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How Birds Rescued Me From the Birders, and Other Stories

How Birds Rescued Me From the Birders, and Other Stories

Featured image: Spot-billed pelicans. Photo: Ishika Ramakrishna

Bird watching was my first real inlet to the world of wildlife. When you grow up in a city like Bombay, wildlife is restricted to the birds that inhabit your extremely urban neighbourhood. While I would watch shows on Animal Planet, Discovery and National Geographic every day when I got home from school (carefully selected to occupy the single hour of television that I was allowed), the life on those screens was far away from my every day. It was a dream I hoped to live way into the future. The only accessible beings in my immediate surroundings, albeit least represented on the macho wildlife shows, were birds.

I grew up loving the common birds that graced me with their presence in my concrete jungle. I was thankful for them being around in plenty, allowing me to watch them keenly from up close, long before I had a pair of binoculars. Crows, mynahs, rose-ringed parakeets, pigeons, sparrows and black kites were the only birds I knew as friends. The parakeets, especially, were exciting to me, because they added unusual vocalisations and flashes of green to my otherwise grey-brown-black world of city birds.

Then, around 2007, the most wonderful thing happened. A small green bird with bright red and yellow markings on its face, and a black outline around its eyes showed up on a dying tree trunk outside my bedroom window. It had a tough little beak and it began pecking away at the soft, detritus wood of the old dead tree. It was the first time I saw life on it, and oh what life it was. I watched for days as this bird chipped away at it, deepening dents into crevices and ultimately, holes. Soon, all I saw of my colourful buddy was his beak and eye when he peered out of his well-dug tree home. I dipped into my father’s old Book of Indian Birds to find that this fine creature was a coppersmith barbet. I copied down the adjoining paragraph of Salim Ali’s description in my notebook and then ticked off all the behaviours I had observed with a different inked pen. That barbet (I’d like to believe it was the same one) returned each year just a week or two before the first rains hit. He became my weather guide and good omen at the start of each new school year.

Dipping into that bird book opened up a whole new world for me. I found value in my love of watching birds when I realized that others too were just as fascinated – fascinated enough to write books of descriptions and behaviours. I decided that that’s what I wanted to do, even if only for fun.

Kind commons from an urban childhood. Photos: Ishika Ramakrishna

A large Jamun tree outside my parents’ bedroom was my favourite destination for my new-found purpose. It grew larger and spread closer to our windows as the years went by, bringing the birds closer still. The fruits attracted bulbuls, crows and parakeets through the day, and I loved sitting with my legs dangling into the large grille, watching birds going about their business. I began to maintain a log of the birds that visited and everything they did while they were around. The highlight of my high school bird log was when that Syzygium tree housed a crow’s nest. I watched absorbed as an adult crow sat nearly motionless in the nest, crouched so low that I never saw its legs. I saw little chicks grow up and caw loudly in the absence of their food-searching parents. That’s when I noticed that young birds are pinkish inside their beaks, and that many of the birds I brought home to care for as a child were probably chicks that had fallen out of nests.

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My rather dim-witted house cat once lunged at a small bird from my observation window, and shot under some furniture with it in his mouth. The silly thing didn’t know what to do with this creature, now that he caught it, and I pried his jaws apart to find a nervous (but alive!) tailorbird. The bird happily accepted my open palm and escaped the swift but clueless jaws of its domestic predator. I opened up my hands to the window, but the bird just sat there. After much consideration, it took flight, turned right around, and perched in a hook near the ceiling. The tailorbird was not ready for the big bad world just yet. We had the little guy hopping about and taking long naps for a whole day before it left for good. A couple of years later, I found and rescued a badly injured black kite during an early morning stroll. That was my first close-up interaction with a bird larger than a crow, and it blew my mind to be in its regal presence – strength oozing from its talons.

After the coppersmith barbet of my childhood, the next bird to excite me was the greater coucal. I was cycling in Sanjay Gandhi National Park, when I heard heavy movement in a tree by the road. Assuming it was a macaque or a langur, I stopped and searched. I found a large bird with rusty-brown wings and a long tail stumbling over its own feet. It was hopping around, missing branches, taking quick flights to stop from falling through and tossing dried leaves all over the place. It was comical, and I immediately related to its clumsy demeanour. This bird, rather common in most urban and agrarian parts of India, had somehow evaded my attention for 18 years. Three years later, I spoke to my first coucal. I was at the edge of a balcony near Ranthambore Tiger Reserve, craning my neck to find where the sound was coming from. When I couldn’t see the bird, I simply called back at it. To my elation, the bird hoo-hoo-hoo-hoo’ed back at me, repeatedly. With that conversation began an obsession with the species, leading to detailed notes about its behaviour every time I came across one.

