Value-added birdwatching

By Raman Kumar
Published: Tuesday 28 February 2006

-- Birds: Beyond Watching by Abdul Jamil Urfi published by Universities Press Hyderabad

Birds are one of the lucky few groups of animals that attract interest among a lot of people who are not actually biologists. Join a birdwatching group and you'll be amazed to discover the variety of people who share this infectious hobby. Students, accountants, engineers, housewives -- birders are just about as diverse as birds themselves. And they are a fast-growing community. Over one-tenth of all environmental ngos in India are concerned with birds and their conservation directly.

There are a lot of well-illustrated guidebooks available in the market that help birders identify birds. But there's certainly more to birdwatching than mere identification or adding more species to one's 'life list'. While field guides can easily answer the 'What's that bird?' question, they cannot address the 'Why' and 'How' bits that are bound to bother amateurs somewhere down the line. Unfortunately, there is a dearth of books in India to satisfy their imminent curiosity, especially for those not conversant with ecology and natural history.

Through Birds: Beyond Watching, Urfi has attempted to bridge the gap between birdwatchers and ornithologists by providing a simple introduction to some basic concepts and issues concerning avifauna. His take is that birders are an important scientific resource. A little bit of proper orientation and guidance can make birding more rewarding for the birder. Simultaneously, armed with some basic knowledge, birders can effectively contribute to scientific research and monitoring as well.

Urfi starts by suggesting ways to enhance one's power of observation to make birding a more worthwhile experience. He offers tips on recording behaviour, taking field notes and reporting observations to the larger community.

In the next chapter the author explains the ecological concept of habitat. He gives an overview of the major avian habitats, together with the kinds of birds occurring in, and adapted to, each of these habitat types. Key concepts like sampling, ecological niche and biodiversity are also explained. The chapter ends with practical suggestions on how to record habitat. Next, Urfi gives a brief introduction to bird taxonomy and explains how birds are grouped into different orders and families.

How many birds are there? How do scientists deduce bird populations? The author devotes an entire chapter to bird 'census'. He provides a glimpse of different techniques used to count birds in field, demystifying the rationale behind methods to estimate bird numbers.

Just as the reader feels that Urfi is becoming too technical, he offers a refreshing change in the following chapter. This one focuses on a very interesting and important phase in a bird's life history -- establishing territories, nesting and breeding. In fact, most of what appeals to us about birds, like bird song and colourful plumage, has evolved in response to their breeding biology. Urfi cites many examples to highlight fascinating facts about nesting behaviour. A particularly interesting one is about a bulbul that successfully nested and even hatched chicks in a moving bus!

Long-distance migration, practiced by certain birds with remarkable regularity twice a year, is an intriguing phenomenon that is little understood. Some species follow migration routes that cover nearly 30,000 km in a round trip. How and why do birds migrate and how do ornithologists study migration -- these are some questions that form the core of the next chapter.

In the end, Urfi elaborates on the threats faced by avifauna through habitat loss, pollution and hunting. He discusses conservation measures for the protection of birds and urges the birdwatching community to be proactive in supporting conservation efforts.

A glossary and useful appendices (that include details of important conservation organisations and tips on choosing binoculars) have been thoughtfully included, as has been a fairly detailed bibliography to benefit those interested in learning more.

The quality of the line drawings, however, could have been better. The colour plates towards the end could have been sacrificed to reduce the cover price that is slightly on the higher side.

Although there seems to be a lean towards wetland/water birds, Urfi's book makes an interesting read. Garnished with absorbing facts and funny anecdotes, and useful extracts from the classics of bird literature, the book should serve as a good primer on avian ecology for bird enthusiasts, especially those uninitiated to biology.

Raman Kumar is a wildlife researcher

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