Birds in Our Lives provides glimpses of the incredible diversity of India’s birds: the ecosystems where different kinds of birds are found, the various ways-cultural and economic- in which birds have touched our lives, as well as a brief account of the history of ornithology in India . It stresses on the serious threats that bird habitats and populations face, and gives a sense of both the continued erosion of Indian birdlife, as well as the rapidly growing efforts to save it. Finally, it provides key pointers for what needs to be done if we want to save this precious natural heritage.
Ashish Kothari has spent about 30 years as an environmental activist. His passion for nature was ignited in school-time birdwatching trips, where he was hooked by the beauty of birds, even if very confused by their identities.
In 1978-79, he helped form the environmental action group Kalpavriksh, and in the 1980s, was a key member o ht Narmada Bachao Andolan. He coordinated India’s National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan process, helped draft the National wildlife Action Plan, and has urged the integration of conservation, livelihood, and development concerns.
Throughout this period, he has tried to continue using his binoculars, but remains confused by warblers, raptors, and other bird groups that simply don’t match any bird identification books. This, he says, is why he did not make this book a field guide.
When I was small, not so long ago, my idea of a bird was restricted to the omnipresent sparrow, the raucous crow, the stodgy pigeon, and the occasional vulture. Pariah kites (eagles, we called them) sometimes encroached on my consciousness as they swooped to steal a sandwich I would be eating on my school lawns. That this handful of species was only a tiny fraction of the world of birds, was something that struck me much later in life.
I vividly remember my first visit to Bharatpur, that most wonderful of India's many bird havens, and the complete astonishment with which I observed the diversity of its avifauna. That trip hooked me for good, and birds have ever since been an impelling and refreshing part of my life. So when I was asked to write a book on them, I was happy to accept.
But I also did not want this to be just another pretty picture book, adorning the shelves of the leisure class. If I was going to indulge in some amount of forest destruction by using paper, I decided that I could justify it only by making this book a serious, heartfelt appeal. An appeal to save the wonderful birdlife of India, at present so gravely threatened.
Such a venture has to start with giving the readers a sense of the importance of birds in our lives. For me, conservation of birds stems primarily from an ethical standpoint, the view that they have as much a right to live on this earth as we do. But there are those who may not be moved by this position. Hence the chapters on birds in Indian culture and economy, which argue that these creatures are a vital part of the material and psychological existence of our people.
Greatest stress, however, is on the chapters on bird decline and conservation. I have tried to include the latest information on these aspects to give a sense of both the continued slide of Indian birdlife, as well as the rapidly growing efforts to save it. Also included are some interesting and essential lists, including threatened birds of India, specially designated wetlands for conservation, sites considered imporfftant for bird conservation, and names of periodicals carrying material on birds.
A word on bird names. Over the last few years several new field guides have adopted new common names for Indian birds. I started writing this manuscript well before these name changes took place. I have updated the names, but also in many places retained the old names, not so much out of disrespect for the renaming process but because I'm convinced that most birders (especially amateur ones like myself) are still more comfortable calling Dinopium benghalense the Goldenbacked woodpecker, rather than Black-rumped flameback! But, in any case, I've also provided the scientific name with the common one, at least the first time the bird appears in the book, so that readers with a more modern bent of mind can check what I'm referring to.
In writing this book I have scanned through a considerable pile of literature, all that was available to me. Relevant books and periodicals on wildlife in India, scattered research reports, newspaper articles - all of these have been combined with my own personal experiences of birdwatching over the last 25 years. I have borrowed freely and unashamedly from published literature, not only because I had to, but also because I do not believe that information should be shackled by the bounds of copyright. But it is also important to give credit where it is due, and I must thank all those authors whose works were used as reference. These are listed at the end of the book, and I apologize if by oversight any have been left out. More academically minded readers may please forgive me for not citing references at every relevant point of the text; I wanted to keep the text relatively light and unencumbered by heavy footnoting.
