Observations on the decline of birds in India go back quite a bit. Given that most of us seem to see a decline in our own short spans, it seems like bird numbers and diversity were a lot higher in the past. Here are some bits and pieces from old sources on the motivations for bird protection.
Among the earliest observations of declines is one from Lucknow by George Reid who wrote in 1887. He speculates on the drought of 1877 as a cause of the decline in the populations of waterbirds. He then points out that the famine following it led to an increase in Singhara cultivation in the few wetlands left leading to a disturbance of waterbirds while also noting the disappearance of bird-trappers in the market.
"With the average sportsman it is different. Usually one of the here-to-day-and-there-to-morrow type, he has no memories of the past to haunt him (except, perhaps, memories of another kind), and is content if he gets a shot now and again, and brings home a dozen birds composed of equal parts of teal and shovellers. Ye gods ! What a falling off is there!"
"For my part I have never even heard it whispered that wildfowl visit India in less numbers now than they did, say, ten years ago."
"The Crested Grebe, too, is another bird that has become exceeding rare in localities where formerly it was very abundant, but its scarcity now is due to another cause. Slaughtered wholesale and systematically for the sake of its beautiful skin, we now seldom see its silvery-white breast glistening in the sun. Slowly, but surely, too, our beautiful White Herons and Egrets are sharing a similar fate. A price has been put upon their feathery snow-white plumes, and man must needs debase his manhood by pandering to the insatiable vagaries or depravities of fashion."
"If I have written strongly it is because I feel strongly on a subject that requires immediate attention. The destruction not only of Grebe, Herons, Egrets, Pheasants, &c, but of beautiful small birds of every description, is going on apace, and while the depredators are reaping a rich harvest by pilfering the nation's property—its game birds and the beautiful songsters of its woods and fields—those who ought to protect them by holding aloof are simply participating in their destruction. This state of affairs can only lead to extermination, when, of course, every one will regret the result, but—who would have thought it ? Echo then may well answer—who ?" (Hume adds an editorial footnote here - "An Act has now been passed to put a stop to this wicked and wanton destruction.")
George Reid apparently died on 16th March 1901. (A picture of his gravestone from Lucknow is here). Reid published a catalogue of the birds of the Lucknow museum. The story of the Lucknow decline does not stop there. Enter William Jesse, at the La Martiniere college, who received most of Reid's notes and wrote on the continued decline in 1902.
At the time that Reid wrote, the cultivated area was 2520 square miles, the remaining 1960 being taken up by usar plains, dhak-jungle, jheels, groves, and village sites. In the last twenty years, however, much land has been reclaimed and laid under cultivation—excellent, no doubt, from a political and economic point of view, but disastrous to the sportsman and the naturalist. Even within the last six years I have watched many of my favourite snipe-jheels replaced one by one by "smiling corn-fields," and, doubtless, as time goes on, the area of arable land will increase still further.After identifying these habitat changes, he also points out the effect of guns:
"The principal offenders are the lower caste Hindus, Chamars, Pasis, Ahirs, and Bhatus, the Mahomedan shikari, and the poorer classes of Europeans, Eurasians, and native Christians. Numbers of gun licenses are issued in India, nominally to protect the crops; but no one, except the man who will not see, ever supposes that a native fires off shots to scare animals ; shouts and yells and hand-clapping do quite as much good, and at a far cheaper rate. Were the gun-barrels for crop-protection reduced to fifteen or eighteen inches, we should have fewer weapons slaughtering the living creatures, male, female, and young without discrimination, in and out of season."
By 1906, William Jesse seems to have become more of an activist and we see him noted as the honourable secretary of an Indian branch of the RSPB and managing a scholarship (£15) at the Meerut College. This leads us into a little bit on the RSPB and its relations to British India. The appetite for plumage in hats had resulted in significant hunting in India. It turns out that the law that Hume was referring to in his 1887 footnote was a bit of a failure. The Wild Birds' Protection Act of 1887 apparently did not do much to prevent smuggling, in fact it was so profitable a trade that it became a routine matter of bribery. As for Jesse's Indian SPB chapter, it was just one of three. There was in 1899 one in Bombay with the secretary E. Comber and another at Junagadh under Labhshankar Laxmidas. Jesse's unit was started a year later in 1900 (Palmer, 1903).
