Over the last 17 years, Panchapakesan Jeganathan has been collecting names of birds in local language, and the folklore around them. For Jeganathan, a scientist with Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF) researching riverine birds in Tamil Nadu, gathering such trivia has become a hobby. And it’s from this trove of trivia that drew inspiration for his latest book for children.
Titled Birds That Sing Their Names, the short e-book has fascinating and vivid descriptions of how ornithologists (scientists who study birds) name birds. The colourful illustrations done by Ravi Jambhekar, who has doctorate degree from Indian Institute of Science, that enriches the text.
The book, published by NCF, is aimed at children between the ages of 4 and 10 years. Jegannathan describes how a physical attribute, a characteristic, or the way a bird calls or sings contributes to naming a bird. For instance, the Eurasian Hoopoe has call that sounds like upupup…upupup and hence the name.
Then there are some with humorous nicknames like the Red-wattled Lapwing, also referred to as the Did-he-do-it bird, as that's how the bird's call sounds when it’s alarmed. Another funny call, which would be hit with the young readers, is that of Brown-cheeked fulvetta which sounds like Daddy…chocolate.
The book has plenty of references to bird names in local language, where Jegannathan explains how these names came about. He illustrates this with Grey Francolin, which is called Teetar in Hindi as its call sounds like ka…tee…tar. In some parts of Tamil Nadu, Indian Pitta is referred to as Arra mani kuruvi as it calls at 6 o’clock in the evening.
“I thought if you tell a story around the names of the birds to the children, it will register in their mind. It’s also a fun way to remember,” says Jegannathan. The birds mentioned in the book are commonly found across India, as it would make it easier for children to relate to, he adds.
Jegannathan’s interest in collecting bird names and going into the entomology of the name began when he was writing a birding field guide in Tamil in 2004. “I found it difficult to find names of some birds in Tamil. Google translate does literal translation of names, which I feel kills the language and in some cases are not even appropriate,” he adds.
While most bird names Jegannathan has collected are in Tamil, he hopes that people will start doing it in their regions as well. “It’s important to preserve bird names in regional language, as they give insight into how locals view these birds.”
Available in English and Tamil, the book can be read on Pratham Book’s free, open-source platform Storyweaver.