book excerptise:   a book unexamined is wasting trees

Photographic guide to birds of India

Bikram Grewal and Bill Harvey (photo) and Otto Pfister (photo)

Grewal, Bikram; Bill Harvey (photo); Otto Pfister (photo);

Photographic guide to birds of India

Periplus editions, Hong Kong, 2002, 512 pages [$29.95]

ISBN 8189497251

topics: |  birds | india | nature

Book Review

A handy, big-pocket sized book covering Indian birds.

One feature which is very useful in the book is a visual marking on every species indicating the incidence or rarity (or conservation status) of a bird. A circle with four levels of filling indicates the degree of common-ness and hence the likelihood of sighting for each species.

Each of the 668 birds also comes with a map indicating summer and winter ranges, which is very helpful. The standard BNHS book - Salim Ali's Book Of Indian birds ed. J. C. Daniel (2002), does not have maps.

While on the subject of maps in bird books, the magisterial Ali and Ripley's 10 volume Handbook (1978) does include a lot of maps, but these are more scholarly than a guide for the birdwatcher. The maps in Grimmett and Inskipp's Birds of the Indian Subcontinent (1999) are particularly good, providing multiple maps indicating temporal variation in habitat, and also outlier instances recorded from amateur observations.

However, with Grimmett, you have to flip to a different page to see the map and this can be an irritant. The quarter-page-for-each-species format here avoids that with a reasonable compromise on coverage.

The photographs are in general excellent, but in many cases, the format restriction does not permit sufficient images for immature or female or breeding variants. Also in quite a few cases, the images are not really sharp enough or from an angle clear enough to provide enough detail for distinguishing the bird. (e.g. see the pale-billed flowerpecker p.399 or the red-breasted parakeet p.111)

The politics of bird names

The common names used in the volume have shifted completely to the newer DNA based system, originally proposed by Sibley and Monroe, and standardized at the 1990 International Ornothological Congress, where there seems to have been no representative from India, and the common names were chosen not from the Ali/Ripley list/handbook but another competing list.

There were no Indians in the IOC's Oriental Birds committee, and re-naming some of the birds - such as Mynah to Starling - seems uncalled for in many of the species.

The BNHS ornithologist J.C. Daniel, writing in the introduction to the Book Of Indian birds 13th ed, (2002), notes with a hint of melancholy that

	The classification of birds has been undergoing periodic upheavals
	since the time of the first edition of "Fauna of British India"
	(1889-1890) by Oates and Blanford. The publication of the "Synopsis"
	by S. Dillon Ripley (1961) and the "Handbook" by Ali/Ripley
	(1968-1974) gave a certain amount of stability [until DNA based
	studies of Sibley/Munro:1988].  The problem [of common names] was
	compounded by the International Ornithological Congress of 1990
	taking the common English names of birds given in Sibley/Munro as a
	basis for discusssion for standardization of common English names for

	This is unfortunate as many of the common English names used
	in the subcontinent for over a century have been summarily thrown

In Grewal's work, I would have been happier to see him argue for some of
these older names commonly used in India which must have been as familiar
to him as any other birdwatcher in India.

Common Names : Myna vs Starling

The starling name, used in western Eurasia, was used for a handful of
species, while most of the birds in this family are from central and eastern
Eurasia and Africa, and a plurality were known as myna.  However,
the birds in Europe were known as starling, and the entire family have
been called starling, and now many familiar mynas of India are being
re-named starling.

The process of these namings and re-namings goes through committees where
members may argue for keeping a name or not.  J.C. Daniel reports that the
naming for the South Asian birds was done based on an alternate checklist
rather than the more widely used Ali/Ripley nomenclature that was well-known
in India.  Thus some of our favourite birds (e.g. Brahmini myna, Pied
Myna, Grey-headed myna) have been re-christened as starling.  However,
possibly due to their prominence, the Common Myna and the Hill Myna have
succeeded in retaining the myna name.

Interestingly, the mynas of south-east asia retain the myna appellation
while the african species are all called starling.