Jesse's note also points out rather tangentially that there was a certain amount of traditional protection to the wild birds provided by the sentiments of locals. He complains:
Jesse's note also points out rather tangentially that there was a certain amount of traditional protection to the wild birds provided by the sentiments of locals. He complains:
The native press has only to hint that the Indian is being-unfairly treated to call forth a storm of indignant protest from well-meaning people in England who are totally ignorant of the East and its ways, and are unable to form a proper estimate of the views of both parties. The European is constantly being forbidden to interfere with certain species which the native cherishes, and it does not seem too much to ask that he in in turn should be made to refrain from destroying birds and animals wholesale during the breeding-season. - Ibis 44(3):478
As for traditional protection, there appear to have been rules among native trappers. Lt.Col. Phillott notes Kashmiris who used heron plumes in their wedding headgear would be allowed to trap on the condition that they would pluck the feathers and release the bird.
The Society for the Protection of Birds was started in 1889 with mostly wealthy ladies as members. A rule was that "Lady-Members shall refrain from wearing the feathers of any bird not killed for purposes of food, the ostrich only excepted". In 1904, the Society was granted a royal charter and got its Royal prefix. They also received support from several ornithologists, including Alfred Newton. The Society published many pamphlets and among them was "The Protection of Wild Birds in India" by Surgeon-General George Bidie.* Bidie was in the Madras Medical Service and a successor to Edward Green Balfour at the Madras Museum. He was also a bit of an ornithologist (among many interests including studies on the coffee stem borer in Coorg, the influence of trees on climate) and contributed to the Stray Feathers (where his initials appear to have been misprinted)
|"F. Bidie" = George Bidie (Stray Feathers 9:208)|
Bidie seems to have been one of the early members of the RSPB who were working out of India. He seems also to have been quite active in the creation of the laws for bird protection. In 1879, the Madras government had passed some protection laws, a game law, that oddly enough protected exotics and aimed "to provide for the protection of game and acclimatized fish in the district of the Nilgiris." There was also an older Elephant Preservation Act 1873 (& 1879). Balfour provides some information on the scale of the feather trade in the Madras Presidency while George Watt's book provides some idea of the species involved in the plumage trade.
|(1911) Feathers and Facts. RSPB.|
"India exported during the trade year 1900-1, £ 9029 worth of feathers and £ 1148155 worth of skins, the later not, of course, all bird skins. That the agitation against hte humanity of the trade has taken effect is shown by the facts that in the year 1896-7 the value of the feather export was £370,990, and that in the year 1897-8 the value of the skin export was £6,935,320." (Daily Mail quoted in Western Daily Press 26-Nov-1902 p. 7 "Bird Protection in India")
The problem with the 1887 law was that it did not prevent the smuggling of skins which had great value in Britain.
One of the plumes termed as "osprey", actually the nuptial plumes from an egret, was a particularly valuable commodity. It was even part of standard army hat until it was removed by an order passed, thanks to the activists of the RSPB.
The amazing device of the "artificial osprey" is another phase. During twenty years this stratagem wan employed to dispose of Egret plumes to women who did not wish to wear them. It was blazoned abroad in face of repeated exposure from scientific men ; and hundreds of young women in stored and shops were hidden to utter the falsehood and keep up the fraud. All manner of materials were deliberately cited as composing these indubitable feathers ; they were flatly affirmed to be made in factories that were never located, by workers who never existed. The deception was such as to discredit fatally any honest imitation which might be put on the market. A further illustration of the same phase is furnished by the story of imaginary egret "farms," where birds were said to be bred for plumage; of "moulted plumes" which whitened imaginary plains and were avowed to supply the sale-room ; - Bird notes and news
In 1900 there was also a review of the 1887 Act - and the conclusion was that it was a failure since the law applied prohibitions only around towns and cantonments. There was nothing to protect birds in rural areas. It is interesting also that the British government collaborated with the Portuguese in Goa and the French in Pondicherry to prevent smuggling of bird feathers. (Dodsworth)
|The Abu Wild Birds Protection Law, 1889|
The idea that egrets could be farmed without harming wild bird populations apparently went on for a while and we see a note published in 1914 by George Birch which shows egrets held in cages.
