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Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Part II: The Art of Living

There is much to learn from our feathered friends and neighbours.

Written by Ranjit Lal | New Delhi |
February 21, 2020 5:30:40 pm
cranes, tailorbirds, Great Indian bustard, ostrich, Moorhens, painted snipe, peacock, house sparrows, eye 2020, sunday eye, indian express, indian express news Photo by Ranjit Lal

We continue from where we left off last week: more birds, more tutorials.

There’s a line in the musical Zorba the Greek (1968), where the narrator (an intellectual), tells Zorba, “I want to dance! Teach me to dance!” Well, if you want to learn how to dance — and to hell with prissy-faced killjoys — watch cranes. It really doesn’t matter which species; the entire clan dances, and how! The big birds will pull up their skirts and joyfully prance around each other, tossing their heads back, trumpeting loudly their love for one another. Their calls carry for miles over desolate marshes and wetlands and can give you goosebumps and bring you to tears if you are desolate yourself. “They’re shameless,” the killjoys will hiss, “look how high their skirts go, chhi-chhi!” But, no, cranes (especially our sarus) stick to one partner for life with a degree of faithfulness sadly absent from our own species. If bereaved, the surviving partner might well grieve to death.

Tiny tailorbirds (and their numerous warbler cousins) taught me that size really doesn’t matter, that you can weigh hardly five gm and still have a 100-decibel voice, loud enough to blow out eardrums. I once literally had to back away from a shouting plain prinia. I’m surprised political parties haven’t used warblers for electioneering.

Would you like to look like a snob to make your mark on Page 3? Check out the Great Indian bustard, even though this poor, proud bird is teetering on the edge of extinction. It has a delicious, snooty air about it, rather like a camel, and even the last one standing will surely strut around with its nose upturned, as if to say, “good riddance, I’ll be glad to be out of here!” The stately dignity around the bird gives one the feeling that it really has something worthwhile to feel proud about. Another bird you could emulate for snootiness is the ostrich — it is the epitome of gender equality, the gentleman who brings up the babies — and a crèche full of them, at that!

In fact, there are several species where traditional roles are reversed. Moorhens and the painted snipe, for example, will brawl like hoodlums over their man, and once they’ve won him, will make him sit on their eggs, and go philandering again. Their philosophy is admirable: “We want as many babies as possible, so why not let the men bring them up instead of sitting on their asses!”

There is, of course, the peacock, our national bird; gorgeous, with beautiful kohl-lined eyes, stunning slim neck palpitating with emotion and that classical dance repertoire. But, then, it throws back its head and calls all day (imagine it sing our lovely national anthem). That voice could sink a fleet of battleships. So, be not too proud!

Sadly, vanishing from everywhere are house sparrows, those cocky little rakes who can, alas, hold lifelong vendettas with neighbours. I once had two nesting pairs determined to destroy each other and an ugly soap opera played out. So, now, why do I miss them so much?

The raptors are rightly the fighter jets of the skies — though even with them all you see (magnificence, speed, power, fearsome weaponry, glittering eyes) is not all you get. Many eagles and hawks — official symbols of superpowers in other countries — are scavengers and thieves, and, of course, the vultures have openly come out of the carcasses. But, yes, there’s the diminutive little shikra — another favourite, which shows that fierceness, courage and flying skill can come in small packages, too.

I watched albatrosses (and other seabirds) fly in a TV documentary and knew this is what airplane designers should be really trying to emulate. They fly low over the oceans, lifted by every graceful wing-beat, and land without fuss, neatly folding their long wings into their bodies. No shattering racket or vibrations, no smelly blow-back, no risk of exploding, no carbon footprint at all. Ironically, the only risk is getting sucked into shrieking jet engines.

If you’re fidgety, nervous and unable to keep still for a minute, spend some time watching herons and egrets fish. How still they remain, for how long, how stealthily they progress through the water, freezing again, before their javelin bills shoot out and impale their target.

I’ve never been either religious or spiritual. But, early one morning in the mountains, when it was still and dark, a long, melodious and very sweet whistle broke the velvety silence. That unseen bird sang solo for several minutes and it was so uplifting that I recorded it. It performed over several mornings, stopping finally when other early morning sounds took over. No, I’m still neither religious nor spiritual: that lovely songster turned out to be the Himalayan whistling thrush, a glistening purple-blue bird. I spotted it in the garden, aggressively charging at every other bird that dared land nearby.

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