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Friday, September 17, 2021

Down in Jungleland: Spot a Birder

The way you go about bird-watching reveals more about you than you would wish to.

Written by Ranjit Lal | New Delhi |
Updated: July 21, 2019 6:30:03 am
birder, birdwatching, pastime, indianexpress, sundayeye, eye, eye 2019, birds, who is a birdie, personality traits of birdies, berdie terminology, flight of a bird, bird eggs, birds, environmentalist, ranjit lal column, indianexpress ranjit lal, sunday readings, bird species, Birding has now become far more respectable and birders are not regarded as wastrels and crackpots. (Photo: Ranjit Lal)

If you are a birder, or want to become one, beware! This pastime can reveal more about you and your personality than you may like to be made public. I’m not going to reveal exactly what, but it should become pretty obvious after reading this piece. There was a time not so long ago when birders were considered eccentric, altu-faltus (idlers), who had far too much free time at their disposal. No one could quite understand why anyone would want to spend a freezing winter morning standing at the edge of a windblown lake, glued to binoculars that were aimed at what looked like a bundle of rubbish at the opposite bank.

On one occasion, while watching an elegant great-crested grebe floating serenely across a village pond as well as an assortment of ducks, I was surrounded by spellbound villagers, who squatted on their haunches and began watching me with equal avidity. From the tree above came the squawks of a platoon of noisy parakeets. From time to time, the elders would whisper something to each other: Probably, “Bechara, pagal hai, afsar lagta hai par tota, batakh dekh raha hai! (Poor fellow, he must be mad, he looks like an officer, but he’s looking at parrots and ducks!)”

Of course, birding has now become far more respectable and birders are not regarded as wastrels and crackpots. But before you plunge into this pastime, think about what it might reveal about you:

Do you have this irresistible urge, itch and ambition to see and tick off every single species of bird found in the country and the world? There are some among us who have made this the the be-all and end-all of our lives — and probably made life impossible for their spouses and families. This subspecies usually starts life as the inveterate lister, who will jot down every species he or she sees on an outing. This is sensible, of course, and valuable for maintaining records except when the lister begins to insist that every time he or she goes to a particular area, the current list must be longer than the one he or she made on the previous occasion. And will not return home until this happens. Says something about ambition and ego, doesn’t it, but I’m not saying what.

Then, there are those who have made identifying unidentifiable birds their USP. They can do so using one eye, with the bird 500m away. In all probability, this bird will be one of what most sensible and normal birders dismiss as “little brown jobs”. Many belong to the infuriating warbler clan — and even greats like Dr Salim Ali have maintained that it can be impossible to tell one from the other in the field without a DNA analysis. The other great family of birds that takes a perverse delight in bamboozling birders is the raptors. Many eagles, for example, go in for a change of plumage from year to year, taking up to maybe five years, to finally get into their adult plumage. But crack birders will be able to tell you not only what that mottled looking raptor is, but how old it is and probably even what it’s eaten for breakfast. This kind may also — to confuse you further — only call the bird by its scientific name, which generally is in either Latin or Greek or both. And so the ego strikes again!

Birding terminology can also seem strange and frankly sound terribly pompous: Birders will often say, “I had this bird, or that,” making you wonder if they ate it or something — but no, they just saw it. Another term used very excitedly is “lifer”. This is a bird which the birder is seeing for the first time ever, and implies a certain sense of achievement. Well, it’s no big deal really, because at some point or the other, even the crow would have been a lifer — even if the birder was in diapers at the time and had his pacifier filched by one.

You can also become a birder like what I have become — who would much rather sit on a bench in the garden, or a well-chosen spot and wait for the birds to surface. Sometimes, they do, many times they don’t. Occasionally, they let you into astonishing, secret aspects of their lives.

Many birders — after years of experience — are proudly able to identify a bird by just getting a fleeting glance — the typical manner of its flight, a flash of colour: this is called “jizz”. Recently, when I glanced out of the windows and glimpsed a blaze of white stationed on the ledge of a terrace some distance away, I concluded “white-breasted kingfisher!” — partly because I had heard one call earlier. And, sure enough, it disappeared when I moved to change my position. But, the next morning, it was back there at the very same spot. And the next! A bird of iron-clad habit — I liked that. A few mornings later, I glanced out at it again and baulked. There was a black kite sitting on the “kingfisher’s” head! What I had been seeing was the top end of a gas outlet on the terrace. When I shifted my position, it vanished behind the terrace’s edge. I think I was royally jizzed! Those damn birds, too, know when you need to be pulled down a peg or two.

Ranjit Lal is an author, environmentalist and bird watcher.

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