A shocking description is provided by Dodsworth (1910):
From all parts of the country came the same cries of destruction and diminution, which amounted to virtual extermination. Of Impeyan and Argus pheasants throughout the Himalaya, of Peacocks and Black Partridges from Bombay, of Egrets from Sind and Burma and of a host of others including Jungle-cocks, Paddy-birds, Kingfishers, Jays. and Orioles throughout India g enerally. So lucrative was the trade that single districts such as Lucknow in the United Provinces, and Amritsar in the Punjab contributed between them nearly 16,000 Lbs. of plumage annually. Taking as an average 30 skins to the pound, the figures indicated the destruction of nearly five hundred thousand birds in a single year from two districts alone! From Bombay it was reported that a single Railway Station to the north of Sind had exported within a few months 30,000 skins of Black Partridges, and that over many square miles in the Rohri Division these birds had, within two seasons, been absolutely exterminated by a single party of professional trappers. Various other reports showed that birds were netted and trapped, not by thousands, but by millions, without any regard to season or sex.
Dodsworth notes further that a "notification, No. 5028 S. R., dated the 10th September 1902, was issued. under the Sea Customs Act, 1878, (VIII of 1878), prohibiting the taking by sea or by land out of British India of skins and feathers of all birds other than domestic birds, except (1) feathers of ostriches, and (2) skins and feathers exported bona fide as specimens illustrative of Natural History. As this prohibition was issued without notice or warning, a large number of representations were received, notably from a trader in Simla, who had in stock skins of Impeyans and black Argus to the value of Kb. 6,000, and from two firms in Calcutta who had in hand 6,000 skins of Impeyan and Argus pheasants, and six cases of Kingfishers' feathers, and to enable them to dispose of their stocks, and to wind up their businesses, the operation of the orders was suspended until the 1st January 1903."
Rhodes Morgan, District Forest officer of North Malabar notes that the White-throated Kingfisher was snared almost to extermination. He noted seeing 5000 skins in a case at Steven's auction rooms sold at sexpence a skin. (Cheltenham Chronicle 27 February 1892, p. 10)
James Buckland, a prominent writer and activist who led the cause of bird protection is quoted as having said:
"As an object lesson on the respect which the feather-dealer pays to the wishes of India—or of any other country, for the matter of that—that she may be allowed to keep her own birds for the benefit of her agriculture and of her people, it may serve a useful purpose to let you know that the plumage of all that is held most sacred in Hindu mythology, all that is most prized for beauty or utility, in the wild-bird life of India, is, to this hour, smuggled out of that country and sold in the London feather mart." - Bird-lore (1914):76-79.In a news piece in the Exeter and Plymouth Gazette 30 April 1925 (p.5) runs a piece titled "Late Lord Curzon and Bird Life":
In the many tributes paid to Marquis Curzon little or nothing has been said of his love for Nature and his fine work for the preservation of birds. He was the first Statesman, says the spring number of "Bird Notes and News," to bring within range of practical politics the suppresion of the trade in wild birds' skins and feathers. It was in 1900 that the newly formed Indian branch of the Society for the Protection of Birds appealed to Lord Curzon, then Viceroy, on the subject, and the result of his investigation was the Order of 1902 prohibiting the exportation of bird skins and plumage from British India. On his return to England Lord Curzon became a Vice-President of the Society, and made a most powerful speech on the plumage question at its annual meeting in 1913; a Cabinet Committee was subsequently appointed and a Government Bill introduced. A donation from Lord Curzon also headed the Society's fund for erecting bird rests at lighthouses which have saved the lives of many thousands of feathered travellers.
