Friday, February 11, 2011

A Historical Perspective

Birds are a delightful and useful part of people's everyday lives. They are extensively represented in all the cultures of the world. References to birds are found in paintings, sculpture, weaves, literature, dance and music.

In India, birds have been mentioned in the ancient texts of Hindu and Muslim literature. The modern scientific ornithological documentation in India was done at the time of the British rule, most prominently by the British civil servants and army officers in the Indian government. Some of them are : Edward Blyth, T.C. Jerdon, Baker, Oates and Hume. Several books and journal articles were contributed by them that formed the basis of the Indian ornithological studies. Later, Americans William Beebe and Delacour contributed towards studies on the pheasants.

Mr. A.O. Hume :
Most school-going children in India know that A. O. Hume was one of the founders of the Indian National Congress, a political party formed during the last part of the British rule in India, which was instrumental in the Indian struggle for independence.

Mr. Hume was a British civil servant in the Indian government. Most people don't know that Hume was also a keen ornithologist and an avid hunter. During his various postings in India, he used to go out on hunts in the then abundant forests found adjacent to the towns. He had collected about 80,000 specimens of birds (some of which he described for the first time). These stuffed specimens were housed in his summer retreat in Shimla (Himachal Pradesh) called Rothney Castle. This collection was later donated by him to the British Museum in England.
Hume also founded an ornithological journal called 'Stray Feathers', and employed reporters from all over India to contribute articles to the journal. He is known as the 'Father of Indian Ornithology', a title earlier given to Edward Blyth.

Hume also wrote several books on Indian birds. In his book titled 'The Game Birds of India, Burmah and Ceylon' (Part 1 and 2, coauthor CHT Marshall), Mr. Hume gives an account of the habitat and the game birds that he collected on his hunting expeditions. In present day India ofcourse, hunting of any kind of wildlife is prohibited by law.
The book talks about 20 species of pheasants, the classification of which was later revised by Baker. The nomenclature of some species too was later revised (eg. the genus Tragopan was earlier called Ceriornis). The book, published in 1879, is available in an online and a PDF format at the following website :
An excerpt from the book (quoting Hume's unhappiness over the inaccuracy of the colour plates the making of which was entrusted to Marshall, and his admiration of the female Tragopan satyra) :
" ................... the depth and richness of the tints of the female's plumge, which is a perfect poem without words, are lost in the harsh staring chromo."
A beautiful observation indeed.

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