Tag: birds

Books on birds in Tamil

Books on birds in Tamil

Birds have fascinated human beings since early times. There have been many books, notes, and descriptions of birds and their behaviour in world literature, including several Indian languages. Birds have a special place in classical Tamil literature. Names given to some birds in ancient Sangam Tamil literature are still the same and in use (e.g., Koogai – Barn Owl and Thookanang Kuruvi – Weaver Bird). The famous old Tamil verse on White Stork, ‘Narai Narai Sengal Narai’, gives us a glimpse of the observation skill of the poet Sathi Mutha Pulavar on the migratory behaviour of this bird. Birds are mentioned even in Tamil film songs. For instance, I have made a list of twenty songs mentioning Chittu kuruvi or House Sparrow. Although there are mentions of various birds in old Tamil literature, proverbs, contemporary poems and film songs, and birds are also depicted in temple murals and other paintings, there are as yet few popular science books and field guides on birds in Tamil.

In recent times, efforts to popularise birds and their behaviour in Tamil were pioneered by the famous naturalist M. Krishnan. He wrote about birds and other wildlife of India in various Tamil magazines and newspapers. In 2002, Krishnan’s writings in Tamil were compiled by Theodore Baskaran, another accomplished nature writer in Tamil in the book Mazhaikalamum Kuyilosaiyum (The Monsoon and the Call of the Koel). M. Krishnan also wrote about birds for the Tamil Encyclopaedia Kalaikalangiyam, published in ten volumes between from 1954 to 1968 by the Tamil Valarchi Kazagam. These articles on birds have been compiled and brought out in the book Paravaigalum Vedanthangalum (Birds and Vedanthangal) by Tamil writer Perumal Murugan (read his foreword for this book here). This collection includes M. Krishnan’s booklet on Vedanthangal Bird Sanctuary, which was published in 1961 by the Tamil Nadu Forest Department, an English version of which is available here.

Among the significant works on birds to emerge in Tamil after M. Krishnan, is the book “Theninthiyap Paravaigal” (South Indian Birds) authored by Dr. K. Ratnam, a retired Tamil professor. Published in 1974 by the Tamilnattu Padanool Niruvanam (Tamil Nadu Textbook Corporation), this book was part of school and college curriculum for a while, but is now out of print. After this Ratnam also produced another important publication Tamizil Paravai Peyargal (Bird names in Tamil) in 1998. In this amazing work, he compiled Tamil names of 410 bird species, referring to various books and sources including M. A. Badshah’s Checklist of birds of Tamil Nadu with English, scientific and Tamil names. Ratnam coined new names for species that did not have common names. This book, which I clearly remember buying in 1995 at the the 8th World Tamil Conference book fair at Thanjavur, is one of my prized possessions. It is now available online for free download. Still, Ratnam’s landmark book came a few years later. Published in 2002, Tamilnattu Paravaigal (Birds of Tamil Nadu) became the first field guide for birds in Tamil, covering 328 birds species that occur in Tamil Nadu.

Bird books in Tamil by Dr. K. Ratnam

Other nature writers in Tamil, including S. Mohamed Ali, Theodore Baskaran, Athi Valliappan, and Kovai Sadasivam, have published several articles and books on birds. Another acclaimed work on birds in Tamil is by Asai, a modern Tamil poet who is a writer and editor of Cre-A publications. Asai’s Kondalathi (Tamil name for Eurasian Hoopoe), a collection of his poems about birds, is a pioneering work in modern Tamil poetry.

Kondalathi, Tamil poetry on birds by Asai, and Paravaigalum Vedanthangalum, a collection of M.Krishnan’s articles on birds in Tamil.

Cre-A Publications is one of the highly reputed publishing houses of South India. Apart from the well known Kriyāviṉ taṟkālat Tamiḻ Akarāti (Tamiḻ-Tamiḻ-āṅkilam): Cre-A Dictionary of Contemporary Tamil (Tamil-Tamil-English), Cre-A has published an impressive array of Tamil literary works and translations from other languages. Cre-A’s co-founder and managing editor, Cre-A S. Ramakrishnan, has also pioneered the publishing of books on nature and environment, such as Inthiavin Sutruchulal (1986), a  translation of The State of India’s Environment, Maram Valarpu (Tree Planting), and the famous Spiders: An Introduction by K. Vijayalakshmi and Preston Ahimaz.

I was pleasantly surprised therefore when Asai approached me with his idea of bringing out a dictionary of birds in Tamil to be published by Cre-A. He had made an initial draft of the manuscript with about 50 species of birds, taking help from Dr. R. Bhanumathi, an environment educationist experienced in the art of puppetry. The initial list was extracted from Cre-A’s Tamil Dictionary. Over the next few months, we worked together on developing this and decided to bring it out as a photographic field guide.

