Hume and Blyth

The name’s “Hume” and “Blyth” appear numerous times in the world of Indian Birds, with several species named after them.

They were the Bird Men of India, the Fathers of Indian Ornithology, before the arrival of Dr. Salim Ali.

We take a close look at who they were, and what their contribution to the world and ornithology in India was.

  1. Allan Octavian Hume (1829 – 1912):

A Scotsman, A.O Hume was a member of the Imperial Civil Service, an Ornithologist and a Botanist who worked in Indian while it was under the rule of British.

As a clerk in the Army, he came to India in 1849 and served during the famous Sepoy Mutiny of 1857, a rare instance of unity in India against the British troops. It was during this phase that Hume became a sceptic about the treatment of Indians under the British Rule. He felt that Indians be empowered and given political motivation instead of remain oppressed, which would ideally suit both parties. He was a believer of Democracy, and felt that the days of despotism and bureaucracies were over.

He moved up ranks to become the Secretary of the Department of Revenue, Agriculture and Commerce of the Central Government. He

His rather outspoken views did land him in trouble eventually and he was demoted back to provincial Government after a few years, before retiring in 1882.

In 1883, he famously wrote an open letter to the graduate students of Calcutta University, calling upon them to form their own National Political Movement.

His independent thinking and honest views against racism and against the absolute power of the British led him to become the founder of the Indian National Congress in 1885, the pioneers of the political movement which go on to lead India to independence from the British in 1947 and become India’s ruling party for 70 years : the Congress Party.

Ornithology :

A.O Hume was a passionate ornithologist and on his postings and personal leaves, would engage in thorough and systematic surveys in areas that he was posted at, or made a point to visit.

Considered the Father of Indian Ornithology, he travelled extensively across India and largest collection of specimens of Asiatic birds was done by him, which he kept at his home Rothney Castel at Jakhu Hill, Shimla.

  • His collections included over  60,000 bird specimens across 258 species and around 20,000 eggs, which he would later donate to the Natural History Museum in the United Kingdom. It is the single largest donation made to the Museum and presently remains so.
  • He described at least 148 new bird taxa which are yet accepted today.
  • He wrote one of the most prized journals on taxonomy of birds, Stray Feathers, which ran to more than 5000 pages.
  • He was the first to describe 113 species of Birds of the Indian subcontinent.
  • His discoveries included the Forest Owlet, White – bellied Heron, Shikra, Andaman Teal, Andaman Bulbul, Nicobar Serpent Eagle, Mrs.Hume’s Pheasant, Manipur Bush Quail, Black Francolin, Chukar Partridge, Nicobar Scops Owl, Andaman Barn Owl, Andaman Wood Pigeon, Ceylon Bay Owl, Great – Eared Night Jar, Variegated Laughingthrush, Tibetan Siskin, Himalayan Vulture, Griffon Vulture amongst various others.

Birds named after A.O Hume in India :

  • Hume’s Hawk Owl
  • Mrs.Hume’s Pheasant
  • Hume’s Leaf Warbler
  • Hume’s Whitethroat(Lesser Whitethroat)
  • Hume’s Wheatear
  • Hume’s Groundpecker
  • Hume’s Short – toed Lark
  • Wedge – billed Wren Babbler(Sphenocichla humei)
  1. Edward Blyth (1910 – 1873):

An Englishman, Blyth was a Zoologist and Natural Historian who moved to India for work in 1841, where he worked as the Curator at the Royal Asiatic Society of Bengal in Calcutta.

Before he moved to India, he ran a druggists business as well as studied Zoology and Natural History, and presented many papers at the Zoological Society of London. He was very fascinated with and familiarised himself with Indian fauna, and described several species such as the Yak, Tibetan Ibex, Markhor and a new species of Argal(Ovis ammon) to members .

He suffered poor health and financial difficulty, and decided to take a risk and travel to India whose wildlife enamoured him so.

He took over as the curator for the Asiatic Society of Bengal where he described new species such as Hangul or Kashmir Stag and 03 species of Indian Bat, such as the Blyth’s Horseshoe Bat.

Blyth was able to collect thousands of samples of fauna, which mostly included birds and was bestowed the title of “The Father of Indian Ornithology” before Hume.

His work was to create catalogues of all the findings, and while ill-health and his responsibilities at the Society curtailed his field visits, he took help from notable Ornithologists such as A.O Hume, Samule Tickell and Robert Swinhoe to describe species and finally compiled the Catalogue of the Birds of the Asiatic Society in 1849.

He worked in the Society at Calcutta for 22 years and was one of first Zoologists of his time, and the Founder of Zoology in India.

He wrote several papers on various topics mostly concerned with external differences in such cases as as seasonal variations in coats and plumage mammals and birds.

His works were cited in most known zoologists works, and formed basis for even Charles Darwin’s Theory of Natural Selection.

Darwin and Blyth:

Both stand – out zoologists in their own right, Darwin cited Blyth’s 40 times in his work “The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex”.

Descent of Man applies the theory of Evolution to sexual selection in Man. A book which discusses the reasons behind the features of Man and Woman, and roles of each in modern society – some views of which would be controversial in todays’ time.

Darwin’s magnum opus stating his Theory of Evolution and Natural Selection was published in 1859. However Blyth was an early thinker on these lines and published a paper on Natural Selection in 1835.

Blyth’s theory differed from Darwin’s in the fact that Natural Selection, the selection of the best possible mate was for preservation of the species, rather than the strongest genes preparing for future eventualities and ‘evolving’.

His theories about Humans as Primates are clear and well defined.

While Darwin mentions Blyth in the Origin of the Species, it is rather peripheral and without due importance. That Blyth’s papers on Natural History surfaced twenty years after Origin of the Species was published, was clear that Blyth was an under – regarded Zoologist, ahead of his time.

Yet Blyth bore no ill will towards Darwin, and their communication had been constant during their respective careers, helping each other with sharing of information. He wholeheartedly supported Darwin’s version of the Theory of Evolution.

It seems as if Blyth’s lack of financial means, his utmost dedication to his work and ill health prevented him from getting the recognition he deserved, although he is extremely well – regarded in his field. Likened by Darwin to an excellent taxidermist rather a field observer, Blyth missed opportunities to travel – yet, he remains immortal as one of the brightest thinkers of his time, and an expert in the field of Zoology. His almost photographic mind lends credibility to the fact that he was clear thinker with immense mental capabilities.

Edward Blyth remains immortal through various species named after him in India :

  • Blyth’s Tragopan
  • Blyth’s Kingfisher
  • Blyth’s Bulbul (Flavescent Bulbul)
  • Blyth’s Starling (Malabar Starling)
  • Blyth’s Pipit
  • Blyth’s Rosefinch
  • Blyth’s Reed Warbler
  • Blyth’s Leaf Warbler

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