Thursday, October 12, 2017
In Conversation With India’s Birdman Aasheesh Pittie
Rohini Kejriwal spoke to the ornithologist about the state of conservation in India, challenges posed by urbanisation, and the lessons he has learnt from the flying beauties
“Birds are the eyes of Heaven,” – Suzy Kasse
Hyderabad-based Aasheesh Pittie ornithologist, bibliophile, and bibliographer, most certainly agrees with Kasse’s words. With a strong interest in the history of South Asian ornithology, Pittie has compiled a database of over 31,000 ornithological publications for the South Asian region. A writer on the subject, he has published several articles and papers on Indian birds and edits the bi-monthly journal Indian BIRDS. He recently completed his monumental work on the historic Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, thus adding to his work on the archival Stray Feathers, the Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society and Ibis, and the more recent Newsletter for Birdwatchers, Indian BIRDS, now in its 13th year of publication, and Forktail. We spoke to Pittie about his fascination with birds, the state of conservation in India, challenges posed by urbanisation, and the lessons he has learnt from the flying beauties. Read the excerpt below.
Can you recall the moment that you decided to be an ornithologist?
Long ago, when I was gifted a copy of Salim Ali’s Book of Indian birds, I took it and a clunky pair of binoculars to a house that overlooked some rocks and sat down to wait for birds. The monsoon was setting in and it threatened to rain. A Red-wattled Lapwing came onto a rock and shaking with excitement, I raised the binoculars and noted its details. Then came a green bee-eater upon an overhead wire with its long central tail feathers. It began to drizzle but I could not get up. The book helped me identify and name the two species, but their absolutely amazing physical presence was overwhelming. Something shifted within me that day. I have never regretted becoming a birder.
Take us through your journey as a birder.
Over the years I have developed a special fondness for birds, but I am enthralled by all of natural life. Practicality is a major reason for choosing birds. They are everywhere and in abundance, unlike most other life forms. Then they are easily visible and audible. I suppose the charm and character that birds exude are among their abiding qualities that I find so endearing. To me, birds are primarily an abundant, vibrant, non-human life form that I can get close to, and celebrate our co-existence because of my sentient conscience. I understand that it’s a one-way ‘relationship’, if I may call it that, as there is no communication between birds and man. Yet I revel in their ability of flight, their beauty, charm, song, dance, character, power, delicacy, tolerance, stamina, etc. characteristics I aspire to, as does every human being. Birds do not know these terms; they are our way of understanding them, limited by our lexicon. I paint on them emotions in trying to understand my own.
Due to the nature of my work, I have not been able to travel much for birding. So I began to try and make it easier for birders, both amateur and professional, to search the vast literature of the field easily, and find out what has been published, say, about the Indian Roller in Maharashtra. Towards this, I have spent hundreds of man-hours in libraries, indexing 300 years of ornithological literature so that with the help of keywords, people can ferret out papers that might contain information they are searching. I have also been fortunate to edit various newsletters, and journals along this journey into ornithology.
What is the current state of birding and conservation in India?
Birding, as a pastime, is booming, fuelled by the new-found fad for bird-photography. Birding as a tool for conservation is picking up speed through various citizen-science projects and individual or collective (organised/organisation-based) activism. There is a pretty large community of birders in India. The exciting part is that it is growing rapidly every day. Most major cities have groups that go out birding at least on weekends. Social media has played a pivotal role in the huge popularisation of birding. There are Facebook groups that boast of over one-lakh members – Indian Birds. The versatility of the smartphone in perpetuating this phenomenon is used in so many different ways. Photos of birds, birding groups, habitats, etc., are uploaded easily; opinions upon correct identification of species are exchanged and applied; birding trips are organised, and threats to habitats such as wetlands or urban trees, highlighted. Someone invariably takes up the cause to educate the government, muster local or countywide support, and try and save such areas. The social media also informs people abouting poaching, the unethical behaviour of over enthusiastic photographers and birders, and acts as an SOS sounding-board where people ask about methods of handling lost fledgelings, storm-blown sea birds, or injured birds.
