves elusive. Only hard-headed persistence in following one call, showed up a pathetically drab, indistinct patch of grey and white and black—this and the thrumming air around it, and the silence of the woods magnificently amplifying its try-syllabic call. An Indian cuckoo!
The character of a place, its ambience, is relative to the moods and temporal perceptions of the observer. In Eturnagaram, the bouquet of Benishaan, rising from a bowl in front of me, at lunch and at dinner was overpowering. The heat of the day was a presence unseen and continued in its stillness into night when the temperature dropped marginally but the all-pervading quiescence remained. It was in fact amplified by the repetitive sounds of the jungle reverberating within its leafy confines. There was also a distinct sense of sukoon.
When these thoughts have been set, and all those numberless others, that come like flashes in the mind’s eye and are ruminated upon—can one evaluate the usefulness of a fruit?
[Talk at Field Study Course in Ornithology organized by
Rishi Valley Education Centre, Department of Bird Studies]
In an international conference, four bird-watchers were sitting in an open-air café, when a black coloured bird alighted nearby. Excitedly, the Russian exclaimed, “Vorona!” The Indian, not to be outdone pointed to the bird and said “Kowwá/Káki”. The meticulous German frowned, “Krähe” (Kreha). “No that’s a Crow,” boomed the American. This international conference, as you would have guessed by now, was before Carl Linné came onto the scene!
Carl von Linné was a Swedish botanist who tried to lay down guidelines to standardize nomenclature in 1751, through his Philosophica Botanica. He is considered the father of scientific nomenclature as his Systema Naturae, used rules, which he devised, for a system of standardized nomenclature that could be used throughout the world. The 10th edition of this work was published in 1758 and is today considered the beginning of a standardized zoological nomenclature for the world. He was so taken up with the binomen concept (comprising of two names) of nomenclature that he changed his own name to Carolus Linnaeus!
To bring order in the biological world, so that we understand it better, there are two basic steps. One is the process of classifying organisms; the other is naming them.
Taxonomy is the science of classifying “organisms into categories or taxa (singular, taxon) and includes such procedures as identifying and naming.” Some examples of the several taxa used in biology are genus, species and subspecies. In ornithology, some of the common taxonomic characters on which species are separated are “morphological, such as those having to do with minor details of size, shape, and colour.” Other traits for separation could be related to habitat requirement or breeding requirements.
The Taxonomist brings order in the confusion of species by establishing the link between different taxa of birds by minutely studying and analyzing various factors like a bird’s anatomy, its morphology, its reproduction, its habitat and also its parasites! (Parasites are supposed to be host-specific and so closely related parasites would be found on closely related birds!) This relationship is established “on the basis of presumed ‘blood’ relationships. This is a ‘natural’ system because it relies on phylogeny—the evolution of related groups of organisms. Thus a taxonomic sequence of birds is arrived at.
Such a sequence was presented by Alexander Wetmore (1930), based on 40 characters selected by Gadow (1893), and was little changed till recently. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Sibley, Ahlquist and Monroe “proposed a major reassessment of the relationships between birds, based on DNA-DNA hybridization studies,” and presented the world with a radically different species sequence, now popularly known as Sibley & Monroe’s checklist. The process of DNA-DNA hybridization used to arrive at this new classification is a technique beyond the scope of this paper. But suffice to say that it has not been accepted with open arms by ornithologists throughout the world. On the contrary! Two types of objections have been raised. The first, results from the horror of learning bird classification all over again, the second from doubts about the very technique used to arrive at the new sequence. This is something, which scientists will have to sort out over time. It has been done before and we have a witness of this transition in Mr Zafar Futehally here and his contemporaries!