This volume would have been possible without the help of many friends and acquaintances, but it would have been a considerably impoverished version. The following people commented on the first draft: S.A. Husain, M.K. Ranjitsinh, Shekhar Singh, Ranjit Lal (who inspired some joie de vivre!), Pratibha Pande, Farhad Vania (who even justified a trip to Mumbai by getting me material!), Suresh C. Sharma, Kumar Ghorpade, and Angana Chatterjee. Thanks also to the anonymous reviewer to whom the publishers sent the manuscript. The following people, and many others, helped in my search for information and visuals: Bharat Bhushan, Robert Grubh, Vc. Ambedkar, Isaac Kehimkar, Asad Rahmani, Nikita Goshalia, Dilnavaz Variava, Savita, S.T. Baskaran, Jaya Menon, Bittu Sahgal, Sunjoy Monga, Naresh Chandra, S.S. Bist, Johnson David, Kumar Ghorpade, Amrik Heyer, Raghavendra Singh, Anita Lal, Sharad Gaur, Vivek Menon, S. Subramanya, Harish Bhat, Ganesh Pangare, M. Zafar ul Islam, Taej Mundkur, Gopi Sundar, Ashok Kumar, Amlan Dutta, Aasheesh Pittie, Ravi San karan, Divyabhanusinh, Samar Singh, Bahar Dutt, Tasneem Balasinorwala, Ramesh Krishnamurthy, Arun Kumar, S. Sudha, Amit Jethwa, Ashish Fernandes, Sujatha Padmanabhan, Rahul Kaul, John Corder, and Mohit Aggarwal, Girish Jathar, Sujit S. Narwade, and Abhijit Malekar smilingly dug into the records of the Bombay Natural History Society, with guidance from Asad Rahmani, to update information that had gone hopelessly outdated between the first writing of the manuscript and its finalization. Many thanks to Madhuvanti Anantharajan for agreeing to create the illustrations despite several undoubtedly more important assignments tugging at her time, and for evocatively rendering the ideas I gave her into drawings and cartoons that bring the text alive. I am also grateful to the many photographers whose work appears in this book (their names appear with the images, so I am not repeating them here), some of whom waited more than a decade for this! An affectionate and special thanks goes to members of Kalpavriksh and of the Environmental Studies Division of the Indian Institute of Public Administration, with whom I had many an enjoyable session of birdwatching. I must also acknowledge Suresh C. Sharma for convincing me that ornithology is not necessarily an elite pastime, and for providing some useful updates. Rashmibhai Mehta for showing us how life's challenges can be met Malabar whistling thrush Myiopnonus with a smile. And Neema Pathak for egging me on to revive our birding trips, and spend more time out in the field! Thanks go to Dev Bahadur, who smilingly did the awful chore of keying in my first manuscript. Little Krishna's sharp eyes and hushed exclamations, "Anna, dodda pakshi" helped me spot Malabar trogons and other lovely birds, near our farm in Sirsi where, fittingly, I did the final revisions on this manuscript. Sunita Rao helped in all of the above ways, and in others not so tangible ... including building our house at Sirsi, from the porch of which alone I have recorded over 50 species. And finally, but certainly not the least, thanks to the wonderful people at Universities Press who readily accepted the manuscript and helped in so many ways to turn it into a book: Chandini Rao (who tragically passed away before its publication), Madhu Reddy, Priti Anand, and Prema Naraynen.
And there are those who contributed by just being around, and making me realize that material help is only a small part of writing a book: my mother and father, Smitu, Miloon, Karen, Gabriella, Bindia, Sultan, Sasha, Kublai, Chico, Sacchi, Scrabble, Gundu. Somewhere up there with the birds, I'm sure Mommy is smiling at my being able to finish something that I started when she was still alive.
A final word. This book talks about 'Indian birds', at times even about 'our birds'. Wild animals do not have nationalities, they do not belong to anyone but themselves. It is supreme arrogance for humans to assume ownership over the rest of nature. But if, in using this distorted terminology, I am able to evoke a sense of pride regarding what may be considered a national heritage, and can thereby help spread a more respectful attitude towards birds, I will be glad to accept the charge of succumbing to typical human arrogance.
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