The first question I usually ask while taking school or college kids out birding is: “What do you think you need the most when you go birding? Your eyes, nose, ears, hands, feet, binoculars, clothes…?” Invariably, the answer will mainly be, “eyes” or “binoculars” but happily, in every group there will usually be a couple of bright sparks who chirpily say, “ears”.
Most people, however, have problems when asked to listen quietly for two minutes and figure out how many different bird calls they can hear. They shuffle their feet, start to fidget, get distracted and then shake their heads when you say, “There — can’t you hear those white-eyes jingling softly right above you?”
Well, there’s a very easy way to teach yourself how to listen as I discovered for myself on a recent holiday in Bhowali. Every morning at five, the blue whistling thrush would begin its concert — kept company by a support cast of other species that made up the famous dawn chorus. Its whistling song is long and melodious, occasionally spiked with a few aggressive notes but usually dulcet and mellifluous.
It was, I thought, certainly worth recording. So I put my tiny silver recorder out on the verandah as soon as I heard it, and pressed “record”. I was relying on the recorder’s inbuilt mikes (like two perforated ears) and nothing more. And then a strange thing happened: I felt my own ears prick up keenly; I wanted to catch every note and was wondering if the recorder had done so too (like playing a game of “hey, did you hear that?”).
The lead singer was belting it out, kept company by a cheerful chorus of house sparrows, and the occasional liquid notes of the white-eared bulbul. A Himalayan tree pie landed up too, with a hoarse cough, and there was a medley of high-pitched squeaks and ceetis (whistles) from the likes of grey-hooded warblers and black-throated tits, et al. Occasionally, the jungle mynahs would offer some harsh criticism. Down in the valley, the rooster gave its morning alarm.
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But ironically, and irritatingly, I found that I was listening, even harder, for sounds I didn’t want to hear: somewhere on the road below, a truck was grinding its way up the mountain, sounding as if it had gravel in its engine. Another idiot driver, probably of a bus, blasted the morning with his multiple-noted musical klaxon. A gate creaked open and someone yelled. Dogs barked. Temple or church bells rang out. I refocussed on the birds. Now I was listening out for my all-time favourite lunatic mountain bird — the great barbet. And there it was, probably all the way across in Nainital, yelling its head off. When I played back the recording, I was happy to note that I remembered hearing every call and sound that the recorder had caught.
So I’m thinking that if you want to learn how to listen out for bird calls or birdsong — make, or just pretend that you’re making a recording. It’ll teach you to concentrate (and become aware of how much noise we make). And a bonus: you and your buddies won’t be able to jabber during that period and will be able to hear so much more. Happy listening!
Ranjit Lal is an author, environmentalist and bird watcher