Staff Picks: What we’re reading

Birding for people who don’t like lists
by Matthew L. Miller

If you are a lazy and disorganised birder like me, then you should read this article—and if you are not, then you should definitely read this! Birders often gets bogged down with making and organising their lists, competing with other birders and it really sidelines the joy of immersing yourself in nature, the simple joys of observing birds as well as other cool taxa. This piece is light and fun to read, and at the same time will leave you with a strong feeling of enjoying birding rather than just putting tick marks on your checklist.

—Jenis Patel
High Altitude Programme


Akal mein saras
by Kedarnath Singh

This is a simply written yet a very powerful poem that talks about how places change from one year to another and how birds find ways to navigate these changes. In particular, the poem is about a flock of Sarus Cranes, seen flying overhead in a village, during a drought year.

Seeing them from her terrace, an old woman brings a bowl of water for them. But the birds that may not have seen the water bowl, with their resounding wing beats, circle the village before flying away.

Though, it is sad that the birds are leaving, the poem still brings hope and humility. Here is an old woman, in a time of drought, extending a bowl of water to the birds. The poem also talks about how people look at the cranes and how the cranes may look at people.

The birds have traveled afar in search of water and when they don’t find any (water-bodies) in this village, they turn away to continue on their journey. On seeing them go away, the poet wonders what the birds might feel for the village and perhaps its people facing drought.

On calling them sarus, an interesting point the poet makes is that the cranes are quite unaware of the name they are being called by. As people, we name other beings and have ideas about them. The beings just are in and by themselves and are not necessarily to be found in the name, or the idea we ascribe to them.

—Swati Sidhu
Education and Public Engagement

अकाल में सारस
केदारनाथ सिंह

तीन बजे दिन में
आ गए वे
जब वे आए
किसी ने सोचा तक नहीं था
कि ऐसे भी आ सकते हैं सारस

एक के बाद एक
वे झुंड के झुंड
धीरे-धीरे आए
धीरे-धीरे वे छा गए
सारे आसमान में
धीरे-धीरे उनके क्रेंकार से भर गया
सारा का सारा शहर

वे देर तक करते रहे
शहर की परिक्रमा
देर तक छतों और बारजों पर
उनके डैनों से झरती रही
धान की सूखी
पत्तियों की गन्ध

एक बुढ़िया ने उन्हें देखा
वे पानी की तलाश में आए हैं
उसने सोचा

वह रसोई में गई
और आँगन के बीचोबीच
लाकर रख दिया
एक जल-भरा कटोरा

लेकिन सारस
उसी तरह करते रहे
शहर की परिक्रमा
न तो उन्होंने बुढ़िया को देखा
न जल भर कटोरे को

सारसों को तो पता तक नहीं था
कि नीचे रहते हैं लोग
जो उन्हें कहते हैं सारस

पानी को खोजते
दूर-देसावर से आए थे वे

सो, उन्होंने गर्दन उठाई
एकबार पीछे की ओर देखा
न जाने क्या था उस निगाह में
दया कि घृणा
पर एक बार जाते-जाते
उन्होंने शहर की ओर मुड़कर
देखा ज़रूर

फिर हवा में
अपने डैने पीटते हुए
दूरियों में धीरे-धीरे
खो गए सारस


Digital Accessible Knowledge of the birds of India: characterizing gaps in time and space
by A. Townsend Peterson, R. Suresh Kumar, Manoj V. Nair and Gautam Talukdar

This paper evaluates Digital Accessible Knowledge on occurrence of Indian bird species. More than two million primary occurrence records from across India were obtained from the Global Biodiversity Information Facility and eBird.

What’s interesting about this paper is that they found good coverage of the country after 2000, but almost no coverage prior to 1980. Kerala and some parts of Tamil Nadu have good coverage after 2000.

This paper highlights the importance of making historical data/information public (in this case in the form of field notes, published and non-published research, museum specimen records) so that this can help in understanding Indian bird geography, optimising conservation strategies, and identifying gaps for on-ground surveys and inventory work. Birders and bird researchers who have historical information would certainly find this useful and this might encourage more of us to publish their data and/or put up our historical bird records, contributing to citizen science initiatives such as eBird-India.

—P Jeganathan
Education and Public Engagement


Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the nature of history
by Stephen Jay Gould

The book depicts the story of the Burgess Shale—from misinterpretation to the reconstruction of fauna here, with really interesting illustrations.

It takes you on a journey of reinterpretation of the fossils found in the Burgess—how some views were questioned by three graduate students who successfully concluded that those specimens were either unique arthropods or belonged to new phyla.

I found this book both entertaining and informative, especially the sketches and descriptions of the main characters of the book—the fauna of the Burgess. And it has also has helped me increase my vocabulary!

—Monali Mhaskar
Eastern Himalaya Programme


Conversational insects
by H.I. Phillips

Strange as it may seem, I often find myself chatting with some gorgeous insects and spiders going about their business as I walk around the tiny tree-lined streets that lead to my home.

Many of our breaks in the office start like this, “Come check this ant out on our jamun tree—I think she’s a pregnant queen ant!”—and all of us gather with phone cameras on, secretly competing to get the best shot—making sure that we don’t disturb these little visitors while we’re at it. Ah, the joy of working in a place where all this strangeness is the celebrated norm!

And so, when I read about this book called The Personality of Insects by Royan Dixon and Brayton Eddy, I knew I had get a copy. It begins with a poem called “Conversational Insects” (who wouldn’t want to read a poem about making small talk with insects!) by H.I. Phillips—this seems to be just the kind of thing I was looking for.

Thank you, Mr Phillips, for weaving the thoughts that so many of us have, into such a wondrous piece of writing—and for making me want to continue those conversations with these fabulous beings I cross paths with everyday.

—Janhavi Rajan


Conversational Insects

‘I long to interview the little Insects
And get the drift of what they’re driving at:
To chat with Wasps and Crickets
In bushes, trees, and thickets
And understand the language of the Gnat.
I crave to get an earful from a Locust

To say, ‘I understand you’ to a Flea;
To say ‘Quite so’ to Chinch Bugs
And ‘That’s correct’ to Inch Bugs
And ‘Go ahead. I get you/ to a Bee.
I want to have a Weevil say, ‘I’ll see you;
Come up and get a statement sharp at two/
To have Flies say, ‘Now listen!’
And ‘Get me right on this’n’

And hear them all deny the interview.
To talk of this and that to Caterpillars;
To hear the gassings of the Brown-tail Moth;
To hear Hookworms and Jiggers
Explain the facts and figures

I’d like to hear two Beetles plight their troth.
I’d like to comprehend the talk of Skeeters;
To reason with them and to understand.
I’d rather have them bore me
Than have them come and gore me

I’d like to call their conversation grand.
I’d like to grasp the chatter of the Roaches
And understand them as they sit and think;
‘Twould be, I feel, informing
And mentally quite warming
To sit and gossip with them in the sink.

I’d love to hear a Cabbage Worm broadcasting
A message on the busy radio;
No matter what he’d say, sir,
He’d not be anyway, sir,
More deadly than some speakers that I know.”

—H. I. Phillips