The Bird That Changed a Canal’s Course

JCIn 1836, T.C. Jerdon, a 25-year-old surgeon, arrived in the Madras Presidency. After training at the General Hospital, he was sent to treat troops battling insurgency in a district nearly halfway to the Calcutta Presidency. Once the rebellion was quelled, he joined his cavalry regiment as medical officer and served in various parts of India in a three decade long career. But why do we care about yet another employee of the East India Company, though admittedly an odd bird, who died insolvent instead of lining his pocket with ill-gotten wealth as most of the other are supposed to have done?

Here’s one good reason to know this surgeon-naturalist: At least a few species of plants, animals and birds of the Indian subcontinent are named in  his honor. Among them are the Indian violet Jerdonia indica, the Palm Civet Paradoxurus jerdoni and the Anchor Catfish, Hara jerdoni. But one cryptic bird,Rhinoptilus bitorquatus, endemic to the Eastern Ghats, popularly known as Jerdon’s Courser, has to be the most famous of creatures named after him. Of the bird, he wrote: “It frequents rocky and undulating ground with thin forest jungle, and is found in small parties, not very noisy, but occasionally uttering a plaintive cry. It is an almost unique instance of a species of Plover having such an extremely limited geographical distribution.”

In 1848, the curator of the Royal Asiatic Society of Bengal, Edward Blyth, declared Rhinoptilus bitorquatus, a species new to science based on a specimen Jerdon had sent in. By the turn of the 19th century, this bird was declared extinct. So, when it was unexpectedly sighted in 1986 there was much rejoicing. The Indian government promptly put its image on a 1 Re/- postage stamp. It was given a place to call home: the Sri Lankamalleshwara Sanctuary in Andhra Pradesh, but its troubles didn’t end there.

A threat loomed over the bird’s habitat in the form of the Telugu Ganga project under which interlinked canals would carry water from a reservoir in Andhra Pradesh to our ever-parched city of Madras. This would have passed through the courser’s home, so that route was avoided. Researchers then showed that the bird’s range, though narrow, extended well beyond the sanctuary. So, in 2008, the Supreme Court ordered the drawing up of alternate route for the canal and this was a victory for the conservationists. But grazing, logging, and quarrying are persistent threats to the bird’s habitat. There are less than four hundred Jerdon’s Coursers left on the planet. The last time someone officially sighted one was in 2009.

In the early 19th century, this courser was not critically endangered like it is now, but the bird must’ve been elusive just the same. The nocturnal bird hides in the shade of the scrub during the day, but Jerdon procured the bird, and described it for posterity. As a student at the University of Edinburgh, he had belonged to the Plinian Society (Charles Darwin himself had been a member), an association of young naturalists, a students-only club that met weekly, critiqued papers, took trips to the countryside, collected, and identified specimens using rules of taxonomy. That training paid off.

Jerdon came to a country most of whose flora and fauna had not been documented systematically. Because there was no single collective account of the birds, he began recording the ones he saw and heard in the Eastern Ghats and the Deccan. This formed the basis of his first book “A Catalogue of the Birds of the Peninsula of India.” After four years of such fieldwork, plus official duties, he went on a leave of absence to Nilgiris, where he got married at the age of thirty to Flora Macleod, who had an interest in botanical arts.

Jerdon served as Civil Surgeon in Nellore next. Here, he drew on the knowledge of the aboriginal Yanadis to catalogue reptiles and more avifauna. Later, ants and fish were objects of his study, but he never lost sight of his beloved birds. He observed them at his own expense and made sketches or hired a local draftsman for the job. Expeditions into the jungle and commissioning illustrations cost money. The good doctor’s finances were never in order, creditors harassed him, but he seems to have taken it in his stride. Once, when he served in Tellicherry, a bailiff from Madras came to arrest him, and the anecdote goes that the man was sent back with a specimen of a rare monkey (Presbytis Johnii) – a live one at that!

Rejoining the army with the rank of surgeon, Jerdon did active military duty till first war of independence ended. By then, the amateur naturalist’s fame had spread. His services were transferred to the Government of India on special duty to prepare major works on Indian natural history. In Birds of India, he described 1,008 species spread over the length and breadth of the country, which he traversed and re-traversed during the course of this work. On one of his excursions into the jungles of Assam, he caught fever. After convalescing, he returned to England in 1870, where he died two years later leaving a wealth of drawings and specimens of tropical plants, birds, and animals.

Jerdon had laid the groundwork for other naturalists in India. For zoologists going out into the field, his reasonably priced books served as the starting point. A. O. Hume, Father of Indian Ornithology and a founder of the Indian National Congress, too acknowledges this debt in My Scrapbook or Rough Notes on Indian Zoology and Ornithology , which he dedicates to Edward Blyth and Dr. T. C. Jerdon, and calls himself their pupil. Hume hoped that this book published in 1869 would form a “nucleus round which future observation may crystallize” and also that others would help him “fill in many of the woeful blanks remaining in the record.” They did. They still do.

And so science marches on.

