2012 BOC Meetings

23 October 2012: One-day joint meeting with the South London Botanical Institute (SLBI), supported by the Natural History Museum (NHM) and the Linnean Society of London, on Indian ornithology, British botany and Allan Octavian Hume (1829 -1912): the scientific legacy of a founder of the Indian National Congress.

Hume – ‘Indian ornithologist extraordinaire, enlightened administrator … early leading light of the Indian National Congress and founder of the South London Botanical Institute’  –  presents an enormous challenge for students of his achievements and legacy, but the contributors  to the conference  skilfully and beguilingly steered us through the thickets of his remarkable life.

The conference, attended by around 80 people, was opened by Ian Owens (Director of Science, NHM).  Next, Honor Gay (NHM), in her succinct account of Hume’s life  – Haileybury, his rise to Secretary of the Department of Revenue, Agriculture and Commerce in the Indian Civil Service in 1871, his fall from grace in 1879, the formidable ornithological activity, his central role in the  founding of the Indian National Congress, his final return to England in 1894, the establishment of the South London Botanical Institute in 1910 and his death two years later – set the scene  for the day’s discussions.

Robert Prŷs-Jones (NHM), Nigel Collar (BirdLife International) and Pamela Rasmussen (Michigan State University Museum) outlined Hume’s ornithology and his scientific legacy, including the vast collection of over 100,000 specimens, his 200 published papers plus ‘his own home–grown journal Stray Feathers’ and the 148 taxa described by him and still accepted today. Their account culminated with Hume’s break with ornithology precipitated by the ‘truly crushing blow’ in the winter of 1882-83 of the  theft and destruction of all his notes for his planned ‘Birds of the British Indian Empire’ plus 6,000 foolscap sheets of his museum catalogue. Hume’s final contribution to ornithology was his donation in 1885 of >80,000 specimens to the then British Museum (Natural History).

Roy Moxham and Prof. Edward Moulton (Univ. of Manitoba) dealt with Hume’s Indian Civil Service career, his involvement with the completion of the salt tax ‘customs hedge’ (The Great Hedge of India), his passionate concern to change through improved agricultural practice the health and wellbeing of the ‘millions of our people’ and his many initiatives to modernise the administration of British India. Prof. Sriram Mehrotra (whose paper was presented by Alice & Edward Moulton as he was unfortunately unable to attend in person) then showed how, following his retirement from the Indian Civil Service at the start of 1882, Hume’s growing impatience with the rigidities and short-sightedness of Colonial rule resulted in his active involvement in political reform, leading to the formation in 1885 of the Indian National Congress of which he was the first General Secretary. He held this position until 1894 when he left India and retired to England, settling in Upper Norwood, south-east London.

Hume’s Upper Norwood years, his renewed preoccupation with botany, his botanical collections, his founding in 1910 of the South London Botanical Institute and that organisation’s current activities were outlined by Keith Spurgin (Emeritus Recorder for the Botanical Society of the British Isles) and Petra Broddle (SLBI).

The facts about Hume’s legacy, alive and active in south-east London, ended the conference on a very positive note. Throughout the day his enigmatic personality had at times overwhelmed – all that prodigious effort in appalling conditions, away from home and family – and at others seemed elusive and contradictory. But the contributing speakers left us in no doubt about the stature of the man, the immensity of his contribution and the importance of addressing and remembering his achievements.

Chris Storey

18 September 2012: Dr Joanne Cooper spoke first on John Gould’s glittering gems: the 1851 hummingbird cases at the Natural History Museum, followed by Douglas Russell who spoke on Dr George Murray Levick (1876–1956): unpublished notes on the sexual habits of the Adélie penguin

Joanne Cooper (Natural History Museum Bird Group, Tring) described how John Gould famously exhibited his collection of mounted hummingbirds during the Great Exhibition of 1851 at a specially designed pavilion at the Zoological Gardens, London.  Over 75,000 people visited the dazzling display, including Queen Victoria and Charles Dickens, where they could view some 25 state-of-the-art cases containing hundreds of specimens set amongst foliage in the most life-like manner possible. Upon Gould’s death in 1881, most of the mounted hummingbird series was purchased by the Natural History Museum, along with >6,000 other bird specimens from Gould’s private collection.  Many of the cases were subsequently placed on public display in the central hall of the Museum. However, as a result of damage sustained, notably in World War II, only a few of the cases now survive intact behind-the-scenes, the majority having been dismantled and the specimens preserved individually.  Despite their original fame, relatively little attention has been given to the recent history of the collection and how the surviving material reached its present condition.  The recent restoration of one case by taxidermist Derek Frampton in preparation for exhibition has revealed much about the cases’ original construction, highlighting in particular their many vulnerabilities and the curatorial challenges faced by their custodians.  Ravaged by time and indeed war, it is hoped that the refreshed interest in this collection may eventually lead to some of these fragile survivors once again taking their place on public display.

