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Songbird

In the dead of a summer afternoon, hiking through a forest in the Deccan is an unnatural experience. There’s only the ear-numbing noise of cicadas chirping and the sound of dry leaves and twigs cracking underneath your feet as you plod along in the heat.

Your ears ache because they can’t hear anything else. You feel lonely despite being in a group and begin to wonder, if apocalypse were to ever fall upon humankind, it would perhaps be like this. Dead silent.

Three mornings: one in the Himalayas, one in the Naxal-heavy region of Adilabad District, and one in the Western Ghats, remain etched in my memory. Each morning has associated with it the sharp calls of three different bird species jolting me awake from deep sleep, my senses sharp and heightened.

Helter Skelter: Songbird
Signal versus noise. Graphic by Sai Kishore Annamaraju.

For the longest while I was a birdwatcher, merely identifying species, making lists, admiring the flash of reds, blues, iridescent greens and violets, and soaking in nature’s marvels. Then one day, on a similar afternoon like the one mentioned before, with dwindling bird activity, in a scrub jungle close to Hyderabad, a veteran ornithologist in our group asked me to try and identify a lute-like call stemming from the trees. It sounded like the ubiquitous Red-vented Bulbul. The bird flew down and sat on a low perch and I got my first glimpse of a White-browed bulbul. Birding, they say, gives you fresh eyes. You perceive everything in a landscape differently and with palpable interest. With calls, another vestigial sense came alive. Here’s where I first learnt to really listen and became a birder.

The aural equivalent of watching fireworks in the sky came on yet another late afternoon, this time in mid-December near the rambling campus of the Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun. Eight of us were walking along in a quiet Kumaoni forest thick with Sal trees. Suddenly, in the distance we heard dozens of different calls and as we tried to figure out which direction they were coming in from, the calls grew louder and louder and like a shower of arrows raining upon us in a battlefield we were surrounded by birds swooping down on to branches; woodpeckers, tree creepers, finches, flycatchers, and tens more species. Colours exploded everywhere; we were walking in the path of a hunting party. In forests, the birder’s trick to spotting species is to just wait and listen; eventually you chance across a mixed party of around 40-50 different kinds of birds hunting for food. We craned our necks trying to spot them, peg their names to the branch they were sitting a moment ago, but it became all too dizzying. And just as they came, the calls thinned and their owners moved on ahead to perches further on.

Ever so often, especially in winters when migration season is a cause for celebration amongst birders, you are lounging on the terrace, a book in hand and abruptly hear a “tik-tik-tik”, you heard once in the Himalayas. Or a sharp “Kreee!” you hadn’t heard before, but know by its written description that it is often heard near fast flowing streams in dense jungles of the Western Ghats. A smile on your face, heart skipping a beat, your mind saying, “I heard you.”

Today, amidst drill machines, sawing and cutting and hammering of wood in villas and multi-storeys going up, amidst the chatter of voices on Twitter and Facebook, a distant call, perhaps from Siberia, perhaps from Tawang, or it could have been Outer Mongolia even, came and went. Like the proverbial tree which fell in the woods, no one heard it.

Sharada is a trained journalist and has, among other things, spent time at a desk in a rainforest, which led her to realise that 9-5 jobs (in rainforests and elsewhere) were not meant for her. She is partial to coffee, Amitav Ghosh, and being footloose.

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ACK #5

By Monsoon Company