There is a long tradition of retaining bird names that are commonly used
in their sighting areas.  I feel particularly strongly about the Brahmini
Myna, a common visitor to urban gardens, and certainly more common than the
endangered hill myna, found more prominently in the bird trade (as the
talking myna, now banned.

a brahmini myna from c.r. park, new delhi

I feel the Brahmini myna is a prominent enough bird to retain the myna name. Indeed, this also holds for the common names of many other species more or less endemic to the Indian continent. This type of imposition is uncalled-for, as Daniel suggests, and at the very least, these widespread alternate names deserve space in the Common name index.

At this and many other levels, I feel that Indian naturalists need to fight the Eurocentricism implicit in many of these "international" committees - the standardized English nomenclature is just the tip of the iceberg in this postcolonial battle.


Politics aside, however, it is good to see another handy-sized book with usable markers and maps.

Before this book, Grewal had already authored several similar bird photo books. They include the volume "Birds Of India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan And Sri Lanka" (1993), also published from Hong Kong (see this review by Bulbul Sharma in India Today, Nov 1993), "Photographic Guide to the Birds of the Himalayas" (1998), and "A Photographic Guide to Birds of India and Nepal" (1998). He is also the author of several tour guidebooks for India (Insight Guides 1998, Exciting India, A visual journey 2002, etc).

from Review by Zafar Futehally

	Indian Birds Newsletter review: Zafar Futehally

What a stream of books is flowing in!  Whistler 1928, Salim Ali ‘41, Martin
Woodcock ‘80, Grimmet et al. ‘98, Bikram 1993 onwards, Krys Kazmierczak
2001, Satish Pande (Birds of the Western Ghats) 2003.

The book is up to date, dealing with 800 of the 1305 species which experts
say now exist within the Subcontinent (Maldives too, included). 

The map relating to the Malabar Whistling Thrush Myophonus horsfieldii
(Vigors, 1831), shows a red band along the Western Ghats with an arm
spreading into Central India. In the case of the Blue Whistling Thrush M.
caeruleus (Scopoli, 1786), there is a blob of red in the Himalayas coming
down to the Bay of Bengal. Readers may recall that in the Newsletter of
May/June 2003, Lt. Gen.  Baljit Singh reports seeing this bird in
Chandigarh. This shows the importance of the amateur birder in updating the
work of scientists in the museums.



This is the most comprehensive photographic guide to the birds of India and
the Indian subcontinent. Never before have so many of the region's species
been illustrated in one book.

The brilliant photographs--most of which appear here for the first
time--have been carefully selected to show not only the most common
Passerine and non-Passerine species, but also more elusive species and
distinctive subspecies. An up-to-date distribution map and a unique code
indicating frequency and global status are provided for each of the 668
species covered. The concise text provides vital information on habitats,
habits, and voice to ensure accurate identification.

Designed for easy use, the book places photos and maps in close proximity to
provide an at-a-glance overview for each species. Birds are indexed by both
their common and scientific names.

author bios

Bikram Grewal has written more than twenty books on India, including three
    guides to its birds. He is a biodiversity expert for the Indian

    He is a publisher by profession, loves to travel, and lives the dream
    that he will rediscover the now extinct Mountain Quail.

Bill Harvey is a lifelong birdwatcher who has lived throughout the Indian
    subcontinent. He published the first authoritative checklist on the
    birds of Bangladesh as well as numerous articles and is a co-founder of
    the Northern Indian Bird Network.

Otto Pfister is a wildlife photographer whose work has appeared in numerous
    publications. He has also published several illustrated articles on birds.

How to join Book Excerptise

To join book excerptise and contribute your scribblings here, just send us a first writeup with excerpts from your favourite book (and maybe a review). Format: plain text or wiki markup - please avoid MS word. Email with the subject line "first writeup : name-of-book" to (bookexcerptise [at-symbol] gmail). Your writeup will be circulated among the editors and should show up soon (under your name). Frequent contributors may be invited to to join the editorial team.

bookexcerptise is maintained by a small group of editors. your comments are always welcome at bookexcerptise [at-symbol] gmail.

This article last updated on : 2013 Oct 01