Paravaigal: Arimugak kaiyedu (Birds: Introductory field guide)

The result is Paravaigal: Arimugak kaiyedu (Birds: Introductory field guide) released in January 2013 at the 36th Chennai Book Fair. This compact (10.5 cm X 14 cm) guide contains photographs and brief accounts of 88 bird species commonly found in Tamil Nadu. The selected species are mostly those commonly seen in the plains and a few from hilly and coastal regions. The books carries 166 full-colour photographs of these birds taken in the field by famous wildlife photographers such as Ramki Sreenivasan, Radha Rangarajan, Kalyan Varma, Gnanaskandan, Vijay Ramanathan, and many others. To aid in bird identification, photographs taken in different angles to clearly show plumage and posture of the bird are used in the book. Wherever necessary, differences between the sexes, plumage variation during breeding and non-breeding seasons, and different morphs of the same species, are also illustrated through photographs. Descriptions to help birders identify birds in the field are given in simple language. Tamil names of birds sometimes differ from region to region and we mainly use the names given by K. Ratnam, while mentioning any alternative common names. For each species, brief descriptions of habitat, ecology, and behaviour are given. Here are a couple of sample pages from this guide:

This guide is produced for anyone who are fascinated by birds and want to learn about birds. Besides the species accounts and photographs, there is a detailed introduction to the classification, nomenclature, and history of Indian ornithology. The book also lists various Indian research institutions, including those that offer courses on ornithology. To help birdwatchers who wish to know more, there is also a list of other field guides on Indian birds, tips on  birdwatching and bird identification using calls, plumage and nests. There are brief sections on bird migration, conservation, importance of birds, list of bird sanctuaries and links to Important Bird Areas (IBA’s) in Tamil Nadu and other books on birds in Tamil.

This book is a collective effort of many people. I take this opportunity to thank Mr. Athi Valliappan and Mr. Theodore Baskaran for their comments on the draft, all the photographers who generously contributed their wonderful photographs, Mr. Balaji for designing this book attractively, other staff of Cre-A for their help in various ways, and Divya and Sridhar for their encouragement. This book was a brainchild of Cre-A and I thank Mr. S. Ramakrishnan and Mr. Asai for giving me this opportunity.

To buy this book contact Cre-A. Email: creapublishers@gmail.com (Tel: 044 – 42020283)

The pigeon’s passengers

The pigeon’s passengers

There is a modesty in their conquest of mountains. From the heights, they commandeer vistas of rugged mountains covered in forest or countryside dotted with great trees. From tall trees on high ridges, they scan the landscape, their heads turning on long and graceful necks. They have scaled peaks, even surpassed them. Yet, they speak only in soft and hushed tones that resonate among stately trees. For the imperial pigeons are a dignified lot, keeping the company of great trees.

Down in the valley, the pigeon’s voice throbs through dense rainforest: a deep hu, hoo-uk, hoo-uk, repeated after long pauses, like the hoots of an owl. In the dawn chorus of birdsong, it sounds like a sedate basso profundo trying to slow the tempo of barbets and calm the errant flutes and violins of babblers and thrushes. The calling pigeon, in a flock with others, is in a low symplocos tree whose branches shine with dark green leaves and purple-blue fruit. They are busy picking and swallowing the ripe fruits, each with fleshy pulp around a single stony seed.

These large birds, neatly plumaged in formal greys and pastel browns, are Mountain Imperial Pigeons—a species found in the rainforests of the Western Ghats and the Himalaya in India.

Mountain Imperial Pigeon (Ducula badia) in a rainforest in north-east India. (Photo: Ramki Sreenivasan/Conservation India)
Mountain Imperial Pigeon (Ducula badia) in a rainforest in north-east India. (Photo: Ramki Sreenivasan/Conservation India)

In more open forests and on grand banyan and other fig trees along the roads through the countryside, one can see their cousins, the Green Imperial Pigeons shaded in more verdant sheen.

Green Imperial Pigeon (Ducula aenea) on a fruiting fig tree. (Photo: Ramki Sreenivasan/Conservation India)
Green Imperial Pigeon (Ducula aenea) on a fruiting fig tree. (Photo: Ramki Sreenivasan/Conservation India)

As a group, the imperial pigeons have a penchant for fruit that necessitates roaming wide areas in search of food. Weeks may pass in a patch of forest with no sign of pigeons, but when the wild fruits ripen, the nomadic flocks descend from distant sites and the forest resonates with their calls again.