The power of citizen-science in collecting raw data is immense though it is in its nascent stage across most of India. An early effort to use amateur birders to collect data was the Asian Waterbird Census, which started in 1987 and still occurs in Dec-Jan every year. Subsequently, several participatory programmes have sprung up for the citizen-scientists so much so there is now a calendar of events. The recent upsurge in documenting, and analysing birding data is due to the fantastic online database portal called eBird, where birders can upload their field lists, notes, and photographs to be checked by experts and accepted. Various types of analyses are possible from the data.
So, on the amateur birder level, the birding scene in India is pretty rosy. Professional ornithology still has a long way to go, not so much for the lack of personnel as institutional support. Conservation in India is largely controlled by the State. Citizens have no control over the State’s whimsical fragmentation of wilderness areas. Many times, rudimentary or even erroneous environmental impact assessments are prepared by incompetent agencies and based on them, developmental projects are fast tracked for implementation. This is a high-handed, myopic, and discouraging trend that undermines the vital role of wilderness areas in the way our planet functions.
The increased awareness about the environment has resulted in a greater vigilance amongst the birders and wildlifers. Every detrimental project of the State is quickly flagged and we see a lot of participation in various types of protests. So birders are gradually getting to the tipping point where their collective voice would be heard by the administrations.
But beyond the hobby or activism, is there a lot of on-going research in ornithology?
Most ornithological research in India is species-specific, which is fine as it builds our knowledge base about birds. But it cannot be forgotten that we stand on the shoulders of giants and that there is a vast and extant literature. What is required is a deeper research that sees the role of species in the larger perspective of their environment so that a more holistic view of land and the wilderness is formed. Currently, there is a concentration of studying threatened species. I only wish that today’s common species are also studied. With the rate of habitat destruction and other pressures, many may end up threatened in a decade or two.
But there are several ornithologists in the country today doing great work. The work of V. V. Robin and his team comes to mind. Their deep study of the ‘Sky Islands’ of the Western Ghats is breaking new ground in the fields of landscape ecology, on species, biodiversity, and the effects of habitat fragmentation. Another worthy effort in north-eastern India is by Aparajita Datta’s team which works with local communities on the conservation of hornbills.
Team of birders are also venturing into coastal waters of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala in search of pelagic birds.
Can you take us through the issues faced by birds, especially in Southern India?
I have a feeling, though I may be wrong, that the birds of the five southern Indian states are better studied than those of the rest of the country. Through the phenomenon of eBird, the distribution data pouring in is amazing, and at least Kerala has taken up the task of compiling a bird atlas. Birders from the city of Mysore have created an atlas of bird distribution for two consecutive years. This contagion will only spread.
Habitat fragmentation, land, air, and water pollution, and man-made situations like wind farms are some of the problems birds face. Some of these will return to haunt us, if not affecting us already, for birds are a mere strand in the web of ecology that binds all life on earth. Ultimately, these problems will affect the way we live for they will result in water shortages, toxic poisoning, catastrophic climate change phenomena, etc.
So in what direction do we look for solutions?
A sure-fire way to ensure a more secure future for our environment, the birds and other wildlife, and ourselves as a consequence is universal education. It empowers people with knowledge and the ability to take right decisions.
There is a movement towards organic agriculture, and if its footprint were to increase, the land near critical wild habitat would become safer to their denizens. Government should stop clearing wilderness areas and furthering mono-culture in the name of reafforestation. What they deem non-productive land has remained so over millennia and plays a role in stabilising local landscapes (geography and hydrology).
We also need to preserve pristine water bodies. Commercialising all of them ultimately pollutes them and reduces their biodiversity.
Further, urban spaces should be de-congested into smaller satellite towns, ultimately reducing the need for mega-hydro projects for irrigation, power, and potable water – making way for smaller, less disruptive projects.
Stemming from this, you seem to feel quite strongly about birds and urban spaces.