Wetmore’s sequence “began with the Order Gaviiformes, Family Gaviidae (Divers), and ended with the Family Emberizidae of the Passeriformes. This up-ended and made topsy-turvy earlier sequences, of Hume through Oates & Blanford to Stuart Baker, which started off with the Corvidae (Crows, Magpies, Tree Pies, Jays, Nutcrackers and Choughs) of the Order Passeres and stopped with the Colymbidae (Divers) of the Pygopodes. This reversal was only because earlier classifications began with the most ‘advanced’ groups and ended with those considered highly ‘primitive’, but Wetmore and contemporaries felt it better to climb the phylogenetic tree, from the base upwards. The Perching Birds, with a highly evolved ‘voice-box’ enabling ‘songs’ of great melody and range, had to be on top of the tree, while the birds adapted to life on the sea and inland waters with croaking (‘frog-like’) sounds were best kept at the bottom of the evolutionary ladder.”
The system of giving technical names to the different taxa of birds (or other animals and plants) is known as nomenclature.
Linnaeus devised a simple method of giving each taxon two names in languages that were extant during his time—Latin or Greek. The two names of each binomen comprise of a Genus and a Species. The first part of this binomial system is the Genus, which distinguishes a “group of related bird species or an isolated, distinctive species. It must be in the form of a noun” (Corvus is Latin for raven/crow), “must be unique in the zoological world, and is always capitalized.”
The second part of a binomen is the Species. It is uncapitalized and distinguishes the several species within a genus. “The specific name is commonly in the form of an adjective” (splendens is Latin for glittering or brilliant). A specific name makes sense only when it accompanies a generic name. It can be used in more than one genus eg., Cissa erythrorhyncha (Redbilled Blue Magpie) and Perdicula erythrorhyncha [Painted Bush Quail (Perdicula=small partridge)]. Here the specific name refers to “red-billed”.
Within a genus, no two species or subspecies may bear the same specific name. If unwittingly, a newly discovered bird is given an existing specific name under the same genus, the earlier specific name takes precedence over the latter, which will have to be placed in a unique species. In fact, a ready reference of the author of a species and the year in which that species was named and such record properly published are found in the complete scientific name of a bird. The complete scientific name of a bird (or for that matter any biological species) consists of 4 parts. The first two, comprising the genus and a species, have been discussed above. These are followed by the name of the author of the species and the year in which the name was first properly published. A house crow would be Corvus splendens Vieillot, 1817. A French ornithologist, Louis Jean Pierre Vieillot (1748-1831), described this bird in 1817. If the “author’s name” is “placed in parentheses after a specific name,” it “indicates that the current generic classification differs from the genus assigned by the original author. For example, the House Sparrow Passer domesticus (Linnaeus) 1758 was originally described in the genus Fringilla,” by Linnaeus, who had called it Fringilla domestica. It was later shifted to the genus Passer by an ornithologist called Brisson in 1760.
Systematists have further divided many species into subspecies, based mainly on geographical distribution. This has resulted in a trinomial system of naming birds, where the third word in the trinomen denotes the subspecies. eg., Passer domesticus indica Jardine & Selby 1835. The concept of subspecies has resulted in much hair-splitting and should never be used to describe a bird that is not in hand. I would like to emphasize here that for our work, describing a bird at its specific level is more than sufficient.
Every efficient system works in a framework of rules that help maintain order within the system. After Linnaeus’s pioneering work, many scientists of the 18th century did not follow his rules and named birds of their own free will. This led to a great deal of confusion. In 1835, a British ornithologist, zoologist and palaeontologist Hugh E. Strickland conceived a code that was to bring uniformity to the process of international nomenclature. This code, fine tuned over the years, is now known as the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature, and is under the purview of a body called the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature. The fundamental goal of this Code—that of “ensuring stability and universality in scientific names…a basic necessity for communication between zoologists throughout the world and over time” is upheld by three basic rules. These are
1. Priority: “The principle of priority states simply that the earliest name applied properly to a taxon of animals is the correct scientific name, with the date of publication determined by the stated date on the publication or by other means if that information is not reliable. Priority now dates from 1 January 1758, the date fixed for the publication of the tenth edition of Linnaeus’s Systema Naturae.” This holds good when a new species is described, or when two taxa are merged or even split.
