Back to basics

By Nitin Sethi
Published: Monday 31 May 2004

-- Petronia: Fifty Years Of Post-Independence Ornithology In India Edited by J C Daniel and Gayatri W Ugra Bombay Natural History Society, Mumbai Oxford University Press 2003 Rs 400

Salim Ali, the legendary Indian ornithologist, began his professional life with the study of the yellow-throated sparrow bearing the generic name Petronia. The book, dedicated to him by the Bombay Natural History (bnhs) society, is therefore aptly titled.

It is a treasure trove of papers written by Ali's friends, colleagues and students. Released at the centenary celebrations of bnhs last year, the book is a collector's item. To read a paper by Ali published in 1959 upon the rediscovery of the Finn Baya, alongside Madhusudan Katti and Trevor Price's 'Effect of climate change on palaearctic warblers overwintering in India' published in 1996 might not excite a causal browser but, they represent the work undertaken in the field in the past 50 years. The 22-odd papers in the book vary from natural history descriptions to narrative evaluations of the history of ornithology in India.

Going with the drift of work at bnhs, much of the new ornithology, using complicated statistical work, including simulation and modelling, does not find space in the book save the stray exception. But then it need not; this is not the place for it. This book compels one to recognise that the strong base India has developed in ornithology stands on the substratum of meticulous natural history descriptions. For the interested birdwatcher it's a perfect buy and for the ornithologist a memorabilia. But for the layperson: a tad expensive?

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