Birds of India

Carol and Tim Inskipp: A Birds of India Interview

Carol and Tim Inskipp need little introduction to bird-watchers in the Indian subcontinent. Their path-breaking field guides have taken birding to the next level in the region. In this interview with Bikram Grewal the couple share their passion for the birds of the area and talk about their work

June 2011



BIKRAM: How did the both of you, coming from small-town England, get interested in birds of the Indian subcontinent?

CAROL (C): I have been interested in birds since being a small child, but Tim who frequently talked of his first visit to the region after we met in 1972 inspired my interest in the subcontinent’s birds.

TIM (T): My first major trip abroad was to India and Nepal and I was really inspired by the abundance and diversity of birds.

When did you first visit India? Where did you go and what made you decide on that region?

C: I first visited India in 1977 when accompanying Tim during a study of India’s wild bird trade. We travelled to many places that were centres of the bird trade at that time, including Delhi, Lucknow, Patna, Kolkata (Calcutta) and Mumbai (Bombay).

T: I travelled with five friends in an old vehicle to India and Nepal, leaving in September 1970 and returning by boat, buses and trains in April 1971. I guess the reason we chose India as a destination was because we wanted to go somewhere exotic and cheap. We drove from Punjab to Delhi, Bharatpur and Patna and then into Nepal. After some time around Kathmandu we wanted to go to Pokhara but there was no road from Kathmandu at that time. We embarked on an 800 km journey back into India and headed west to re-enter Nepal at Bhairawa, encountering broken bridges and other diversions en route. Later, we drove east to Kaziranga and Manas before returning to Kathmandu. I travelled on my own to Calcutta and Chilika and finally made my way to Bombay, from where I went as a deck passenger on a boat to Kuwait.

You have made several trips to the sub-continent, over the years. What changes have you observed in the habitats?

C: The spread in urbanisation has been one of the most obvious changes, as well as loss and degradation of natural forests.

T: Also loss and degradation of wetlands, e.g. the draining of the Salt Lakes near Kolkata and the changing fortunes of Keoladeo National Park.

Which of all the birds you have seen in the region is your favourite and why?

C: Babblers are my favourites, although I don’t have a favourite species.

T: Grandala is one of my favourites – such an unbelievable colour – and I am also very fond of forktails.

Any birds still left in your wish list?

C: A number of species in the eastern Himalayas, for example Long-billed Wren-Babbler Rimator malacoptilus.

T: Bugun Liocichla, Beautiful Nuthatch and Masked Finfoot, among many others.

Both of you (along with Richard Grimmett) produced the path-breaking Birds of the Indian Subcontinent, a book that changed all our lives! How did the idea of such a book first occur to you?

The book was Richard’s idea actually.

Carol, your name does not appear in some of the spin-offs of the above-mentioned book, like North and South India. Why is that?

C: I felt I needed a break from the guides but have been very happy to join with Tim and Richard in the major revision of the second edition of our Pocket Guide to the Birds of the Indian Subcontinent which should be published fairly soon.

Tim, you (along with Nigel Lindsey and William Duckworth) produced An Annotated Checklist of the Birds of the Oriental Region, which attempted to bring some sort of consistency in the existing bird-names. The Indian birding establishment did not quite take to it, with the BNHS still stubbornly continuing with their own nomenclature. Would you like to comment on it?

T: Although not adopted in India the Checklist has been widely used elsewhere and even in India I’m sure it has helped to promote taxonomic updates and changes to some of the English names, which were to a large extent out of step with the international names that are being increasingly used elsewhere. Taxonomy and nomenclature cannot be static because so much new information is appearing all the time. I am working on a new edition of the Checklist, which will incorporate many changes in the sequence, species limits and generally agreed English names.

What do the both of you make of the new nomenclature as propagated by Pam Rasmussen?

Although we agree with treating distinctive forms of species as separate entities in field guides, we don’t think that such works should be used as a vehicle for proposing species splits. Many of the splits adopted in Birds of South Asia; The Ripley Guide have good details on morphometrics and plumage and vocal differences, and these could be used as a basis for publishing comprehensive reviews of their taxonomic status. In fact, the authors made a commitment that ‘In all cases of such changes, a separate taxonomic treatment is underway or planned..’ A few such treatments have appeared but, in our view, decisions on splitting the remaining species need to await further publications.

At some point you both seemed to have veered off India and moved your focus to Nepal and Bhutan. Why was that?

C: Since first visiting the subcontinent I have always been most interested in Nepal and I was delighted to visit Bhutan several times when we were offered the opportunity.

T: As with Carol, the birds of the Himalayas fascinate me and we have enjoyed poorly known or unknown areas in Nepal, and subsequently in Bhutan.

Carol, you wrote (in association with Mark Cocker) A Himalayan Ornithologist: The Life and Work of Brian Houghton Hodgson. What do you think was the contribution of the man to Indian ornithology?

