Books about Indian birds

By Abhijit Menon-Sen <ams@toroid.org>

2008-03-01

I am often asked to recommend a field guide, usually by beginners, or people who have just started to get interested in serious bird-watching. There aren't many available; and since I've used all of them at one time or another, here are some notes about the ones I like best.

(Here's a more extensive annotated bibliography, albeit very dated; and here are some brief reviews of field guides.)

A Field Guide to the Birds of India

By Krys Kazmierczak, illustrated by Ber van Perlo.

Published in 2000 by Pica Press (UK).
Reprinted in 2006 by Om Book Service (India).

If you have to pick just one book, this is the one I recommend.

I believe it is, overall, the best available field guide to the region. I always carry it in the field; and it's usually the only one I take if space is at a premium. It took me a long time to learn to appreciate it properly, but it's proven to fit my needs best so far.

It is available in most Delhi book stores for INR 895, subject to the occasional discount. (Outside India, the original edition is available on Amazon for £25 or $45.)

My copy (the Indian reprint) has a durable hard cover, but is small enough to just fit into my (admittedly rather large) pocket. It has stood up well to quite rough use, which includes being stuffed into pockets and rucksacks. The pages are easy to flip through quickly, and the spine has stayed intact under extended use.

The book contains 96 colour plates that illustrate over 1300 species (all species known or expected in the region), including the various different plumages and distinct subspecies. These are accompanied by distribution maps and brief species accounts, including useful notes on identification, habitat and behaviour, altitude range, and notably, transcriptions of vocalisations. The introductory material includes notes on taxonomy and conventions used in the book, a detailed avian topography, and a "Family Introductions" section that discusses the birds on each plate in general terms. The text throughout the book is of a uniformly high quality, and the identification notes are especially helpful for many difficult species.

The inside front cover and facing page display small pictures of some representative species along with their plate numbers. The pictures are cramped, but with practice it is easy enough to find the plate you want. There are no names, so you must turn to the plate index near the end of the book to scan for, say, "Accentors". There are separate indices for scientific names and English common names (helpfully including alternate names). The inside rear cover and facing page contain a map of the subcontinent and a key to the distribution maps in the book.

The plates and text are neatly laid out, but special mention is due to the distribution maps, which are placed on separate pages for want of space. The title of each plate has an arrow, and the corresponding map page is found by turning one page in the indicated direction. The map pages have the plate number (with a reversed arrow), and every map has the species name and number (from the plate) under it. This makes it very easy and fast to consult any given map.

If this book has any major weakness, it is that the illustrations don't, at first glance, look as nice as those in some other books. It's hard to define what "nice" means here, but it's what made me uncomfortable with this book in the beginning. With more experience, I realised that there isn't really a problem. The illustrations are usually helpful and serve their purpose, and don't get in the way. So I get along fine with them these days, even if I think the Owls, for example, look a little odd.

In summary, this book is worth having even just for the identification notes and vocalisation transcriptions. It makes a great field guide.

Birds of the Indian Subcontinent

Richard Grimmett, Tim Inskipp, Carol Inskipp

Published in 1999 by Christopher Helm (UK).
Reprinted in India by Oxford University Press.

When I first started shopping for a comprehensive field guide (in 2005), this is the one I got. It had nice illustrations, and it was a little smaller and cheaper than the "Field Guide ..." (which it predates).

This book is available either in the original edition, where the plates are followed by section with species accounts, or as the "Pocket Guide to the Birds of the Indian Subcontinent", which contains illustrations and brief notes, but omits the detailed accounts. This review refers only to the pocket guide. It is available in Delhi for about INR 695, and outside India for about £19 or $40.

The soft-cover field guide contains 153 colour plates with excellent illustrations (including most plumage variations, flight views where useful, and a few subspecies) with distribution maps, and notes on identification, habitat, and status for about 1300 species. Notably, vocalisations are described only for a very few species, and not in very much detail.

The book includes a few useful tabular summaries of the key identification features of difficult species (Nightjars, Phylloscopus, Cettia, Bradypterus, Acrocephalus, and Hippolais warblers, Larks, Wagtails, and Rosefinches... but, inexplicably, not Pipits) near the end of the book, followed by separate indices for common names and scientific names.

Compared to the "Field Guide ...", the maps are a lot harder to use. The plates refer to the maps by page number, and you have to go hunting for that page. Once you get there, you find that there are maps for two or three plates there, so you have to go back to the plate to make sure you remember the right number. Then you flip back to the maps, and find that there are no names, only numbers. So you flip back to the plate to make sure you remember the right number for the species, and then you can finally flip back to look at the map itself. Of course, one does get better at it with practice.

Although I now recommend Kazmierczak's book over this one, I did use this book exclusively for a long time, and it served me well. I still carry it with me occasionally, and I consult the illustrations (and, in the complete edition, the species accounts) often at home.

The Book of Indian Birds

Salim Ali

Oxford University Press

My mother gave me her copy of this wonderful book, which initially sparked my interest in bird-watching. It is perhaps still the best book to recommend to a beginner, and its INR 495 price tag is amply repaid.

The book trades coverage for space, and emphasises observation over identification. The other books cover many more species, but this one has more space to devote to each one, including delightfully detailed descriptions of behaviour, habitat, and nesting. That's a much better way to begin than staring at plates full of seemingly identical waders or warblers and feeling hopelessly lost. Any serious bird-watcher will eventually outgrow this book, but will have been permanently enriched in the process.

I particularly like the inclusion of non-English common names for many species (though it's not always obvious how to pronounce them, even for someone who knows the language in question), and the approximate but so very useful practice of expressing the size of birds in comparison to familiar species ("Sparrow+"). The notes on nests and nesting habits are also unique. On the other hand, there are no maps, and only a few words on status and distribution in the text.

I started with the eleventh edition, which covered about 300 species. I recently bought the revised thirteenth edition (published in 2002, long after Salim Ali's death in 1987), and realised that it is essentially a different book altogether. The species list has almost doubled, the text has moved to the second half of the book (where it was interleaved with the plates earlier), and the plates are faced with concise notes in the style of other field guides. The illustrations have also been redone.

I must confess that I am not as fond of the new edition as I was of the old. Although the descriptions have not noticeably suffered (having been drawn from the authors notes), many of the new entries are shorter than I would have liked. The revised illustrations are nice enough, but have nothing to commend them over the more modern style of other field guides (especially when it comes to the structure of many species).

Nevertheless, this book is the best place to start.