On the cusp of the 19th and 20th centuries – the heyday of the British Raj – EH Aitken, the well-known Anglo-Indian writer of natural history, made an alluring statement in his book The Naturalist on the Prowl. In a seemingly casual manner, he writes:

You may live in the same garden with a little bird and meet it many times a day, and never know that it is married and has a family.

It sounds like a secret being revealed but Aitkins takes the narrative further:

For weeks the courtship went on under your windows, till she accepted him and left his rival to look for another love. Then the young couple explored every tree in the garden for suitable premises. One branch was tried and rejected on account of the ants, another was fixed on but spoiled next day by the pruning knife of the Malee. At length a cosy little site was found close by the path which you would traverse everyday, materials were collected and for many days the birds were busy from early morning building their house.

Then one happy day they sat, with mutual congratulations and endearments, admiring the first-born egg. There had never been such an egg. It was the darlingest little egg in all the world. For a fortnight after this he led a bachelor life, coming often, however, to see how she did, once a day...

While the British left an indelible mark on science and technology developments in their colonies, it cannot be denied that the driving force behind these efforts were commerce and exploitation. However, a look at old natural history writings published during British rule reveals not only glimpses into colonial attitudes but also amusing tales of encounters between the east and west. Because birds are such engaging creatures, diurnal in their habits, the writings on Indian birds particularly stand out and occupy a pride of place.

EH Aitken

A long history

I first became interested in British natural history writings while collecting material for my book Birds of India: A Literary Anthology for which I examined Indian bird writings from different historical periods. Of course, records of natural history existed in India much prior to the arrival of Europeans.

There are in fact several such mentions, for instance, in writings in Sanskrit and Pali dating back several thousand years. Some of these are available in translation, such as in the excellent book Birds in Sanskrit Literature by KN Dave.

Another set of works, from a later period, is observations made by the Mughal emperors Babur and Jahangir on birds and animals. While the writings from ancient India usually amalgamated mythology and folklore along with biodiversity information, those from the Mughal period, though rich in their descriptions, usually stemmed from an interest in game hunting (shikar) or exhibiting birds and animals in royal menageries.

The natural history writings by Europeans are different from these earlier works on chiefly two accounts. Firstly, they are more detailed and specific, recording information in a disciplined and organised manner compared to the Indian works preceding them. A case in point is “presence/absence” data on bird species from specific localities and attempts to correlate such information with features of landscape, vegetation, climate etc. Birdwatchers today call them “checklists”.

Depictions and descriptions of birds in Mughal writings and art were mostly focused on shikar or menageries.

Secondly, when compared to the Mughal writings, which were the memoirs of monarchs recorded by court historians (such as the Baburnama and Jahangirnama), those by British naturalists were more egalitarian and in a sense directly related to the common man’s perspective. This can be stated unequivocally because among the Raj era naturalists we find writings by common people –administrative officers, soldiers, policemen, lawyers, doctors etc, all “servants of the empire”, besides explorers and scientists. While all of them, aligned to the ruling power directly or indirectly were regarded as “rulers” by native residents, they were in fact mostly not members of British royalty.

The home garden

It is noteworthy that detailed works on Indian birds by British authors are almost all dated after the revolt of 1857. Among the most significant of these early treatises was Birds of India by Thomas Caverhill Jerdon (1811–1872), a surgeon in the East India Company (EIC). It may be safe to assume that the period after 1857, when the control of Indian colonies was transferred from the EIC to the British Crown, was a relatively settled period for British colonists, often with domestic values coming to the fore. While most British officers could not afford to bring their families from England in the days of “Company Raj”, due to an unsettled life, disease and career uncertainty, now came career civil servants and also, British women, some of them looking for husbands.

The title page of TC Jerdon’s treatise, ‘The Birds of India’.

After the transfer of power, life was all about living in civil lines or cantonments with structures such as the church, club, and bungalow, with home gardens situated within the compound. Not surprisingly therefore, quite a few books on birds focus on gardens, something that is reflected in their titles. I can quickly recollect three – Birds of an Indian Garden by Fletcher and Inglis, Birds in the Garden in the Low Country Wet-Zone of Ceylon by Felsinger and Garden & Aviary Birds of India by Finn. The ornithological books of that period make it clear that to watch birds, one did not always have to venture into remote areas of wilderness. There was plenty of birdlife in the home garden, only if one cared to look. This is evident from the title of books such as DD Cunningham’s, published in 1903: Some Indian Friends and Acquaintances: A Study of the Ways of Birds and Other Animals Frequenting Indian Streets and Gardens

Illustration from EH Aitken's 'Concerning Animals and Other Matters'

Interestingly, even in post-Independence India, the fascination for watching birds in the home garden continued. For instance, the High Commissioner of Britain to India in the 1960’s, Sir Malcolm MacDonald, who was an avid birdwatcher and did much of this cherished activity in his home garden in New Delhi, wrote the book, Birds in My Indian Garden in which he described common garden birds in his official residence.

Gardening, it turns out, was an absorbing pastime for many expatriates or those who considered themselves living “in exile”. Perhaps in an atmosphere where keeping aloof from local residents was the norm, gardens and flower beds helped in distancing oneself from them and also from the “heat and dust” of India, an aspect touched upon in a recent book, Flora’s Empire: British Gardens in India by EW Herbert.

