Winged beauties

Birds of Baramulla
By Lt Col Rohit Gupta.
Published by 19 Infantry Division.
Allied Marketing Services, New Delhi. Pages 147. Price not stated.

Reviewed by Lt-Gen (retd) Baljit Singh

Thomas Hardwicke was 19 years old when in 1778 he disembarked at the Princep Jetty, Calcutta, as an Artillery Cadet in the Bengal Presidency Army. Like the average British school boy, Hardwick may well have indulged in the hobby of collecting bird’s nests and eggs but nothing could have prepared him for the impact that the rich chorus of bird song and the gorgeously plumaged birds make on the first "arrivals". That cadet Hardwicke was certainly smitten by Indian birds for life becomes abundantly clear from the fact that the first-ever book, devoted exclusively to India’s natural history, stands attributed to him.

The Illustrations of Indian Zoology: Chiefly from the Collection of Major General Thomas Hardwicke, published by the British Museum of Natural History in 1830-34 (two volumes), was a tribute to the abiding empathy which soldiers develop for flora and fauna around them. Now, almost 200 years later, 19 Infantry Division, stationed in the Srinagar Valley since 1947 and commanded by the likes of the late General Thimmaya, DSO, has published a pictorial guide, in large format, showcasing the symbiotic relationship between soldiers and birds in their vicinity.

Fortunately, for the Indian Natural Science, Hardwicke’s legacy became a passion with six other Indian Army officers who followed in his wake and in particular with Major T. C. Jerdon, a surgeon in the Madras Presidency Army. Jerdon’s Birds of India (two volumes, three parts) published in 1862-64, covering 1,008 species, remains an incredible achievement, earning him the sobriquette, "Father of Indian Ornithology". In the manner of Hardwicke, Jerdon also employed the best accomplished artists from Bengal for illustrating his collection, in water colours, with fetching results. One Jerdon folio of 50 Indian birds is rendered in such exquisite colours and minute detail that it is simply beyond monetary reach today!

Now, some 70 years later, when compact cameras suited for outdoors photography became available, Lt Col R.S.P. Bates of the 1st Royal Jat Regiment would use one extensively and with good effect, resulting in the book Bird-Life in India, published in 1931, the first of its kind. Bates next shifted his focus from the plains to the Kashmir Valley, and the fruit of his efforts was the excellent book, Breeding Birds of Kashmir (1952), covering 211 species as also a few breath-taking landscapes. Both books are all-time classics in this discipline, and most deservedly, Bates emerged as the "Father of Indian Bird Photography"!

As by a providential coincidence, another 70 years would elapse before Lt Col Rohit Gupta, a Corps of Engineers Officer, would arrive in the avatar of Bates. However, unlike Bates, who spent 12 months of leave spread over six years in the Valley in pursuit of his objective, Rohit mostly chanced upon birds randomly, as he soldiered through 2010 into 2011. For instance, I received a CD once with five images of Himalayan Woodpecker, two of which are spread on pages 54 and 55 of the book. I was amused when over the telephone he told me with a chuckle: "I was talking to my Commanding Officer, Sir, when I heard the "tap-tap-tap" sound from the tree above us. I excused myself, looked up and got these photographs, Sir"! My compliments to his Commanding Officer for the indulgence shown.

Be that as it may, both enthusiasts exhibited ample sensitive understanding of bird behaviour and extraordinary skills to freeze the image where the bird’s personality appears at its best. Where Rohit may be faulted is for including in the book the images of the fledglings of the yellow-billed Blue Magpie and of Blue Whistling Thrush, which were yet to acquire their full adulthood plumage. I find no other blemish

The book follows the accepted format used by the leading practitioners of this discipline the world over in recent times; a glossary of terms used and a concise descriptive text of each species. But unlike the contemporary publications, this book carries the visuals of the male as well as the female, where their plumage differs from each other distinctly. Yet, another interesting feature is the historical peep into the days of wildlife abundance in the Valley, a brief on the five wildlife sanctuaries in the region and a chapter on the gradual shift from trophy hunting to wildlife conservation, and from the sporting gun to the camera.

The bibliography shows how well the text was researched, which will surely merit the book’s inclusion among the current ornithological literature. And Lt Col Rohit Gupta emerges as an outstanding amateur naturalist whose sensitivities reach out to the birds he encounters. This quality is implicit in including Muriel Brown’s poem, "Birdlife in Kashmir" (1921), and indeed, in concluding the book with Robert Lynd’s profound observation: "There is nothing in which the birds differ from man then the way in which they can build and yet leave a landscape as it was before".