A tryst with cacophony and camouflage

Pigeons can fly great distances, crows are wacko and many more interesting findings while birdwatching in Bangalore

Shoba Narayan

Do you have a cherished image of yourself that is entirely delusional? I know, which one, right? My cherished image of myself is that I’m a naturalist. Not just any old naturalist: a naturalist-healer if you please. The kind that can not only identify every species of bird, but also walk by a plant and say, “This is a copper pod tree. Crush its seeds, swallow for 10 days, and you will have a cure for your piles.” The fact that I need to hang around people with piles in order to prove my prowess as a naturalist-healer is somewhat pathetic, even for a dream. What is scarier is the distance between my dream image and reality. I once made a fantastic Pesto Genovese— with neem leaves. The taste of it haunts my family still. Plant identification, shall we say, is not my forte.

Recently though, I decided to take matters in hand. I decided that I would become an expert on birds. I would start small. I would begin by observing the birds that populated my urban habitat. Once I had learned their names and mating calls, I would learn about birds all over India, and then the entire world. In the blowsy diaphanous fairytale that was my dream, I would end up writing a book called, “Birds of every kind with every mating call in every species in every corner of the earth.” That was the plan anyway.

This attempt brings to fore two contradictory impulses. One theory, which I shall call the habitat theory, suggests that things like bird watching and music are learnt young. People grow up with birds all around and if you haven’t taken the interest or effort to figure them out when you are young, there is little chance that you will as an adult. The opposite theory is based on neuroplasticity–that you can learn anything at any age simply by setting your mind to it. For purposes of my experiment, I chose to believe in the latter.

Armed with a pair of binoculars and a bottle of my favorite Indian red, I ventured forth into my balcony–and was promptly overwhelmed, not by the cacophony of noise but by the camouflage. Horns bleated like cows; urban cows with their mouths tied together sounded like rattling scooters; a random bird sounded like the dug-dug-dug of a construction machine which makes holes in road; squirrels screeched like parrots; and dogs wailed like death was coming. Ten minutes of this shit, and I beat a hasty retreat.

The next morning was better, perhaps because I was drinking coffee instead of wine. Right away, I could identify three species of birds: parrots, crows, and Brahmini kites. I ate some chocolate as congratulations and continued looking. It was then that I encountered my first problem. You see, birds don’t wait in one spot for you to identify them. They make these beautiful singing noises from somewhere within a large tree, and you cannot spot them. Heck, you can’t even spot the exact tree inside which they are hiding. How was I going to start?

After a few days of sweeping my binoculars back and forth like a flailing ship capsizing mid-sea, I happened upon a Millingtonia tree. Called Chameli in Hindi, it has one key virtue: it is tall and has white flowers as a contrast to the green all around. I trained my binoculars at the top of the Millingtonia tree and experienced my first victory in bird watching, which led to my first concept note for my future book: If you are patient, you will notice that birds come to flowers. You don’t need to chase them–figuratively speaking–with your binoculars.

Over the course of several days, things improved. For a non-birdwatcher, or a nouveau birdwatcher like me, who engages in the activity, not necessarily out of intrinsic interest, but because she believes it is good to do so, certain elements are key. Limit the bird watching to 15 minutes every day; but do it every day, preferably in the early morning or at dusk. Try your best to capture an “aha” moment every day; a moment of joy; a point of pleasure.

For me, this came when I was training my binoculars at a distant tree as usual and discovered a Kingfisher sitting quietly on a branch. At least, I think it was a Kingfisher because there was some blue in it. This then is the next obstacle in bird watching: how do you know what you are looking at? Books help, but I have found that Wikipedia is my best resource. Type in “Birds of Bangalore” and there is a helpful page dedicated entirely to species that I can see around my garden. It is using this page that identified the birds with the sweetest sounds as bulbuls. They have a little tuft on their head and after listening to them carelessly singing one morning, and racing through the house to find them by looking out through every window, I discovered them on top of the tree with giant red flowers. By typing in “tree with giant red flowers in Bangalore,” I learned that this is the elephant apple tree or Dillenia indica.

Mother nature has bestowed beauty on every species, but to birds, she has been exceptionally generous. Watch a bird–any bird–soar in the sky, and I guarantee that you will feel joy, and envy. The freedom that birds seem to experience is uplifting and you wish you could lift yourself up.

Here are some things I learned. Pigeons can fly great distances, and I find them to be the most efficient flyers. They streak through the sky, following the same rhythm, without veering off course, as if they were focused on a goal.

Crows are whacko, particularly if they are flying in pairs. I have seen crows fly and then suddenly dip ten feet as if they were funneled downward by a wind current, before lifting themselves up. Parrots fly well, but not for long distances. As for the Brahmini kites, I have not made up my mind if I like them.

What will you do when you retire? I have thought a lot about this and come up with certain qualities that retirement activities need to have. Portability is one, particularly for those of us who love to travel. Bird watching fits this paradigm, because no matter where you travel, you will always find birds. If you educate yourself on birds, you can travel the world and remain engaged in your interest. When you get too old or feeble to travel, you can stand in your balcony and look through binoculars.

As I have been doing.

Shoba Narayan is stalking a pair of Brahmini kites that are roosting on her roof.

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