Bird life in urban India is pretty diverse. In the pockets of congenial habitats that survive in the concrete jungles that our cities have become, wildlife clings on tenaciously, adapting to the rapidly changing habitats. Their presence or absence and abundance or rarity of species in urban areas is a reflection of their adaptability to changing environments and microhabitats. The reason one commensal of man (the house sparrow) struggles to cope while another (the feral pigeon) thrives is a direct reflection of this adaptability.
Feral pigeon populations have exploded in urban areas because conditions are conducive for them. They have virtually no predators, ample nesting spaces, and an abundance of food. They have adapted to using high-rise buildings for nesting and as perches. Their predators in the wilderness, generally falcons, are uncommon in urban Indian skies; feral, or pet cats might comprise their sole nemesis. But their propensity to breed year-round and the senseless largess of people who feed them ensure their successful colonisation of our urban spaces. We tolerate the mess they create, assume divine blessing in the feeding of them, and couldn’t care less that they spread disease. If municipalities made feeding pigeons a punishable offence, as many Western towns’ municipalities have, the menace of these flying rats will be curtailed.
World over, more people live in urban spaces than they do in the countryside. Urban spaces, if planned diligently, can become havens for wildlife. Diversity will be limited, as ecological riches are restricted, but there will be surprises due to the great variety of habitats. There is a concept gaining traction in the West, wherein a city is considered a fragmented protected area. Planners connect urban parks to each other via corridors of avenue trees and embrace private gardens into this grid. If such a concept were to be adopted, and municipalities envision habitats created of local or endemic rather than exotic flora, we could see an urban environment emerging that would benefit the people living in it. A life devoid of natural surroundings, which break the anarchy of man-made lines, withers our souls. And if we are restricted to artificial sound, our capacity to enjoy natural bird song and the subconscious euphoria it creates will diminish and impoverish us.
We’re sure you’ve had some fascinating adventures, be it on your solo birding trips or bird counts. Please share some stories.
I am not a particularly adventurous type, and so cannot boast of spectacular escapades in the wilderness. But in the restricted birding I have done, I have found moments of great beauty and grace that are sufficient to soothe a soul. On an outing with my birding group one winter morning, we were watching some ducks on a small wetland, when an Osprey appeared out of nowhere and dove for fish in front of an astonished birding audience, disappearing below the water and then, in a trice, emerging and lifting off with a large squirming fish in its talons. Mid-flight, it shook its body to rid its feathers of water in an halo of spray and flew away with the morning’s catch. It was a spectacular moment.
Another time, another place, again a water body. A few of us sat on a bund, watching ducks flying in to land on the water. As some came in, a few turned turtle in flight and then uprighted before landing. What an unbelievable sight that was! No one knows why they do it. It was so quiet, we could hear the wind in their wings – a sound of tearing fabric – as they descended at high speed.
In birding, the question to ask when looking at the bird is whether one is seeing it. To truly do so, one has to be sensitive, discerning, patient, quiet, and still. Birds will allow you into their world and the joys of watching birds are great, wherever you are. I have gasped at the clever House Crow that dropped crisped papad into waters so it did not splinter when eaten; at the song and dance of a male lora trying to impress a visiting female; at the crazy monotone of the Coppersmith Barbet; at the frenzy of male Baya Weavers when a female visits to inspect the housing facilities before accepting her mate; at the ability of young Pheasant-tailed Jacanas to sink into water when an adult cries ‘ware hawk’—in alarm; in the comical but perfect ruse of plovers to lure away predators from their young by the broken-wing (injured bird) display; by the awesome spectacle of tens of thousand of flamingos staining a wetland like an algal bloom; by the flocking of wagtails and pipits as they came to roost in a clump of reeds. All these encounters were close to urban agglomerations. People often ask ‘Where do you go to watch birds? Surely none but a few exist in cities?” But they are ignorant. Cities have a thriving birdlife though it may be limited. And I am not among those who wander the world with a shopping list of birds to be seen. Once ticked, they’re done with it, and move on to the next one. I am happy in my patch and with the birds found on it.