Read the article here. html.  pdf.


“Kudos” is always nice — especially from someone whose work you’ve read and enjoyed.


Jerdon’s volumes

The T.C. Jerdon article (MM, September 1st) was an impressively written piece. The story of a pioneer ornithologist was told with great warmth. I hope the author is writing his biography.

In the 1990s, while serving in Ahmadabad, I was invited for lunch by a former rajah to his palace in a small town nearby. Near the dining table stood an almirah and there, among other books, the three volumes of Jerdon’s The Birds of India caught my eyes. It was the first edition, in mint condition, complete with golden letters embossed on the calico-bound hard cover. My friend, himself a keen birder, was working in the estate of the rajah and I told him about seeing the book.

Ten years later, I visited my friend in another town. He brought out a bundle wrapped in cloth, gingerly kept it on a table and opened it. In it lay Jerdon’s books, sparkling. My friend told me that when he left the estate job, the king gave the books as a parting gift. No…I will not reveal the identity of my friend. I do not want his house to be burgled.

S. Theodore Baskaran 
26, Asha Township Phase II 
Dodda Gubbi Post 
Bangalore 560 077



What’s up with the Jerdon’s Courser Now?

One afternoon in 2008, as the curator of a natural history museum in Scotland was browsing through an uncatalogued set of birds’ eggs in the storeroom, he chanced upon a oval-shaped specimen labelled “Jerdon’s Courser”. Confirming its identity through DNA analysis was easy, because a specimen of the whole bird was available. But no ornithologist had seen the egg of this rare bird before, which made this a great find.

Science recorded the existence of Jerdon’s Courser (Rhinoptilus bitorquatus) in 1848, but we know precious little about it. When stationed in the Madras Presidency, Scottish surgeon-naturalist Thomas Jerdon found this elusive resident of India’s Eastern Ghats, and reported that “it has a plaintive cry and spends the day sleeping in the sparse shade of scrub jungles.” By the end of the 19th Century, the bird was declared extinct. When the bird was sighted again in 1986, there was much jubilation. It was featured on a Re 1/ postage stamp. It got a new home: a sanctuary in Andhra Pradesh. The Telugu-Ganga Project, which could’ve carried water from that area to ever-parched Madras, was to bypass the sanctuary.

Such celebrity notwithstanding, the bird maintains a low profile. Now a determined international team is on its track. The more they learn about the elusive bird, the greater the chances of saving it from extinction. P. Jeganathan of the Natural Conservation Foundation began studying the bird in 2000 for his PhD thesis. The first order of business was to find the range of the bird.

Though not heavy or flightless, the Courser tends to get around by walking. So, the researchers laid swathes of fine sand to capture its distinct claw-print. Along the sandy paths, he also set up infrared camera ‘traps’ to capture images of the bird whenever it appeared, night or day. After identifying its favoured haunts, satellite images were used to find similar pockets of shrub growth in the jungle. This was to pick an ideal spot for the team’s next survey. Meanwhile, researchers analyzed the bird’s poop and found it was a termite eater. They also managed to capture its call, the “plaintive cry” as Jerdon had described long ago. They put the recording in a simple playback device – the plastic square of a kid’s stuffed toys – and handed it to visitors along with the bird’s picture. More people became involved in finding its whereabouts.

When a threat loomed over the bird’s habitat in the form of illegal construction near the canal project in 2006, researchers had enough data to show that the bird’s range, narrow as it was, extended well beyond the sanctuary. The Supreme Court ordered a stop to the construction and even granted extra land to the bird.

Despite that success, the bird continues to be held on the critically endangered list. The sanctuary is protected, not closed off. Locals graze livestock in these scrub forests and cut firewood. In moderation, neither activity can drive the bird to extinction. Quarrying for Cudappah stone — that kitchen countertop favorite — and clearing the forest for farming are bigger threats.

Jeganathan is often asked: Why bother to save the bird at all? Like the Taj Mahal or the Big Temple, our natural history too deserves to be saved, says the Thanjavur native. Genetically, this is an interesting species for biologists because the semi-nocturnal Courser’s closest kin is in Africa, not India. We can’t even say what impact the Courser’s disappearance will have because its role in its habitat is not understood yet.

But the egg, another piece of the puzzle that is the Jerdon’s Courser, holds out new hope. The bird is believed to be a ground nester.“If we find a nest or eggs in the future, we can compare those eggs with the present discovery to confirm it,” says Jeganathan. The curator, who confirmed the egg’s identity, also established its provenance and published the details of his investigations earlier this year. The egg was procured in 1917 (after the bird was declared extinct) in Kolar, further south of the Eastern Ghats, its expected habitat. This particular lead about its whereabouts may not amount to much after all these years.

The Courser was last sighted in 2009 in its official home. “The locals think there is no Jerdon’s Courser and we are trying to save it,” Jeganathan says wryly. Will it go the way of the dodo or grace us with rare appearances?

If conservation efforts continue, we can be optimistic because the bird did make an unexpected comeback once before.