Sutirtha Lahiri

"I like the fact that when studying birds, I also get to understand the ecological and social underpinnings of the wonderful avian biodiversity. In places like Assam and Arunachal Pradesh where I work, the diversity of birds is not supported just by the diversity in habitat, but also by the years of protection accorded by local communities, for whom biodiversity is also an identity."

Nov 3, 2022 | 1 comment

I love owls. During my stint at WII as a masters student, me and my batchmates would always go birding at any time of the day (or night). One evening, a friend called me frantically from near the tennis court, saying “bring the torch!” We quickly ran to where he was. There was lightning in the sky, and there was every chance of rain that night. We focused our torch on the snag my friend pointed at, and saw two brown fish owls perched on the branch, wooting to each other (probably a mating ritual). A lightning jolt behind the birds created a sharp silhouette of them against the sky, and remains, to this day, one of my most memorable experiences of watching a bird.

This is how my love for birds and research took shape..

I did not begin birding the usual way- I wasn’t into birds from my childhood, and neither did I begin with a notebook or binoculars. I love photography, and my tryst with birds began as I visited the hill next to my house with my father. I loved the idea of going up the hill and watching the city of Guwahati (and trying to spot my house from there). I would often take pictures of common birds while there. Often, I would photograph birds which were new to me. Taking the help of the internet or a newly acquired book on the urban diversity of birds in Guwahati, I would identify those birds. It was only when I came across other birders in Guwahati and subsequently in Delhi (where I did my under graduation) did I finally get into a hobby (and career!) involving birds.

I knew I wanted to get into research since my high school. However, I was not sure how. I did some brief research volunteering stints during my undergraduate studies- for example, I studied hornbill nesting and roosting in Pakke Tiger Reserve, Arunachal Pradesh as well as bat diversity in Uttarakhand. These two experiences were very important because I got to know how fieldwork looks and feels in real life, the challenges, the difficult terrain, the loneliness that comes with it. Given these experiences, I was going back and forth about whether I wanted to be in this field; to the extent that I sat for a campus placement, and got a job in a corporate sector in New Delhi! I, however, turned down the offer, and decided to pursue my interest instead. WhenI joined Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun, I realised the means to transform my hobby into research.

Studying hornbill nests by the day, and watching hornbill roosts in the evening.

It was only when I joined WII to pursue my masters in Wildlife Science in 2017-with 19 other inquisitive and caring batchmates- that I began to actively pursue research on birds. My first own project took off when I went to Upper Assam to study sympatric drongos in the rainforests of Dehing Patkai as part of my masters thesis.
I am currently studying grasslands and grassland birds in India as a PhD student at the University of Minnesota, USA with Dr. Sushma Reddy. I am focusing particularly on wet alluvial grasslands along the Himalaya. I primarily use passive acoustic monitoring to study and monitor grassland birds and understand their ecological community structure. I am interested in history, both ecological and social. I am also simultaneously studying how grasslands have changed over the past centuries, and how colonialism and current governance has shaped grassland policies and conservation in India. Framing grasslands as wastelands and using these habitats as areas for forestry/plantation drives has had severe negative consequences on grassland habitats throughout the world, including in India. In the near future, I am hoping to tackle some of these questions through an interdisciplinary lens, combining my training and interests in ecology, social sciences and policy.

How I watch grassland birds (top) and how grassland birds watch me (below) (In the picture, a black-breasted Parrotbill- a wet grassland endemic bird from Northeast India)

I am also a freelance writer, and love writing about natural history, birds and travel. I began doing this through a
blog of my own. Later on, I went on to publish in several national and international publications including Current Conservation, Sanctuary Asia, The Wire, National Geographic Traveller, RoundGlass, Livemint, Outlook Traveller, among others. I am hoping to continue this passion for writing, as I feel this is my way of communicating not just my research but also my experiences to a larger audience.

I love what I do because..

I like the fact that when studying birds, I also get to understand the ecological and social underpinnings of the wonderful avian biodiversity. In places like Assam and Arunachal Pradesh where I work, the diversity of birds is not supported just by the diversity in habitat, but also by the years of protection accorded by local communities, for whom biodiversity is also an identity. I like that I get to work with and learn from local communities who know so much more about the environment around me, and yet have to struggle on a daily basis to maintain their livelihood and also protect this diversity they honour. Birds never occur in isolation- there are myriads of social and ecological processes that determine and ultimately structure this diversity we see.

A photograph in memory of Kumar Daju, the first person ever to take me for fieldwork when I was in Pakke Tiger Reserve, Arunachal Pradesh.

Challenges I have faced..

One thing I struggle with is the still nascent stage of interdisciplinarity in ornithological research in India. While many agree about the need to integrate ecology and social sciences-especially in the context of a country like India where biodiversity occurs along a high density of population and a complex history- very few are actually doing research to integrate them. This can be challenging sometimes because without an interdisciplinary community, one is often left to integrate both fields oneself- which can be very hard at times! However, the journey so far has also been rewarding. I got to work and collaborate with social scientists in recent years, and we are in the process of coming out with some interesting work which would not have had the depth without these collaborations.

My advice to young researchers is..

Birding is wonderful, and there is no one way of doing it. You may like to use a pair of binoculars and carry your field guide and notebook. You may like to photograph birds. Or, you may just like to observe them without caring too much about what the name of the bird is. That is fine. Do not let anyone tell you how you should bird. Sure, binoculars are great, and it greatly changed the way I view birds. But having a curiosity and excitement for birds far exceeds anything else. As I read on twitter a few days ago, birding is for everyone. You can do it wherever, whenever and however you want to.

Snowy owl at the Minneapolis Airport on a freezing day.

The endemic Puerto Rican Tody while at a conference.

Sutirtha Lahiri
Email: [email protected]
PhD Student (Conservation Science),
University of Minnesota, USA.
ResearchGate profile

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Sreeja Racheveelpula

Well written. Very encouraging.