My old home town, Dehra Dun, occupies a special place in the history of Indian ornithology. It was here that Salim Ali spent five years with his wife, Tehmina. While living in Dehra Dun he revised and refined his first and most famous work, The Book of Indian Birds. The Valley has a dazzlingly diverse collection of birds: some permanent residents, others summer migrants from the plains, yet others winter visitors from the hills. As Salim Ali recalled in his autobiography, living in the foothills of the Himalaya he had, at his doorstep, ‘all the things that mattered most to me—beautiful forests, magnificent scenery, good birding, trekking in the mountains and plenty of opportunities for game shooting and “naturalizing”. What could be more idyllic?’
In July 1939 the idyll was shattered, when Salim Ali’s wife died of blood poisoning. The bird man had ‘never been enamoured of city life’, but ‘without Tehmina life in Dehra Dun had not been, and could never be, the same’. And so he decided to return to Bombay. He lived there for the rest of his life, cared for by a loving extended family that gave him ‘freedom from housekeeping and other tiresome chores and headaches’, allowing him ‘to devote all my time to ornithological work’.
Salim Ali left the Doon, but the birds kept coming. In the year of my birth, 1958, Dr Joseph George published a definitive checklist of the birds of Dehra Dun in the Indian Forester. The list ran to more than four hundred species. Many of these were found where Dr George then worked—the spacious and thickly wooded campus of the Forest Research Institute. Growing up in the same campus, I could not but develop an interest in birds. Thus my childhood came to be peopled as much by feathered bipeds as by members of my own species. In the winters I looked out for the white-capped redstart, bobbing away near the canals; in the summers for the spectacular paradise flycatcher, nestling high among the beech trees.
The birds of the FRI were beautiful, as for instance the golden oriole; and they were big, as for instance the grey hornbill. And they were everywhere—on electric wires, in fields, in forests, by the road-side, and in our garden. Even, on occasion, in the house. One monsoon I was laid low by asthma, with brutal attacks coming my way every other night. I was doped, and depressed, but took some cheer in what was happening on our verandah, where a family of wire-tailed swallows had made their nest. Through weeks of rain-soaked days, while I wheezed away, the parents were teaching their little baby how to fly. That swallow certainly made my season.
My new home town, Bangalore, also has a honoured place in the annals of Indian ornithology. For it is home to the Newsletter for Birdwatchers, a remarkable publication that unites bird-lovers scattered in different parts of the country. The newsletter was founded forty-three years ago by Zafar Futehally, a gentle man of much charm and a rock-like integrity. Futehally started the journal from Bombay, where he then lived and worked. However, twenty-five years ago he moved with it to Bangalore.
Quite recently, Futehally invited me to the annual ‘do’ of the Newsletter for Birdwatchers. This involved a day-long excursion to a farm and lake on the outskirts of the city. Futehally, who is past eighty himself, insisted on picking me up and driving us to the farm. After making sure the arrangements were in place, he took me for a walk through the neighbouring village. We met a family of organic farmers, and then moved on in search of birds. I had asked to see a pied kingfisher, and was taken to a pond where a pair were known to nest. The birds were not to be seen, but Futehally spotted white markings on a rock, testimony to the fact that they still lived where he had last seen them.
When we returned to the farm the birdwatchers had begun to trickle in. They had come from Bangalore, of course, but also from Madurai, Mysore, Chennai, Hassan, and Coorg. Mid-morning coffee was followed by a visit to the lake, tripods and binoculars in tow. Then it was back to the farm for lunch, and a featured lecture by Professor Madhav Gadgil on the ecology of bird life.
If Salim Ali did more than anyone else to document Indian bird life, then Zafar Futehally has almost singlehandedly nurtured a community of Indian birdwatchers. (Appropriately, it is Futehally’s daughter, the writer and naturalist Zai Whittaker, who is the author of an elegant recent biography of Salim Ali.) In the latest issue of the Newsletter for Birdwatchers, the Editor confesses to having ‘a cataract in one eye and one ear totally non-performing’. ‘In future’, he says, ‘my pleasures of birding will have to be restricted to the reports I receive from contributors to the Newsletter, and this will continue to be a great joy’.
A great joy, and not just to the Editor. As ever, the articles display a great range of theme and region. A doctor from Nagpur writes of threats to forest eagles from hunters. A teacher from Andhra Pradesh writes of sights seen with his kids while out in the scrub: spurfowls, warblers, and rosefinches. A retired Lieutentant General writes from Chandigarh of competition for insects among pipits, rollers, drongos and other species, these seen in an open area near his house.
Reading these notes, written with such love and care, I was reminded of the most passionate birders I have known. One is Tara Gandhi, Salim Ali’s last student, and the author of a fine study of the symbiotic relation between birds and plants. The other was Eswaran Bharatan, who back in the seventies was a fellow student in Delhi University. Every year, Bharatan would take me on a trip to the Jumna to look for winter visitors. The river then had far fewer chemicals, and many more birds. As one who knew nothing of water birds myself, I would marvel at my friend’s powers of sight and sound. Plovers, sandpipers, terns and martins: birds I would never have known or identified, were shown to me by Eswaran Bharatan.
Bharatan’s interests were in the wide world of nature as a whole. After every holiday—which I had spent playing cricket—he would tell me of what he had found on his excursions. One time it was a Himalayan brown bear spotted in an oak forest beyond Simla, another time a Collared Scops Owl that he came across while rock-climbing near Tughlakabad Fort. In 1979, I met Salim Ali. When I told him where I was studying, he said: ‘Do you know the Eswaran brothers? They are outstanding birdwatchers. They help me with ringing operations at Bharatpur’. Not long after this Bharatan perished in a mountaineering accident. Had he lived he might have made major contributions to the natural history of India.
Unlike Zafar Futehally, I still have fine sight and adequate hearing. My birding is restricted only by my own inability to escape from the confines of city life. And so I too now birdwatch by proxy, through reading the works of others, and recalling days spent in woodland and water with the friends of my youth.