Douglas Russell (Natural History Museum Bird Group, Tring) then described a previously unpublished four-page pamphlet by Dr. George Murray Levick R.N. (1876–1956) on the ‘Sexual habits of the Adélie penguin’ which was recently rediscovered at the Natural History Museum (NHM) at Tring. Printed in 1915 but declined for publication with the official expedition reports, the account was based upon Levick’s detailed field observations at Cape Adare during the course of the British Antarctic (Terra Nova) Expedition 1910. Levick was one of the six members of the ‘Northern Party’ led by Lieutenant Victor L.A. Campbell, R.N. (1875–1956) charged with exploring the coast west of Cape North in Antarctica. Levick’s graphic and now infamous account commented on the frequency of sexual activity, auto-erotic behaviour, and seemingly aberrant behaviour of young unpaired males and females including necrophilia, sexual coercion, sexual and physical abuse of chicks, non-procreative sex and homosexual behaviour.  Zoologists are nowadays more free to publish on such allegedly unusual behaviours, which have since been widely documented, but the seminal observations in Levick’s pamphlet have until now been totally overlooked. Describing and reinterpreting selected observations in detail, Douglas commented on its significance as a forgotten work by the pioneer of research on Adélie Penguin Pygoscelis adeliae. Results from Douglas’s investigation have now been published in Russell, D. G. D., Sladen, W. J. L. & Ainley, D. G. (2012) Dr. George Murray Levick (1876–1956): unpublished notes on the sexual habits of the Adélie Penguin. Polar Rec. 48: 387–393.

12 June 2012 — What colour is that bird? How to recognise and name colour aberrations in birds — Hein van Grouw

Hein van Grouw presented an overview of the six most common aberrations found, illustrated with many photographs of their appearance in an array of different species, and provided a simple identification key to help name the aberrations correctly. The talk, on a topic of considerable confusion to many, was enthusiastically received and generated much discussion. Those interested in pursuing the subject further can consult his following papers: Not every white bird is an albino: “Sense and nonsense about colour aberrations in birds.” Dutch Birding 28, 79–89 (2006); “How to recognize colour aberrations in birds (in museum collections).” Journal of Afrotropical Zoology Special Issue, 53-59 (2010); and “What colour is that bird? The causes and recognition of common colour aberrations in birds.” British Birds, 106: 17-29 (2013).

27 March 2012 — A long-term study of the Black Guillemot colony at Bangor, Co. Down — Julian Greenwoood

Julian Greenwood commenced by examining the history of his study colony in Bangor, Co. Down, where Black Guillemots Cepphus grylle have nested for >100 years. Despite crowds of holiday makers, reconstruction of the harbour, powerboat competitions, ferry movements, sailing events, predation by Hooded Crows Corvus corax corone and nest-site competition from feral pigeons, the birds have bred successfully (mean 1.0 young per pair). Success has come, in part, from the provision of nesting boxes – there are now c.60 nesting sites in the harbour, c.50% of which are used per annum. Julian has been working with Black Guillemots for 27 years, during which he has discovered that the Bangor birds behave somewhat differently from information provided in the literature.

For instance, the pre-breeding season starts in October of the previous autumn when prospecting birds make their first visits and continue to visit constantly throughout the early mornings. These visits become earlier (in relation to sunrise) as winter turns to spring. First-egg dates have averaged 21 May (though egg laying has become earlier in springs with warmer sea temperatures). Socially, Black Guillemots are monogamous, but biologically they are not, with several examples of birds changing mates between seasons (sometimes returning to previous mates) as well as moving between sites within the colony. Ringing of young has shown movement from the Irish Sea to north Donegal and Co. Cork as well as to Scotland and England. There is a gap in ringing recoveries along the western Irish coast – a project for seabird ringers in the future.