There are several things that put most normal people off birding, or bird-watching. Primary amongst them is the alleged requirement that you have to get up at 4 on a freezing winter morning, and traipse knee-deep in squelchy mud to the nearest swamp, peering through the fog with heavy binoculars around your neck. No, they won’t penetrate it and you can safely go back to bed. Most sensible birds will remain tucked in their razais, heads buried in wings, fast asleep till at least noon in such conditions.
Another turn-off is this business with scientific names. Top-notch birders (sometimes trying to impress pretty fledgling birds in their group) will tell you that what you’ve seen is Corvus splendens and not a house crow. You can remain as happy describing it as a big black bird with a grey collar, beady eyes and a nasty beak, which behaves like the fellows who ragged you in school or first-year college.
Then there’s the matter of lists: Many “crack” birders roam around with long lists (like electoral rolls), ticking off the birds they see and identify. It’s a given that the list made on the current trip must exceed the one made on the previous trip. Or else, izzat ka faluda. Actually, that’s nonsense: if this time around there’s a flyover where last time there was a wooded park (what, we call “davlopement”), well, naturally, you will see more vehicles this time as birds simply fly over flyovers to wherever they’re going, which is to the wooded parks.
Another thing that puts newcomers off is how veteran birders flick a glance at a flitting little brown speck 500 meters away and succinctly tell you what it is, where it was born, whether it has a visa, what it ate that morning and how many children it has. It’s easy to pick up this habit as no one can really ask or even get a good look at the little brown blob (which, is what all these birds are). To cause confusion (and have a lot of fun) you can even make up names on the spot. (But remember them in case you’re asked half-an-hour later.)
Again, a lot of veteran birders usually only want to see and photograph birds that no one has seen or photographed before. To that end, they’ll literally go to the ends of the earth and suffer great discomfort. You can do the same at much less expense and discomfort by watching Animal Planet or National Geographic.
So how do you become a crack birder in the face of such relentless competition? The secret is: watch birds that veteran birders don’t watch. Like that beady-eyed black fellow, and those parakeets shrieking outside the window as if they’re on the Big Fight, and those brown-paper babbler fellows who are hammering at your window wanting to search and seize, and the mynas strutting around in the lawn like they were the ruddy landlords. Normal everyday birds. They’re used to us and will continue to behave in their normal manner when you’re around, allowing you a voyeuristic peek into their most private lives (also because they think no one could be interested in them). Did you know that Mr and Mrs Adrak Myna have issued the Parakeets (needless to add, called the Harimirches) nesting in Hollow 45-A, Pocket B, of the neem tree in your garden a legal notice to vacate? The Harimirches have refused and there we have the Big Fight all over again, right outside your drawing-room window as both birds summon their supporters for a free for all.
Don’t tell anyone that I told you, but suna hai that Shri Koel was yelling his lungs out at his best buddy, accusing him of an affair with his missus and while this was going on, the missus sensibly slunk off with yet another handsome dude and now the happy couple are going to give up their bachchas for adoption to those nasty beady-eyed crow louts — without their knowledge! How juicy is that?
Watching these everyday birds can be important. It’s because no one watched sparrows that one day we suddenly woke up to find that they’ve all but disappeared. It’s because no one kept an eye on vultures that one day when we finally looked up, we could only find one vulture in the whole of India. You behave like that with your children and one day they’ll do the same thing to you: walk out of your lives. But if you had your hand on their pulse all through, you would have noticed when things started going wrong. (Granted, the government will refuse to face reality till it punches them in the eye. Case in point: Sariska, and this was tigers, not birds!)
A friend has been regaling me with stories about the life and antics of a family of dusky martins nesting in her college. The doting parents have brought up four broods this summer and the little ones have one hell of a time while trying to poop, in accordance with the ideals of the Swachch Bharat program. How many veteran birders know about that?
Again with birds, it’s often, unfortunately, the list of AWOLs that is more important than the list of those present. Why and where have those birds vanished? What’s changed? What has upset them? Why aren’t there wagtails strutting on the lawn anymore? Where have all the red-collared doves gone?
It’s only by regularly checking on these guys, figuring out the minutiae of their lives and compiling a dossier on them, that you can get your PhD in birding.
And that can take one very happy lifetime to do.