On Christmas day in 1981, my parents gave me the present my 12-year-old heart had long yearned for: Salim Ali’s The Book of Indian Birds. I signed my name on the first page, carefully adding the words, “The Birdwatcher’s Bible”. It was the perfect accompaniment to a Bandra boyhood. Our stillleafy neighbourhood was home to querulous red-vented bulbuls, curious cattle egrets and ungainly crow pheasants and, in the geeky manner of the quizzing fanatic that I was, I soon committed large swathes of Ali’s text to memory. What is a bird? “It is a feathered biped.” What is India’s rarest bird? “The Mountain Quail, Jerdon’s Courser and the Pinkheaded Duck.” What is the common name of the Crimson-breasted Barbet? “The Coppersmith.”
Shortly after, Bittu Saghal began to publish Sanctuary magazine and the inaugural issue carried a congratulatory letter from Salim Ali himself. In the convention of the times, it ran with Ali’s complete address. I was delighted to realise that he, too, lived in Bandra. I hopped on to my bicycle and peddled furiously to 33, Pali Hill. The grand old man seemed bemused at my youthful adoration but graciously autographed my book in his shaky hand and called my attention to the whistling of a fan-tailed flycatcher in the distance.
Over the last three decades, the binding of my Book of Indian Birds, an eleventh edition copy printed in 1979, has come loose and silverfish have burrowed their way through some pages. The purple-rumped sunbirds that nested in the tamarind tree by our living room have long disappeared, as have the golden orioles, the tailor birds and the night herons that nested in the field by St Andrew’s School, calling “gwak, gwak, grawk” as they flew in from the beach at twilight. But each time I open the volume, it conjures up a cloud of memories: a smear of jam reminds me of a hurried snack on a Bombay Natural History Society bird count in Borivali National Park in the mid-1980s, a mud stain on the cover of the time I took a toss on a rain-slicked hill on a World Wildlife Fund trip to Karnala Bird Sanctuary a few years later.
Given my attachment to The Book of Indian Birds, I wasn’t sure what to think when Birds of the Indian Subcontinent: A Field Guide landed on my desk recently, claiming to be “a greatly improved” edition of the Salim Ali book. Revised by Ranjit Manakadan, Nikhil Bhopale and JC Daniel (who passed away last fortnight) and with illustrations by John Henry Dick, the new volume is larger and includes more species. However, it has shorter notes on them, excising the descriptions of field characters, calls, food and nesting habits. While Salim Ali opens his book with a user-friendly guide on recognising birds by their features (“birds with prominent tails”, “long-legged birds” etc), the new book starts with a less-utilitarian elaboration of bird families.
However, in keeping with its name, the Field Guide is much easier to use when you’re in the great outdoors. The illustrations are much clearer. In many cases, there are images not just of adult birds both male and female but also of immature specimens, birds in flight with their distinctive wing shapes, and birds with breeding plumage. The Field Guide proved its usefulness recently, when a large bird with a white breast and black head was rescued from attacking crows by the attendants at the pool at which I do daily battle with my ever-expanding belly. It looked like a Paradise Flycatcher, but I was confused because its wings and back were black, not white. I flipped through Salim Ali’s book, but I couldn’t seem to identify the bird. With the vivid illustrations in the Field Guide, though, it was immediately clear: it was a Pied Crested Cuckoo, a species I’d never seen in Bandra before.
A few days later, the cuckoo wasn’t hopping around by the attendant’s chair. When I inquired after it, the man pointed to a garbage bag, with a bird’s black tail jutting out. The Pied Crested Cuckoo had succumbed to its wounds. As I wheezed through my laps, contemplating the cruelty of nature, a whirr of blue dipped into the pool and then perched jauntily on the vinecovered fence. It was, I would discover from the Field Guide, a White-Breasted Kingfisher. On my next trip, I’ll have the Field Guide in my haversack to help me identify the birds. Then I’ll come home and read about them in my Salim Ali.
By Naresh Fernandes on November 15 2011