Birdmen of India

India is home to over a tenth of the total number of bird species that inhabit our planet. This rich diversity is spread over a wide geographical area and is scattered across a variety of landscapes and habitats. The archival of information on these species, their habits, and migration patterns has taken the collective sweat of a long line of ornithologists to whom we owe a huge debt. This article aims to profile a few of the stalwarts in the study of Indian birds.

Alan Octavian Hume
Alan Octavian Hume

Allan Octavian Hume is popularly known as the founder of the Indian National Congress, but a lesser known fact about him is that he was an avid ornithologist, prolific enough in that capacity to earn the epithet “Pope of Indian Ornithology”. Hume’s personal collection consisted of nearly 80,000 bird specimens, not counting several others that he lost during the Sepoy Mutiny. His publications included “My scrap book; or rough notes on Indian Oology and Ornithology” (1869), “Game Birds of India, Burma and Ceylon” (1879), and “Nests and Eggs of Indian Birds” (1883). Species named after him such as Hume’s Hawk Eagle are reminders of his contributions to Ornithology. Hume is known as much for his field work as he is for building a network of ornithologists from various parts of India. He also drew on the works of two other seminal contributors to the field of ornithology in India, Edward Blyth and Thomas C. Jerdon.

Edward Blyth was the original holder of the title “Father of Indian Ornithology”. As a professional zoologist and as the head of the Asiatic Society’s Museum, Blyth chronicled several bird species from the sub-continent. He is immortalized by several species bearing his name, a list that includes Blyth’s Reed Warbler and Blyth’s Pipit. Blyth’s contemporary, Thomas Jerdon, is known for his most important publication, “The Birds of India” (1862-64) which describes over a thousand species. Among the birds that carry his name, the enigmatic Jerdon’s Courser is sometimes called the rarest bird in India. Another noted ornithologist of that era was Samuel Tickell after whom one of India’s smallest birds, Tickell’s Flowerpecker, is named.

Dr. Salim Ali
Dr. Salim Ali

While most ornithologists in that age relied on morphological studies of collected specimens, another researcher Hugh Whistler popularized observation-based ornithology. Whistler’s close friend and yet another practitioner of observation-based studies was the giant of Indian ornithology, Dr.Salim Ali, widely known as the Birdman of India. For his lifelong contributions to the study of birds and his efforts towards conservation, Dr. Ali received India’s second highest civilian honour, the Padma Vibhushan. While he wrote and contributed to several publications, his “Handbook of the Birds of India and Pakistan” written with Dillon Ripley is considered a must-have for all serious birders. Dr. Ali’s cousins, Humayun Abdulali and Zafar Futehally are recognized for their contributions to Indian Ornithology as well. In fact Futehally, who lives in Bangalore, is still widely respected and consulted in birding circles.

Two other ornithologists who originate from the Western Ghats in my home state of Karnataka deserve mentions. Syed Abdulla Hussain was considered one of our leading ornithologists till his death late last year. Another doyen of letters, Poorna Chandra Thejaswi, is widely recognized for his publication called Kannada Nadina Hakkigalu (Birds of Karnataka).

This list of ornithologists is not comprehensive or definitive. The names mentioned here are merely the most prominent among the hundreds of men and women who dedicated their lives in documenting our treasures. With their efforts they have piqued the interest of future generations. If today, hobby bird-watching is even possible let alone enjoyable, it is due to the work of these champions.

Author: Deepak Rajanna
Deepak Rajanna works in Yahoo! India. Deepak’s hobby is bird watching and photography.

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