From your understanding, does birding provide a legit means of income?
There are several avenues for creating a livelihood for persons who do not have an academic degree in ornithology but are avid birders. What should be kept in mind by such people is that their interest in birds should be expanded to include the bird’s environment to get a more holistic picture of what is involved.
A person with a degree in ornithology could pursue an academic career in teaching, curating museum collections, join the government through the forest service, or other positions that require qualified people. Even large corporates with extensive campuses may need environmental experts. They may join environmental assessment agencies or international or national conservation organisations that run projects across the world. They could join or form their own tour companies to plan, execute, and lead niche itineraries for the adventure-hungry tourist.
Amateurs would perhaps have to work harder. But they could also professionalise their passion in writing books, in taking up photography, or even leading specialised tours on their own. The idea is to capitalise on your speciality and tap the niche market that searches for such a specialist. It all depends on how enterprising one is.
Being the bibliophile that you are, would you say there are high quality books on birds being published in India?
Indian publishers are hitching their wagons to the birding books phenomenon but invariably piggy backing on international publishers who have already put out books in the world market. The Bombay Natural History Society is perhaps the only organisation that in collaboration with Oxford University Press produces high quality natural history work. Other Indian publishers like Permanent Black, Orient Blackswan, and Aleph have begun their own imprints that cater to works on wildlife. But it is a mark of the state of affairs when the two most popular birding field guides have non-Indian authors. Except for Salim Ali’s large body of bird books and his incomparable beginner’s guide Book of Indian Birds, very few original standalone volumes have been published from a country with our 1200 species of birds, which have made a resounding splash. Notable exceptions in recent years have been Rishad Naoroji’s Birds of prey of the Indian Subcontinent, and Birds of Kerala by Sashikumar Praveen, Palot & Nameer.
Nature writing as a genre has not caught on in India though there are several anthologies in the market containing articles from various sources. But there is the glimmer of a silver lining showing since a couple of years, even though the works I allude to deal with larger environmental issues.
What was your process of getting into your first book Birds In Books, a bibliography of books on South Asian Ornithology?
The book covers a small portion of the vast library of published literature from this part of the world since 1750 – the time of scientific ornithology, comprising over 30,000 papers. I realised early on that there was no easy way to search through historical publications for pertinent literature on any one species or place. So I compiled a database that enables users do this at www.southasiaornith.in. Keeping it up to date is a full time job.
What would be your general advice to anyone interested in pursuing birding?
All pursuits have their own unique codes of ethical conduct. So does birding, e.g, the bird and its safety always comes first No matter how important it is to see it or photograph it, if in doing so, its very survival is threatened, one must back off. Birders must realise they are dealing with life forms that cannot comprehend them and vice versa; so taking situations for granted as if it were a human situation may not work with birds.
Over time, as one’s interest in birds grows, it is natural that one reads deeply about them and the environment they live in; one will finally realise it is a common environment we share. Through birds, we learn about our habitat and our role in shaping (or destroying) it. I would advise people to enjoy birds. Follow rules and the birders code of ethics. To advance ornithology, become a citizen-scientist and post your lists on eBird. Stay alert about environmental issues and participate in protecting wilderness areas. Read widely and spread the art and joy of birding.
Last one. Which is your dream bird you’ve been in the pursuit of?
I would love to answer “ the one I see next” for that is how much I like watching them. But over time, some birds become embedded in one’s imagination for various reasons. The endemic Bugun Liocichla of Arunachal Pradesh is one such. It is an entirely new species that was discovered as recently as 2006 by Raman Athreya and described to the world though Indian BIRDS, a journal I edit. I would also like to witness the spectacle of Amur Falcons flocking before their migration to Africa.
But frankly, I am happy visiting the same places again and again, and watching the same species repeatedly for if one gazes long enough, it is never the same place nor species. Just like one does not step into the same river twice, you always return to a different situation of habitat and life cycle of birds in your patch.