Jerdon and Tickells

Several other Birdmen of India are responsible for new discoveries and ground-breaking research on flora and fauna in India.

Thomas C. Jerdon and Samuel Tickell were 19th Century British Ornithologists who contributed so much to the world of birds in India, discovering an array of new species and an understanding of habitats that we have much to be grateful for.

  1. Thomas Jerdon(1811 – 1872)

Thomas Jerdon was a British Zoologist and Botanist who served under the East India Company as a surgeon.

He took a keen interest Plants and Birds and studied Natural History in England, under Professor Robert Jameson – famous for tutoring Charles Darwin. However, as at the time, Natural History was not a lucrative career option, he decided to take up studying Medicine as well.

In 1835, as an assistant surgeon, he joined the East India Company, and came to India to work under the Madras Medical Service of the Madras Presidency. His posting was in Orissa, in the Ganjam District, where his duties were to treat sick troops suffering bouts of fever and dysentery.

It was during this period that his passion for ornithology blossomed, as he also began documenting the birds of the Eastern Ghats. He took the opportunity to also roam Southern Indian States such as Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. In Andhra Pradesh , he discovered an extremely rare and endemic bird which eluded the world for decades and till today, zoologists do not have a clear understanding of : The Jerdon’s Nightjar.

His travels and detailed documentations therein led him to publish Illustrations of Indian Ornithology in 1844.

After the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857, he was appointed as Surgeon – Major. It was during this time that he took some time off and spent time in the Himalayas studying the wonderful Himalayan wildlife.

1862 saw his most important work on birds, The Birds of India, published. It contained 1descriptions of 1008 species of birds from the Indian Subcontinent.

Jerdon wanted to and was able to then extensively survey the vertebrates found in India, covering Birds, Mammals, Fish and Reptiles. His work in the field therein produced Mammals of India : A Natural History of all Animals known to Inhabit Continental India. It was a comprehensive work of most known mammals of the Indian Subcontinent, and was published in 1866. It contained brief descriptions of 420 species, the highest of its kind at the time in India.

The book, in collaboration with notable Naturalists such as Edward Blyth, Samuel Tickell, William Blanford, Richard Owen, Georges Cuvier, Henri Marie Ducrotay de Blainville, Thomas Hutton and Colonel William Sykes, was a compilation and classification of all Vertebrates of India. Samples and anecdotal evidence were also taken from hunters.

Jerdon was also the first to describe the Fishing Cat during his travels.

His retirement came in 1868, and given special designation of Deputy Inspector of hospitals in Madras, he was also able continue his field work.

However, his health deteriorated and in 1871, had to return to England with a sense of unfulfillment, having not been able to see out his dream of chronicling more species in India.

He died in 1872, but left behind troughs of knowledge through his publications on Birds, Mammals, Reptiles, Plants, Fish and even Ants.

Jerdon’s Courser(Rhinoptilus bitorquatus)

The Jerdon’s Courser is probably India’s rarest bird, and is in the Top 50 rare birds species in the world.

It was discovered in 1848 by Thomas Jerdon. The Yanadi tribes of Nellore, in Andhra Pradesh, with whom Jerdon had good relations while posted as a Civil Surgeon, helped him discover the Jerdon’s Courser, which he referred to that time only as “The Plover”.

Its presence is only known from the Sri Lankameshwara Wildlife Sanctuary and nearby areas.

Its small population, nocturnal nature and limited distribution, prevented extensive research on it and the bird was believed to be extinct, till it was re-discovered after 86 years, in 1986, by ornithologist Bharat Bhushan. The last photographic record of the Jerdon’s Coursers is from 2008 – it yet eludes us!

Jerdon’s Courser exists in open scrub habitat close to dense forests. Despite its social nature, it is rarely seen or heard.

Though its distribution is believed to be wider than known, it is yet to be recorded in other parts. It was named in honour of the late Thomas Jerdon, one of India’s Fathers of Ornithology.

Species in India named after Thomas Jerdon :

  • Jerdon’s Courser
  • Jerdon’s Babbler
  • Jerdon’s Baza
  • Jerdon’s Bushchat
  • Jerdon’s Leafbird
  • Jerdon’s Nightjar
  • Grey – breasted Laughingthrush(Garrulax jerdonii)
  • Jerdon’s Forest Lizard
  • Jerdon’s Day Gecko
  • Jerdon’s Cabrita – Snake Species
  • Jerdon’s Sea Snake
  • Jerdon’s Pit Viper
  • Jerdon’s Worm Snake
  • Jerdon’s Tree Frog
  1. Samuel Tickell(1811 – 1875)

Colonel Samuel Tickell was the son of Lieutenant – General Richard Tickell of the Bengal Engineers Group, born in Cuttack, India.

 Sent to England to pursue his education, he returned to India in 1830 to join the Bengal Native Infantry. He became a Commander in the British Army and moved to Kathmandu, Nepal, for a few years. Subsequently, he was also posted in Burma.

His various postings allowed him to travel the Subcontinent and he conducted thorough surveys on Fauna in the Indian Subcontinent. Described as “one of the best field naturalists ever known” by notable zoologist NB Kinnear, Tickell was correctly seen as a pioneer in Indian Ornithology.

His book “A List of Birds of Bhorabum and Dholbum” is considered one of the earliest and most descriptive books of birds of India, despite Tickell being of age 22 years when he published the book.

Samuel Tickell was an accomplished artist as well as naturalist, and he referred to himself under the monicker “Old Log” or “Ornithognomon”.

He spent 35 years scouring the wildlife landscapes of Bengal, Orissa, Burma and Nepal documenting and painting birds, observing their behaviour and migratory patterns.

He retired from official work in 1865, and moved to his native England.

His life work was to be brought into publications through the book “Illustrations of Indian Ornithology” but sadly, Tickell lost his eyesight in 1870 before completion – he had donated his works to the Zoological Society of London instead.

His works above on Birds condensed in 14 volumes of various fauna of the Indian subcontinent, also included Fishes collected in the seas and freshwaters of Burma from 1851 – 1864 and Insects,Reptiles, Amphibians, Arachnids and Crustaceans. He had described 276 bird species and overall 488 species of fauna overall. His artistic talent lent much colour and appropriate physical creations of the species he had seen in the field, akin to modern day pictorial field guides.

Though sometimes considered a forgotten man in Natural History, Old Log was praised highly by his peers who were always impressed by his work. “Near perfection” was often a term used to praise his work.

Samuel Tickell’s name lives on through various volumes in scientific journals, and through various species named after him.

Species in India named after Samuel Tickell :

  • Tickell’s Blue Flycatcher
  • Tickell’s Thrush
  • Tickell’s Flowerpecker
  • Tickell’s Leaf Warbler
  • Buff – breasted Babbler(Trichastoma tickellii)
  • Tickell’s Brown Hornbill

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