A birder gives wings to three centuries of South Asian ornithology

Aasheesh Pittie  

The libraries of Mumbai and Kolkata have been a second home since the 1980s for Aasheesh Pittie, who describes himself rather mildly as an amateur birder with an interest in the history of South Asian ornithology.

Mr. Pittie has spent long and absorbed hours in them, poring over dusty journals for papers on birds. His little-known labour of love has resulted in www.southasiaornith.in, a bibliographic database with the mandate of indexing everything that has been published on the birds of South Asia in the printed or electronic form since the mid-eighteenth century onward, made searchable with keywords.

Birders worldwide can access every avian taxon and most place names from more than 31,516 references, 22,164 keywords and 13,043 authors in over 2,107 books and 967 journals spanning three centuries of South Asian ornithology, beginning 1713. “I have typed every single letter in the database,” says the now Hyderabad-based Mr. Pittie, founding editor of the bi-monthly Indian BIRDS. “Who, but an obsessed bibliographer will sit for hours, tapping in scientific names of birds, and of places, for hours and days on end? I often jest that my true job is that of a touch typist.”

Important contribution

In June, he completed his monumental work on the historic Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal (1832-1993; 160 volumes; 260 entries), thus adding to his work on the archival Stray Feathers (1872-1899; 12 volumes; 535 entries), the Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society (1886-2017; 112 volumes; 464 issues; 4,893 entries) and Ibis (1860-2017; 159 volumes; 1,229 entries), and the more recent Newsletter for Birdwatchers (1961-2017; 56 volumes; 4,277 entries), Indian BIRDS (2005-2017; 13 volumes; 1,164 entries), now in its 13th year of publication, and Forktail (1986-2016; 31 volumes; 282 entries).

“I think the database is a great contribution to ornithology,” says Asad R. Rahmani, senior scientific adviser and former director of the Bombay Natural History Society. “References in the index will help conservationists to compare past and present distribution of birds, and formulate conservation strategies for the Indian subcontinent. Good science leads to good conservation actions.”

The database does not provide scanned copies of the indexed literature, as many people presume — it provides a list of works that contain the keyword being searched. So, essentially, if someone working on the Jacobin Cuckoo wishes to look up readings on this harbinger of the monsoon, they can type its scientific name(s) in the search box and the result is a list of publications to which that keyword is appended.

“The function of the index is to reduce a researcher’s library work to a fraction of the time it used to take earlier. All that remains is to look up the archival material it lists, either in a good library or online. A lot is missed out if birders rely only on books or well-known contemporary papers,” explains Mr. Pittie, also author of Birds in Books: Three Hundred Years of South Asian Ornithology: A Bibliography (2010).

He clarifies that his field of reference remains whatever has been published on the birds of South Asia within the political boundaries of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Myanmar, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Tibet, which lie mainly in what biogeographers call the Indomalayan or Oriental realm, and partly in the Palaearctic realm. “In the early days of the laptop, librarians wouldn’t allow me to carry it in, as if it would swallow up entire books. I never understood their apprehension,” Mr. Pittie, 56, notes wryly. The worst disaster over the course of his work was a crashed hard-drive late in the 1990s. “I hadn’t backed up a lot of work I had done — hundreds of man-hours spent doubled up in libraries,” he recalls. “I resolved to redo the entire work, however long it took. Now, it’s all in the public domain.”

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Printable version | Dec 9, 2021 2:06:11 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/sci-tech/energy-and-environment/a-birder-gives-wings-to-three-centuries-of-south-asian-ornithology/article19194786.ece

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