C: I think Hodgson’s major contribution was his extensive collection of birds – this totaled 9512 specimens – one of the largest single collections ever made in Asia. It consisted of 672 species, of which over 124 were previously unknown to science. He is only credited with 80 of these, while others, mainly Gould, Blyth and the Gray brothers, described the remainder. Hodgson was also a prolific author and wrote 64 bird papers. His large collection of water colour paintings and drawings comprising 1125 sheets on birds (many of which have extensive handwritten notes on the reverse) would have been a major resource for ornithologists if they had been published. The illustrations were executed by artists from the region who worked for him and were intended for a major work he was writing on birds of the Himalayas. Very unfortunately this book was never published, mainly because of lack of funds. Only a very small number of the paintings have been published even today. One set is held in the Zoological Society of London library and the other (a reworking of the originals by the same artists, but lacking Hodgson’s notes) are held in the British Museum (Natural History) library in London.

During the early days of the Oriental Bird Club, the two of you were very energetic in the running of the club as well as being involved in the journals. You don’t seem to be that active in that forum anymore!

We felt that, after more than 20 years of helping in the running of OBC, since its inception in 1985, it was time to give way to the many other capable birders who wished to be involved.

Tim, I remember you as an avid ‘bibliographer’. What do you think of Aasheesh Pittie’s book Birds in Book?

T: I have written a review of this book in Indian Birds, where I complimented Aasheesh on his outstanding compilation. I discovered many books within its pages about which I knew little or nothing and it opened up many lines of enquiry into the distribution and status of Indian birds. My bibliographies for the birds of each separate country in the region continue apace – the one for Nepal is available on the Bird Conservation Nepal website and the one for India has nearly 19,000 entries.

I understand, from Nigel Redman, that a new edition of Birds of the Indian Subcontinent is due soon. Are there any major changes in it?

Actually the new edition is of the Pocket Guide to the Birds of the Indian Subcontinent and not to the larger Birds of the Indian Subcontinent. There will be 65 new plates (218 in the new edition, compared to 153 in the first) and many new images. We have tried to illustrate all of the split and potentially split species. The species maps have been updated and are now placed on the pages facing the plates. The text is significantly expanded for most species too.

Carol, you seem to have now moved in writing on subjects, removed from birds. Your recent books included subjects like Healthy Seas, Reducing and Recycling Waste, Conserving Our Fresh Water, Killer Whale and Travel and Tourism. Hope you haven’t forsaken birds all together?

C: On the contrary I’m as interested in birds and writing about birds as I ever was. Recently I’ve co-authored with Hem Sagar Baral two books on Nepal birds: The State of Nepal’s Birds 2004 (2004) and Important Bird Areas in Nepal (2005) as well as a scientific paper on the potential impacts of agriculture on Nepal birds (published in 2011 in Our Nature). I’ve also co-authored with Hem and Tim The State of Nepal’s Birds 2010 (in press). The books you mention are for young people and were written when I was an education consultant for some years.

Tim, tell us a little about your work All Heaven in a Rage: A Study into the Importation of Birds into the United Kingdom.

T: As the title indicates it contained the results of a study of birds imported into the UK for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, showing that there was a massive trade at that time, with India being one of the major exporters of wild birds.

Tim, you seem to be more and more involved in International Trade in endangered animals and have (sometimes with others) several documents like Checklist of CITES Species and Annotated CITES Appendices and Reservations: A Reference to the Appendices to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, World Checklist of Threatened Mammals and International Trade in Wildlife. Tell us a little more about your interest.

T: It is not a new interest since it commenced in 1972 with the study mentioned above. After that I became the first employee of TRAFFIC, which is now a worldwide organisation monitoring trade in wildlife. As part of my work I (accompanied by Carol) visited India in 1977 to study the bird trade, and in 1980 to study the reptile skin trade. I have now retired from my full time work with the World Conservation Monitoring Centre in Cambridge, but am continuing with some wildlife trade work on a consultancy basis.

Any plans in the future of re-visiting India?

We hope to visit India, especially the northeast, in the next year or two.

Thank you both for talking to us.

Thanks for asking us both – its been a pleasure!

Important publications:

Birds of the Indian Subcontinent by Richard Grimmett, Carol Inskipp, Tim Inskipp
Birds of India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives by Carol Inskipp, Tim Inskipp, R Grimmett
Pocket Guide to Birds of the Indian Subcontinent by Richard Grimmett, Carol Inskipp, Tim Inskipp
Birds of Northern India by Richard Grimmett, Tim Inskipp
Birds of Southern India by Richard Grimmett, Tim Inskipp
Birds of Nepal by Carol Inskipp, Tim Inskipp, Richard Grimmett
A Guide to the Birds of Nepal by Carol and Tim Inskipp
Birds of Pakistan by Richard Grimmett, Tom Roberts, and Tim Inskipp
Birds of Bhutan by Carol Inskipp, Tim Inskipp, Richard Grimmett
Birds of Sri Lanka by Deepal Warakagoda, Richard Grimmett, Carol Inskipp, Tim Inskipp
An Annotated Checklist of the Birds of the Oriental Region by Tim Inskipp, Nigel Lindsey and Will Duckworth.
International Trade in Wildlife by Tim Inskipp, Sue Wells
World checklist of threatened mammals by Tim Inskipp
Healthy Seas by Carol Inskipp
Nepal's Forest Birds: Their Status and Conservation (ICBP Monograph,) by Carol Inskipp
Conserving Our Fresh Water by Carol Inskipp
Travel and Tourism by Carol Inskipp
A Himalayan Ornithologist: The Life and Work of Brian Houghton Hodgson by Mark Cocker, Carol Inskipp



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