The transporter

Like other birds such as hornbills and barbets in these forests, imperial pigeons eat fruits ranging from small berries to large drupes, including wild nutmegs and laurels and elaeocarps (rudraksh). Yet, the pigeon’s bill is small and delicate in comparison with the hornbill’s horny casque or the barbet’s stout beak, which seem more suited to handling large fruits with big stony seeds. The imperial pigeon’s solution to this problem is a cleverly articulated lower beak and extensible gape and gullet that can stretch to swallow the entire fruit and seed.

Lured by the package of pulpy richness in fruit, the pigeon then becomes a transporter of seed. Many seeds are dropped in the vicinity of the mother tree itself, scattered around with seeds from rotting fruit fallen on the earth below. The concentrated stockpile of seeds below elaeocarp and nutmeg trees are attacked by rodents and beetles, leaving little hope for survival and germination. But when the pigeon takes wing, some seeds go with the pigeon as passengers on a vital journey, travelling metres to miles into the surrounding landscape. Voided eventually by the pigeon, the dispersed seeds have an altogether greater prospect of escape from gnawing rat and boring beetle and—when directly or fortuitously dropped onto a suitable spot—of germination. By carrying and literally dropping off their passengers where some establish as seedlings and grow into trees, the pigeons become both current consumers and future producers of fruit.

Still, it is the quiet achievement of the trees that seems more impressive. Rooted to a spot, the trees have enticed the pigeons to move their seeds for them. Deep in the forest, one discovers a seedling where no trees of that kind stand nearby, bringing a rare pleasure like an unexpected meeting with an old friend. The pigeons are plied with fruit and played by the trees. The modest conquest of the mountains by the pigeons is trumped by the subtler conquest of the pigeons by the immobile trees.

Peril of extinction

In speaking of the pigeon’s passengers, one recalls with misgiving the fate of Passenger Pigeons. The Passenger Pigeon was once found in astounding abundance across North America in flocks numbering tens of millions—flocks so huge that their migratory flights would darken the skies for days on end. Yet, even this species was exterminated by unmitigated slaughter under the guns of hunters and by the collection—during their enormous nesting congregations—of chicks (squabs) by the truck-load. Within a few decades, the great flocks and society of Passenger Pigeons were decimated in vast landscapes transformed by axe and plough, plunder and profiteering. By 1914, the species—at the time perhaps one of the most abundant land bird species in the world—had been reduced to a single captive female. The last known Passenger Pigeon, Martha, died in Cincinnati Zoo in September 1914, closing the page on another wonderful species, in another sorry chapter of human history on Earth.

Our pigeons are more fortunate, but in many areas they, too, are dying a slow death. Some fall to the bullets of hunters who take strange pride in their dubious sport or skill. Some roam large areas of once-continuous rainforest, which now have only scattered fragments. The mountain imperial pigeons are still seen winging across in powerful flight from one remnant to another, over monoculture plantations and stagnant reservoirs. Their forays are getting longer, and their journeys often end fruitless. Our countryside, too, is becoming bereft of their green cousins, as grand banyans and other fruit trees vanish along our widening roads, and diverse forests of native trees are replaced by miserable Australian acacias and eucalyptus, if they are replaced at all. As their homes are whittled away, the hornbills, barbets, and other pigeons vanish silently. With them vanish subtle splendours and prospects of regeneration. On the roads, the vehicles speed along on their wheels of progress, carrying passengers of a different kind, barely aware of the majesty and opportunity for renewal left behind.

From the valley, the imperial pigeons take wing and—in a minute—fly high and swift over the mountain to distant rainforest. There, sometime in the future, new seedlings will perhaps still emerge in a silent testimony. A testimony that one can forever fly high and strong if one only consumes what one also regenerates in perpetuity.

This article appeared in The Hindu Sunday Magazine on 6 May 2012, and in the In School edition on 9 May 2012.

The whistling thrush

The whistling thrush

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The whistling thrush sings—the clouds approach—
Lilting tunes smooth—as the river’s flow
Is it for love, or gain—for intruder, reproach—
Who am I to say, or know?

The stream speaks softly—the banks glisten
With sparkling shingles—and damselfly wings—
Earthly purpose—no place for heaven
Is this the reason—the whistling thrush sings?

The voice of generations—across the firmament of time
Or ripple song—damselfly idyll anew—
With sprightly pose—the thrush sings sublime
A river-melody, an earth-harmony—I wish I knew—

The song-stream flows, slows—eternal
The sparkle-sun dips, slips—funereal
Is this the way—of space and time to go?
Who am I to say, or know?