2. Homonymy: “This principle states that a particular name can be used only once in zoological nomenclature. Hence a generic name or a family-group name can be used only once in the animal kingdom—it must be unique. Within a genus, a species-group name can be used only once.”
3. Preservation of well-established names: “This concept is concerned with preservation of stability and universality in zoological nomenclature. It operates by protecting well established names from being replaced by long-forgotten and hence unused senior synonyms.”
How do scientists choose the names of birds? They rely basically, on the following criteria. I’ll give brief examples.
1. Appearance: The colour, shape and, physical characteristics of birds are the commonest sources of bird names. Little Grebe Tachybaptus ruficollis. Tachybaptus means, “fast diver” and relates to behaviour and ruficollis means “red collared”, which relates to the appearance of the bird.
2. Eponym: Here a bird name commemorates a “real person or a mythical or a fictional character.” Otus alius is a new species of Scops Owl described from the Nicobar Islands, recently. “The name alius, which is Latin for ‘other’ (this being another Scops-owl from the Nicobar Islands), encapsulates the family name of Mr Humayun Abdulali, who first collected this species, and contributed a great deal to Indian ornithology, and in particular that of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.” (Bull. BOC 118: 141-153).
3. Native Name: Our very own Telugu word, “pitta”, used for any small bird, has been Latinized and is used as the genetic name of a colourful group of ground birds, as Pitta. The Indian Pitta’s scientific name Pitta brachyura translates as the ‘short tailed pitta.’
4. Toponym: These are based on geographical locations. The Large Pied Wagtail Motacilla maderaspatensis derives its specific name from the city of Madras, in Tamil Nadu. I hope there are no Tamil politicians here who might want to pass a resolution changing it to Motacilla chennaiensis in the next assembly session!
5. Other choices for bird nomenclature are derived from classification, habitat, behaviour [the woodpecker genus Dryocopus (Greek): drus=oak tree, kopos=cutter ie., “woodcutter”], food, voice [Bittern Botaurus stellaris: spotted bird which calls like a bull.], etc.
Practical aspects and field ornithology
Having said all this, we come to the moot point confronting us today. Which system of classification should we use? Do we stick with Ripley’s sequence in his Synopsis, or should we change over and use the brand new sequence arising from the DNA-DNA hybridization method? Many ornithologists believe that Ripley’s work is outdated. Not being a taxonomist, I cannot say in what way. But its sequence of serial numbers is the common thread that passes through our published bird literature since the publication of Sálim Ali and S.D. Ripley’s Handbook. It is what we are familiar and comfortable with. However, with the arrival of the new field-guide by Richard Grimmet and Tim and Carol Inskipp, Birds of the Indian Subcontinent (1998), our complacency regarding the Synopsis is sure to get a jolt. It follows the sequence of Sibley and Monroe.
My suggestion to you is to keep both works handy. For notes and papers to scientific journals, scrutinize which sequence the editors prefer and follow that. If there is a doubt, write them and inquire. But do not rush into the new system, yet, for it has not been accepted all over the world—especially since the leading ornithological organizations in India, the Bombay Natural History Society in Mumbai and the Zoological Society of India with its headquarters in Calcutta, have not issued any statement to the contrary and continue to use Ripley’s Synopsis as the basis for their accepted sequence.
If in the final analysis, this is too much hot air, never mind! Go out and enjoy your bird-watching. In time, birds will lead you to what we have just discussed. Till then, HAPPY BIRDING!
1. Ghorpadé, Kumar (1998): Letter from an insect-hunting ornithologist-14. Pitta # 83: 2-3.
2. Jobling, James A. (1991): A Dictionary of Scientific Bird Names. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
3. Inskipp, T., Lindsey, N. and Duckworth, W. (1996): An Annotated Checklist of the Birds of the Oriental Region. Oriental Bird Club, Sandy.