A news piece from 1900 reads:
An Eye for Beauty
Lord Curzon has found it necessary to be very chary in granting permits to shoot to privates in the Indian Army. It appears that Tommy's first idea is to shoot peacocks when he gets into the jungle. Unfortunately, although noble sport, owing to the fact that the peacock is a sacred bird in India, the immediate result of potting one of them is to produce an uprising among the natives. Consequently (says the "Court Journal") only those men who are known to possess strength of mind enough to resist a peacock are to be granted shooting permits. (p. 3. South Wales Echo 12 December 1900)
Punch Magazine, as usual had its wisdom in the form of a poem and a cartoon in September 17, 1887.
A Plea for the Birds.
(To the Ladies of England)
Lo! the sea-gulls slowly whirling
Over all the silver sea,
Where the white-toothed waves are curling,
And the winds are blowing free.
There's a sound of wild commotion,
And the surge is stained with red;
Blood incarnadines the ocean,
Sweeping round old Flamborough Head.
or the butchers come unheeding
All the torture as they slay,
Helpless birds left slowly bleeding,
When the wings are reft away.
There the parent bird is dying,
With the crimson on her breast,
While her little ones are lying
Left to starve in yonder nest.
What dooms all these birds to perish,
What sends forth these men to kill,
Who can have the hearts that cherish
Such designs of doing ill?
Sad the answer: English ladies
Send those men, to gain each day
What for matron and for maid is
All the Fashion, so folks say.
Feathers deck the hat and bonnet.
Though the plumage seemeth fair,
Punch, whene'er he looks upon it,
Sees that slaughter in the air.
Many a fashion gives employment
Unto thousands needing bread,
This, to add to your enjoyment,
Means the dying and the dead.
Wear the hat, then, sans the feather,
English women, kind and true;
Birds enjoy the summer weather
And the sea as much as you.
There's the riband, silk, or jewel,
Fashion's whims are oft absurd;
This is execrably cruel;
Leave his feathers to the bird!
|"Bird of prey" - Punch, 14th May 1892|
The history of the conservation of bird habitats is less well documented. It seems like many heronries have been traditionally protected in southern India (and not as hunting reserves for rulers). These include Ranganathittu (referred to the colony near Palahally or Seringapatam in older literature) and Vedanthangal.
- Anon (1906) Bird notes and news 2(1):3-4.
- Anon. (1903) Bird protection in India. Bird Notes and News 1(3):13.
- Birch, George (1914) Egret farming in Sind. J. Bombay Nat. Hist. Soc. 23:161-164.
- Burton, R. W. (1953) The Preservation of Wild Life in India. Bangalore Press.
- Dodsworth, P.T.L. (1910) Protection of wild birds in India. J. Bombay Nat. Hist. Soc. 20(4):1103-1114.
- Jesse, W (1902) A list of the birds of Lucknow. Ibis 44(3):470-490. doi:10.1111/j.1474-919X.1902.tb03604.x
- Krishnan, M. (1960) The Vedanthangal Sanctuary for Water-Birds. Madras Forest Department.
- Palmer, T.S. (1903) Bird protection in India. Bird Lore 5(1):37-38.
- Phillott, D.C. (1907) Methods of catching wild fowl, herons and other water birds in the Panjab, Sindh and Kashmir. Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal. 3(6):433-439.
- Reid, Geo (1887) Addenda to the birds of the Lucknow Civil Division. Stray Feathers 10(6):444-453.
- Importation bill
- The Plumage Bill
- Millinery trade in New York
- Exportation from India
- How two women ended the deadly feather trade
- JBNHS 4 - discussions on expanding the game bird protection law to cover insectivorous birds
- Burton, R.W. (1953) The Preservation of Wild Life in India. Bangalore Press, Bangalore.
- Just finished reading a verbose newspaper account - SNIPE SHOOTING AT BANGALORE. (Western Times, 23 March 1839. p. 2) - 302 pairs of snipe shot in 23 days around the cantonment area by J. R. S....Y, A south hammer (nicknamed Devon) as a bet.