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Heart is where the nest is

An excise superintendent and a birdwatcher come out with a seminal work on birds

Photo: S. Siva Saravanan

Bird lovers K. R. V. Hari and Sukumar Arumugam with their book

You will never guess he’s a central excise superintendent. Sukumar Arumugam, who writes under the penname Chinna Sathan (his childhood pet-name), is unassuming and a mild mannered. He has documented the nesting behaviour of 51 species of common Indian birds.

With co-author Bal Pandi, a temporary birdwatcher at Koonthakulam bird sanctuary near Tirunelveli, Sukumar spent five years researching minute aspects of nesting and bird behaviour in Koonthakulam, Sathyamangalam and Sulur. The book has 300 original photographs and 50 sketches by known naturalists like T. R. A. Arunthavaselvan, Sivaprasadh and M. S. Mayilvahanan. Apart from studying nesting, the book details riveting facts about why perching birds stand on anthills, what happens to broken egg shells and notes on various topics like sanitary habits of birds and predators of nests.

The language is simple and the colloquial descriptions of birds render the book un-put-down-able. The reader is vicariously transported to the wilds with Sukumar’s vivid descriptions and devotion to detail.

An excerpt from the prologue gives an insight into the dedication that has gone into this book:

“The scorching sun made us sweat and our eyes blurred. Sometimes we waited in our car in pin drop silence for birds to come to nest either for incubating the eggs or feeding the chicks. Even a breath sounded like a gale and sweat poured down our backs. We starved and thirsted amidst miles and miles of golden grass fields. On days when the South West Monsoon drizzled we hired a boat early in the morning and went searching for nesting birds...”

Little documentation

The absence of literature on nesting of Indian birds was pointed out by the late Dr. Salim Ali, considered the father of ornithology in the country. The only works on the subject are “Birds at the Nest” by Douglas Dewar (1928) and the four-volume “Birds of the Indian Empire” by E. C. Stuart Baker (1934) says Sukumar, who, despite his best efforts, couldn’t find copies.

“Almost all other books on birds of the subcontinent, have been by Salim Ali. Others have just rehashed his work. This is the first book based on entirely fresh and extensive fieldwork,” says K. R. V. Hari, the editor of the book, who is also marketing it. This was possible only due to Bal Pandi who has dedicated his life to his feathered friends and “practically lives with them”, he adds. Sukumar chose to publish the book on his own, like the six books he has authored earlier. Hari says that publishers would sit over the book for three years. Though the authors have invested their lives, apart from three to four lakhs, in the book, publishers only respect famous authors and Sukumar is only a science graduate.

A must for schools

Without an (International Standard Book Number) ISBN and a renowned publisher, Sukumar has only the State to fall back on. The Tamil Nadu government usually procures a 1,000 copies of his books for government libraries. Sale is usually done through friends and associations. This time he hopes to sell copies online, after getting an ISBN. The author, who feels school children ought to read the book, hasn’t contacted any bookshops as they take “40 per cent profit”, making the book unaffordabale. Apart from conservation activities, Sukumar and Hari want to create a corpus for Bal Pandi to get a monthly income, with the proceeds from the book. Pandi, who nurses orphan birds and has received many conservation awards, finds a well-deserved note in the book. The clinical detail in which the author describes Pandi’s techniques for healing birds is remarkably enlightening.

The book is priced at Rs. 650. For details visit http://nestingbook.webs.com/. Sukumar Arumugam, who is planning another volume on birds of India, can be contacted on 9842106430.

PHEROZE L. VINCENT

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