Jim Corbett's bungalow in Kaladhungi presents the image of a typical English bungalow with lawns, hedges and trees

More often than not, one encountered captivating scenes in the day-to-day life of common garden birds, which perceptive writers like Douglas Dewar, EH Aitkens and others described in their characteristic style. Many writers skilfully embedded their experiences of common Indian birds and animals in the landscape of colonial settlements. Here, warblers, like Darzee, the tailor bird, lived in the garden hedge; the Indian magpie-robin sang its territorial song perched on the gate leading to a lawn; and the Coppersmith Barbet making it’s tonk tonk tonk sound from an unseen spot in the trees could be heard “knocking” all day, as in Rudyard Kipling’s story “Riki Tikki Tawi”, which is about high drama in a home garden.

We also get to learn something about the interiors of British dwellings – “rafters” where bulbuls built nests, or a rolled-up “chick” (reed mat) or the cups of ceiling fans where sparrows made their untidy homes.

Meanwhile, writers like Aitkens symbolised an attitude that was somewhat typical of the British naturalist. In a caricature published in the Journal of Bombay Natural History Society – the society of which he was one of the founders, he is depicted as a wiry Jack Sprat figure, with a hat, binoculars, a butterfly net, gun and a backpack. In his writings he weaves a narrative that is scientifically accurate and based on careful observation and reasoning, yet peppered with amusing anecdotes. For instance, describing the habitat of a babbler – heaps of fallen leaves in a garden – he discovers them to be peopled by “sharpers, pickpockets and cut-throats”, all somewhat Dickensian characters likely to be found in the heart of Victorian-age London.

EH Aitkens represented an image of the typical British naturalist, made famous in a sketch by Sterndale: a Jack Sprat figure wearing a hat, a butterfly net and binoculars in hand, and possibly a tiffin in the backpack. (Source: Bombay Natural History Society)

Going cuckoo

The hallmark of British writers was covering each species separately, combining astute observations about their behaviour and bringing to the fore the comparative approach. In their description of the hawk-cuckoo, TB Fletcher and CM Inglis, writing in their book Birds of an Indian Garden, published in 1936 provide a good example of this approach:

The common name “Hawk-Cuckoo” conveys a good description of this bird, as it is really a Cuckoo which looks very like a hawk. It is about the size of a Myna, but with a longer tail, greyish brown in colour, whitish beneath, the breast tinged with pink, each feather with darker cross-bars, eyes and legs brilliant yellow. When on the wing, it looks very much like a small hawk but, when it alights, it at once assumes a slouching, cuckoo-like attitude, with the wings dropped forward, so as to touch the perch and the tail slightly raised and expanded, thus presenting an aspect very different from the compact and alert look of a hawk. Seen thus, at rest, this bird can hardly be mistaken for a true hawk, as it has the furtive, peering ways of common Cuckoos, constantly jerking itself from side to side and puffing out its throat.

The cuckoos of India especially seemed to fascinate these writers. “Brood parasitism” or the habit of relying on other birds to raise their young, from which the term and myth “cuckoldry” arose is a case in point. It exercised their imagination like no other and indeed, a wholly ornithological work called Cuckoo Problems came to be written on this dreadful subject by ECS Baker.

In the bird-related literature of those times we also find examples of the adage, “The east is east and the west is west. The twain shall never meet”. Again, descriptions of Indian cuckoos are illustrative. While these noisy birds symbolised the arrival of the monsoon and rejoicing for Indians, the high-pitched screams of certain species, the hawk-cuckoo particularly, were found to be highly irritating to British naturalists, as the following passage, again from Fletcher and Inglis reveals:

The appearance of the Hawk-Cuckoo is probably less familiar to most people than it’s note, which has aptly earned for it the notorious title of the “Brain-fever Bird”. Our Indian gardens and groves contain many sweet voiced singers amongst their avian denizens and a few whose voices are less grateful to the ear, but there is not one whose notes consist of such ear-splitting and nerve racking cries as do those of the Brain-fever Bird. With the most annoying persistence and reiteration this bird repeats its cry, which bears a remarkable resemblance to the word “brain-fever” repeated in a piercing shriek running up the scale. The cry may also be written as “Pipiha” and in some districts the vernacular name of the bird is given as Pupiya. Another rendering of the call, which includes the overture preceding the triple note, is, “O lor’!’O lor’! how very hot it’s getting — we feel it, we feel it, WE FEEL IT”.

The driving force behind natural history studies and the development of subjects like botany (and to a lesser extent zoology) was largely commercial motives. Though some works were undertaken to promote agricultural ornithology (one of them being Mason and Lefroy’s book on food of birds), for most part, interest in birds remained within the realm of sport, recreation and enjoying nature. It is in this context that the writings on birds during this period are a sheer pleasure to read, remarkably lucid and stylistic and full of remarkable insights.

Abdul Jamil Urfi is Associate Professor at the Department of Environmental Studies, University of Delhi. He edited Birds of India: A Literary Anthology, published by OUP India in 2008.