In the last twenty-five years, interest in the birdlife of the Indian subcontinent has grown manifold, and justifiably so considering the richness of India’s avifauna. With this interest, have come a string of books for both popular and more specialist consumption. Anand Prasad’s book should appeal to both—to anyone seriously interested in the birds of the region. Basically it is an annotated list of birds of the area, giving the history of when, where and by whom a particular species was spotted, along with breeding and or migratory history if known. The sources cited are from published records and papers of usually well-known and well-established ornithologists past and present—and now more encouragingly, records maintained by birders on firstname.lastname@example.org, which widens the net considerably. In his introduction, Prasad outlines some of the—inevitable—problems and limitations incurred while compiling such a list. Different ornithologists have different definitions for different criteria, for example the status of a bird.
A species that one considers rare may be thought to be merely uncommon by another. Ornithologists usually have their favourite neck of the woods, which they may survey more thoroughly and regularly, than say an area just nearby, which may have different species. Surveys may be conducted at different times of the year and for different periods of time. All this does not take anything away from Prasad’s achievement—the work involved in compiling a study like this, which includes over 1000 hours of fieldwork and taking into account records going back to the 1800s, truly boggles the mind. He has brought together a vast amount of information from varied sources within the covers of a single volume. As he writes in his introduction, the ‘aim of this work is to collate records from every known published source and to bring this information into a coherent whole.’ And adds more purposefully, ‘Comparisons have then been made with historical works and any obvious population changes highlighted. It is hoped that this work will be useful in detecting any future population trends.’ There is so far, no official ‘records committee’ for the region, and so this list will—as Prasad hopes—prove invaluable as a basic database for any future such ‘official’ listing. Sections on topography, climate, vegetation, references (from the 1830s onwards) follow along with how the author has interpreted the data. A total of 534 species have been recorded from Western Maharashtra. The first number against each species refers to its number in that mother of all references, Salim Ali and S. Dillon Ripley’s Compact Handbook of the Birds of India and Pakistan (1983).
The first thing an eager-beaver and even hardboiled birder from the region is likely to do while going through this book is to check whether such and such species he or she has seen in his or her own backyard or favourite birding spot has found a mention in the book. If so, well and good, if not, eyebrows are going to be raised. But before any indignant comment is made, it’s best to remember whether the avid birder did indeed bother to report the sighting, (or better write a paper on it!) whether to the BNHS or now to the e-group. You cannot expect every hectare in Western Maharashtra to have been covered, and if you’re an avid birder, then it’s part of your job to report (and even photograph) sightings from your patch, along with details regarding when, where, and so on. Thanks to the internet this has become considerably easier to do.
The one thing I did miss in this book is a map. A map depicting the various districts and talukas in Maharshtra should be mandatory for a volume like this and invaluable for anyone unfamiliar with the geography of Maharashtra. A physical map too would have been helpful.
All said and done, however this is a commendable work and it can only be hoped that it has set an example; we need many such works to cover the rest of the country. India is vast and its bird life is bewildering – there is enough to study and document to last battalions of birders a lifetime. More hopefully the availability and publication of such information and data should serve to shape conservation policy for the future.
Ranjit Lal has been writing articles and short stories for children specializing in natural history subjects.