Homes and gardens

Beginning of birding in India

A WHOLE NEW WORLD Robert Prys-Jones has followed Hume’s life from his days of hunting to turning vegetarian

A WHOLE NEW WORLD Robert Prys-Jones has followed Hume’s life from his days of hunting to turning vegetarian  

It’s the tragedy of it all that first strikes you -- after nearly 20 years of observing India’s rich birdlife, noting, maintaining diaries and journals of observations, discovering new species of birds, an old miffed servant sold away much of A.O. Hume’s written material as scrap while he was away on duty, putting an end to the ornithologist’s exhaustive efforts and enthusiasm.

Yet, Hume’s collection from India of over 63,000 skinned bird specimens, 18,500 eggs, 500 nests, 200 papers, 14 books and a journal of around 5,500 pages, 400 mammals, remains the single largest donation made to the British Natural History Museum from anywhere in the world. And it stays there, accessible to researchers form all over the world.

Robert Prys-Jones, Collection Manager, Birds, at the Natural History Museum, Tring was recently in Bengaluru’s prestigious Indian Institute of Science where he gave a talk on “Allan Octavian Hume – ‘Pope’ of South Asian Ornithology”.

The year 2012 was the centenary of Hume’s death. Allan Octavian Hume was a member of the Imperial Civil Service (later the Indian Civil Service), a political reformer, ornithologist and botanist who first landed in India in 1849.

He is known for the compassionate way he dealt with Indians. Most of us unrelated to the bird world, know him through our history books as one of the founders of the Indian National Congress.

For birding enthusiasts in India, Hume is a far more interesting person as the “Father of Indian Ornithology”.

It made for fascinating listening, as Robert traced Hume’s postings in Oudh, Dehra Dun, Meerut and Etawah, as a Colonial administrator and his travels spanning Nainital, Jaipur, Ajmer and Manipur, how he described and named birds using English names and local Indian ones at a time when there were no journals for reference.

Robert’s talk traced Hume’s interest in birds from days when it was just sport for hunting and eating, to the mid 1860s when he started having birds stuffed and labelled, and started making notes on observation. (Hume apparently had trained an Indian in taxidermy and he remained and worked with him for 12 years.) When he was in his 50s, with his interest in theosophy, Hume turned vegetarian and decided to stop killing and collecting birds. Hume has 13 species and sub-species names in his honour.

Way back in 1869, he published his first book “My Scrap Book -- Indian Oology and Ornithology” (oology is the study and collection of bird eggs). In that he started calling for people to send him new bird specimens they had found, new features or observations they had made -- in effect the beginnings of bird study and setting up of a network of ornithologists in India! By 1881, he had built up a network of over 160 contributors from all over the Indian Empire -- he’s seen as a man ahead of his time. He had concerns about conservation, says Robert, and even tried to introduce gaming laws later in his life.

Somewhere in 1871/72 Hume moved to Shimla and set up his own natural history museum at Rothney Castle, appointed a full-time curator, and founded the journal “Stray Feathers”.

“Over a period of 15 years he spent around 20,000 pounds to put together an ornithology museum and library -- the largest ever in the world for Asiatic birds,” observes Robert.

In 1885 nearly 20,000 specimens were destroyed in rains and landslides that hit the region. He finally left his job in the British service after being demoted for challenging his masters about how economic development should proceed in India.

Young people do visit museums

In a quick tete-a-tete post his talk, Robert Prys-Jones talks about museums and conservation

How much of Hume's collection is on display currently at the NHM?

Hume's collection is the largest bird collection. But it's not on display. It's in the research collection of the museum. It's available by appointment to serious researchers for research and publication. There are over a million specimens held by the Museum and only about three or four thousand are on display. A few of Hume's specimens may be there among them; I'm not too sure.

What is the quality of Hume's collection in terms of taxidermy?

His collection tends, on average, to be well prepared. But you must remember that he received collections from other people as well. But most of the people from whom he received collections seem to have been competent in preparation.

What is the place of museums in our modern lives? When we believe most youngsters are disinterested...

I have spent 25 years in charge of the world's most heavily used bird collection. Each year we get in the order of 500 serious research visitors present for 1000 visitor days per year -- a good proportion of these are relatively young people. In Britain there is a huge amateur ornithological community, many of whom are extremely knowledgeable and enthusiastic. In order to verify observations made in field or to provide write up papers on identification of species, they need to use the collection.

There is a school of thought that believes in resurrecting extinct species using cloning. Your comments...

I have very little to say becauseI'm not a molecular biologist. I'm well aware that great advances have been made in molecular biology. But I have serious doubt that the resurrection of species will, at least in my lifetime or much after, be a serious proposition. And it should never be used as an excuse to say it doesn't matter if a species should go extinct. It matters desperately and they should be preserved at all costs.

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