4. Pettingill, Olin Sewall (1985): Ornithology in Laboratory and Field. 524Pps. Surjeet Publications, Delhi.
I thank Mr Siraj A Taher for his comments on a draft of this paper.
 Actually Linnaeus and Petrus Artedi (a close friend and fellow student of medicine), started working together on this fresh method of documenting the natural world. Artedi dealt with fish, reptiles, amphibians and ‘Umbelliferae’ plants, and Linnaeus with birds, insects and plants in general. Unfortunately, Artedi drowned in an accident and Linnaeus was forced to continue with his name giving alone. (Bulletin of the Linnaean Society of London).
Driving towards the “Red Lakes,” a set of twin small ponds in ICRISAT Campus (near Hyderabad), I glimpsed through the corner of my eye, a grey arrow streaking across the landscape, and disappearing into the crown of a Toddy Palm. We stopped on the bund, unfolding the spindly legs of our tripods, to scope onto a pair of Avocets that had been reported from here around Diwali. A small flock of waders huddled close to the fast-evaporating small pool. Ruffs stood about, some on the ground, sleeping with beaks under a wing, a few knee-deep in water, probing listlessly. No sign of avocets! Swinging my binoculars towards the crown of the Toddy palm, I spied the profile of a Red-headed Falcon. The tiercel would have seen our car long ago, as he shot through ether, abandoning a pouring landscape in his wake, to perch abruptly with a stone-hewn stillness in the palm. I could only see his bust over a frond. The hunters’ large all-seeing eye, brown, and yellow-rimmed, reflecting the very world it absorbs; the powerful curved beak; the chestnut hood and moustache. His white throat gleamed with bounced sunlight. He watched me then, in a casually alert way, boring with his eight times more powerful eyes through the binocs into mine. I could not hold his intense stare.
From his elevated, shadowed perch, he watched the flat landscape spread away all around, a quilt-work of undisturbed brown and ploughed red earth, of yellowing and green vegetation, of stagnant paddies and distant water. Small clusters of trees huddled here and there and bare branched thorny shrubs spoke an arid language. A bright sun shone from behind me in a wind scrubbed cloudless sky. The surrounding industrial hub was a noxious nuisance. If there were larks in the fields close by, they lay low, merging their browns with the furrowed earth. A roller rasped in the background, not threatened by the hunter, but nervous in his presence.
Suddenly he rose, pumping his pointed wings with a surge of purpose and power. In the blinking of an eye he exploded from the sun upon the Common Swallow that had been zipping and unzipping the sky in pursuit of midges. At the last moment the swallow tumbled out of the tiercel’s scorched trajectory, glimpsing the brilliance of the sun in his blazing eye as it slipped past the tiercel’s flung anchor shape, avoiding miraculously, the clutching talon. When I took the binoculars from my eye, pointing out the drama to CTH, we saw the falcon blurring towards her mate on closed wings. Miraculously the terrified swallow avoided the red-masked meteor, as both raptors overshot the fluttering little feathered heartbeat. The element of surprise was blown but the hunters pressed on. Again and again the swallow escaped by a whisker, buffeted about in the frenzied violence of the attack, the rushing roar of wind caught in a whirl of horizons, a panic-struck heart thudding frantically within its frail plumage. Predator and prey pouncing and prancing, locked in the tragic ballet of survival, spiraled to pinpoints in the domed firmament.
Fear, they say, gives strength. Mercurial reflexes, honed in the pursuit of flying insects, and the sagacity of an earth traveller migrating between distant shores, thrummed in the genes of the lucky swallow. In a moment, plummeting on curved wings, the falcon lit on the palm frond from where the tiercel had launched his attack and he followed on her heels. The world swung back on its axis and surrounding birdcalls reached my ear again. CTH pointed towards a woodpecker. In that moment of distraction, the falcon slipped away. The tiercel continued to watch a warming world as swallows now hunted their winged prey between him and the sun.
Pittie, A. 2004. Falcons in flight. Newsletter for Ornithologists 1 (1&2): 30–31.