Decades ago when I first started bird-watching, birders were considered to be a lunatic (if harmless) fringe group: another species of those altu-faltu people who had nothing better to do with their lives than look at birds. The trouble is that once you realised there were more birds to see than sparrows, crows and pigeons, you were hooked. And sensibly, like all people who get hooked (by anything) the only thing you want to do was to get other people hooked too. So you went around gabbling incoherently about how beautiful the paradise flycatcher was (it really is), and how quaint the coppersmith was, how fierce and fearless the little shikra was, and, how it was unbelievable that you could see so many species, even in cities like Mumbai (all true). At social gatherings, people would edge away from you as you began your spiel, warily watching the missionary gleam in your eyes as you closed in on them, knowing only too well that they were going to be invited out at 4.30 the next morning at the end of your discourse.
Of course this doesn’t deter you one bit. I even remember a small group of us trying to inveigle a posse of very suspicious and sarcastic Delhi policemen into looking at birds — after having to convince them about what we were doing prowling about in thorny undergrowth, dressed in camouflage colours, armed with binoculars and cameras at some unearthly dawn hour in the middle of winter. If it was bad enough in the city, it was equally so in the rural areas, where people would gather around and watch you with the same gawking fascination with which you were watching the lovely great crested grebes swimming in their village pond. ‘Bechara pagal hai, tota batak dekh raha hai!’ (The poor fellow is nuts; he’s watching parrots and ducks!’)
If word of mouth didn’t quite help to spread the message, then maybe the written word would do a better job of it, I thought. So I started writing about birds. But, I suspect, that this, too, had very limited (if any) effect.
Then along came the internet and everything changed. I suspect it helped spread the popularity of birding faster than anything had done before. Also, as we were now able to acquire delicious high-quality equipment: binoculars, scopes, recorders, bazooka like telephoto lenses and powerful digital cameras (which could cost as much as a mid-sized sedan, but who cared!), we were all equipped to go! Birding groups quickly formed and were able to spread the word far and wide about trips, sightings and photo-ops.
Birding suddenly became a kind of designer pastime. It probably helped if you were properly kitted out too, complete with a four-wheel drive — SUV and GPS and what have you. A far cry from the days when people like Salim Ali used to trundle off in bullock carts to hard-to-access destinations, dressed in baggy shorts and t-shirt.
Suddenly, I too found that I had to learn the meaning of new terminology, for example, “lifer”. What the heck was that, I wondered, when I first heard it. Then it was explained to me that a lifer was pretty obviously, a species that you were seeing for the first time in your life. By that yardstick every single bird species, be it crow, myna, pigeon, tota or batak that you saw the first time, was a lifer, so what was all the fuss about? People brandished lists of all the bird species they had ever seen and wish-lists of birds they wanted to see before they died. The longer your list, the better you were. And you would stop at nothing to add that one extra species (especially if it were rare) to your list. It became even more desirable and competitive if you were a bird photographer.
Which is why, according to a recent Facebook post, there were apparently close to 89 vehicles kicking up dust in the flats near the Sultanpur National Park, Haryana, as avid birders and bird paparazzi tried to see, and photograph, a short-eared owl that had taken shelter there. Short-eared owls are winter visitors, and, unusually, are diurnal. They go to ground in tussocky grasslands and it’s a treat to see them (they’re biscuit-brown and attractively streaked). But I really wouldn’t like it if I were one and there were 89 grunting motor vehicles trying to close in on me from all directions; a scenario reminiscent of notorious tiger gheraos that happen in tiger reserves. Also, a flushed owl could be easily lynched by a rabble of crows.
While it’s great that birding is now catching on like never before, birders (and the paparazzi) have got to remember the one golden, inviolable rule that governs it: that the interests and well-being of the bird comes first. If the birds were not there, you’d have nothing to watch.