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Colourful feathers and songbirds

Published : Jul 10, 2016, 2:29 am IST
Updated : Jul 10, 2016, 2:29 am IST

It has been the most eagerly awaited field guide for birdwatchers in the subcontinent.

It has been the most eagerly awaited field guide for birdwatchers in the subcontinent. In the making for more than five years, the book now finally released, more than meets up to the many expectations from the author who is fondly called the “Big Birdman of India”.

I remember an endearing image of author Bikram Grewal’s grandmother, the Rajmata of Gauripur (Assam), squatting on the floor and lovingly coaxing her pet Barn Owl to feed on rice and milk. That scene effectively sums up the influence on a young mind that veered towards passion for birdwatching at an early age. Pursuing his hobby intensely over 45 years has enabled Bikram to share his knowledge and experience garnered on field through numerous books and publications. It won’t be an exaggeration to say that publisher-author-ornithologist Bikram Grewal, with more than 20 books authored by him, is currently the most influential birdwatcher in India, with his bird-guides having been read by almost every serious amateur birdwatcher in the country.

A Pictorial Field Guide to Birds of India could well be the magnum opus of field guides on the spectacular avifauna of the subcontinent after the legendary duo Ali & Ripley’s Handbook of the Birds of India and Pakistan. Published by Om Books International, the first impression that one gets is that in spite of a voluminous 791 pages, the book is sleek and compact in size and design, easily hand-holdable, and therefore a field guide that can be taken along on birdwatching trips by birders like me who anyways carry a huge lot of stuff.

A 10-page introduction by the famed author duo of Tim and Carol Inskipp is richly informative and gives a comprehensive picture of ecology and diversity relating to avifauna found in the subcontinent. It is interesting to note that while the Indian subcontinent is home to 13 per cent of the world’s birds at nearly 1,400 species with 10 per cent of these being endemic to the region, less than 800 species are found in all of North America. Obviously, it is the Indian subcontinent’s great diversity in altitude, climate, and vegetation that makes it so species-rich.

Going through the insightful overview, one is familiarised with the distinctions between species categories, summer and winter visitors to the region, notified bird areas, different habitats, and rare and threatened species. Talking about the various bird habitats of the subcontinent, the authors tell us that over half of the region’s globally threatened birds and two-thirds of its endemic birds are dependent on forests and, therefore, forest depletion is a matter of serious concern. Also alarming is the fast declining numbers in grassland birds like Great Indian Bustard and Lesser Florican which is attributed to fragmentation and degradation of these habitats. The Inskipps round off the overview on an emotional note on Hinduism and Buddhism’s conservation traditions with a reference to Emperor Ashoka who is believed to have built one of the first wildlife sanctuaries in the world. Not surprisingly, exquisite bird illustrations by master artists from Bikram Grewal’s collection line the sides of the pages of the overview.

To me, this book is as much a reference for non-birdwatchers as it is for birdwatchers by virtue of the smorgasbord of bird photographs that lavishly decorate the pages. For novice birdwatchers, there is no question of any ambiguity on identifying a species as they can now match feather for feather when they sight a bird instead of relying on illustrations. While Bikram Grewal has always preferred photographs over illustrations in his previous publications, this time the quality of images is the standout feature of this book. From shy tragopans to elusive partridges and pheasants, every bird, rare and common, is featured in a large image of impeccable clarity and beauty. All the images have been contributed by the cream of the country’s bird photographers of whom there are a large number now on field, wielding the most sophisticated gears and gadgetry.

With such clear images, the book deserves to be on the living-room table in every home, as it would serve as the easiest reference for backyard birding and for birdwatching initiates.

Description, size, voice, range and habitat of each species is mentioned alongside the image as also a distribution map for the species in the subcontinent. A list of vagrants and doubtful species, rich bibliography, glossary of ornithological terms and a comprehensive checklist of the birds of the subcontinent make this an exhaustive reference guide for the serious birdwatcher as well.

Sharing the opinion of some co-birdwatchers who have gone through this book, I would call for larger distribution maps to facilitate easy viewing. A book of such immensities will harbour a few errors, which I am sure the publishers would do away with in the second edition that is about to go to press.

What the readers including myself are missing is a note from the author about his birdwatching journey and the making of this book. Also, a few words from the extremely competent co-authors of the book, Sumit Sen, Garima Bhatia, Nikhil Devasar and Sarwandeep Singh who are seasoned birdwatchers of the country would have been welcome.

With all conservation programmes focused obsessively on apex-species, birds have been relegated to the background in the conservation arena. Ancient man regarded birds as a “sentinel species” and relied on birds as indicators of the health of the environment. In the broader ecological perspective, without birds there would be no forests left and hence habitats for mega-fauna would cease to exist. Therefore, the ecological role of birds must receive attention and adequate steps taken so that we do not lose any more birds to the terrifying phenomena of extinction.

Towards this end, it is imperative to raise awareness on birds by encouraging the habit of birdwatching, especially amongst the younger generation, so that they are aware of what they have and what they can lose if they take the presence of birds for granted. Bikram Grewal’s A Pictorial Field Guide to Birds of India could well serve as the first step in fostering interest in avifauna, thereby evoking the required concern about bird conservation.

Panchami Manoo Ukil is a Bhubaneswar based birdwatcher who initiated community birdwatching in Orissa through her group The Bhubaneswar Bird Walks. She also conducts bird walks for schoolchildren.