Behaviour scribbles from a greater coucal in Goa. Photo: Ishika Ramakrishna

There was no doubt that birds intrigued me. Watching even the most common of bird species became an unadulterated source of personal joy, something my friends did not entirely understand at the time. I would fill up my small Olympus film camera (and later my digital Panasonic Leica) with pictures of crows and pigeons. After I left school – one with a sprawling (by Bombay-standards) green campus which attracted a wide range of birds – I began travelling and reading a lot more. My eyes found new species with more colours, shapes, calls and behaviours, and I was hooked. I identified species from my school campus once I had left and finally saw how valuable that island of greenery was for several birds.

As time went by, my interest in birds and animals translated into serious education and a career. This meant that my otherwise diverse group of immediate peers who did not understand my obsession with non-human life made way for a more specialised kind. I found myself surrounded by people whose passion matched or surpassed my own, with far deeper knowledge than I held and, for the first time, emerged a spark of competitiveness.

Also Read: One in Eight Bird Species Are Found in India – But Do We Really Care?

Encounters with birders

The first time I visited a field site with a group of ‘wildlifers’ I was excited about being among like-minded travellers. I imagined we’d gawk at the life around us in unison and, for once, I wouldn’t be thought of as crazy. While this certainly was the case, and we spent hours being fascinated and at home in a rainforest together, something took me by surprise. From the start of our trip and after the very first walk around our field base, I seemed to have been informally labelled as a ‘non-birder’ in the minds of the ‘birders’. My love for birds was promptly dismissed, simply because I couldn’t rattle off names of forest species from their calls or fleeting appearances. That’s when I made my principal faulty assumption in this avian wonder world.

White-rumped munias. Photo: Ishika Ramakrishna

In retrospect, I ardently wish that I had spoken up about this swift (and mistaken) categorisation of my otherwise unfettered joy. I wish I had walked up to this bunch of knowledgeable chaps saying, “Hey buddies, I’m a bit late to the party, but I love these colourful and song-filled critters. Let me in and I promise I’ll learn silently. I’ll peek through my new binoculars at the same creatures that come through your well-weathered ones. I won’t slow you down, I’ll simply share your joys and make little notes and diagrams in my notebook here. I’ll ask you what terms like ‘twitch’ or ‘dip’ or ‘lifer’ mean, but only when you’re not busy. Don’t mind me! I’m just birding in my own way back here! Carry on, lads.” But… I didn’t.

Instead, I folded. I folded twice, no wait, thrice inwards. Imagine a foetal position inside another, and you’ll be close to what the shrivelled husk of my birding self-esteem had become. I had let people who knew little about me put an informal label on me. My every experience watching birds through my balcony, my careful notes about their appearances and behaviours, the hours spent bent over a bird guide trying to figure out what species I’d just seen – all dissolved into the air before my eyes. I felt misguided and misled, as though I wasn’t even good enough to call myself ‘amateur’. I was a miserable rock plastered with self-pitiful bird droppings. And thus plastered, two whole years of incredible travels to birding hotspots passed me by, painfully under birded.

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Fortunately, birding (much like cycling) is something you can’t really unlearn. About two years ago, this knowledge began to catch up with me in little wafts. It came knocking in moments when I thought no one was watching, as a passing comment of encouragement, or in unexpected offers to tag along in search of a rare bird. I steadily and watchfully began to open the door, letting in the bird song, letting my guard down. The moment I did, my senses and heart seemed to explode, embracing a source of happiness I hadn’t felt tickle me from within for what seemed like aeons. I was self-conscious. What if someone noticed? What if someone saw me pointing binoculars into a tree and commented on how ‘out-of-character’ it was? The truth was, nobody cared. I was just another person in a sea of people who loved bird watching, somewhere along a spectrum of expertise. My skill, speed, depth of knowledge and ‘life list’ didn’t matter. Only the birds did.

Great hornbill. Photo: Ishika Ramakrishna

Finding my way back

Finding my way back to bird watching admittedly hasn’t been easy. I’ve gone through cycles of self-doubt and remission before making peace with my own methods and extent of obsession. After going through a phase of looking over my shoulder expecting criticism, I’m now certain that competition exists only if I want it to. Contentedness doesn’t concern anybody else but me. Birding is for everyone. People may judge, assign labels, or place their standards on the topmost shelf – but birds (and their loyal watchers, I now know) never do.

Now, under the coronavirus induced lockdown, I feel transported back to the time when I was a little girl, with only the everyday winged beings outside my window keeping me company. I look at the mynahs, crows, tailorbirds, pigeons, black kites and sunbirds that still visit my barricaded home, and thank them for stopping by. I can now sit at my desk and listen to their calls, knowing exactly who they are, and that is growth. I itch to sling my now-worn binoculars around my neck and journey to a nearby lake or faraway forest patch to see ibises, flycatchers, malkohas, bee-eaters and raptors, but until then, the calling commons are plenty.

Ishika Ramakrishna is a researcher, blogger and dancer interested in primates, people and all the stories they have to offer. She now builds curriculum for conservation education in rural schools.

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