Monday, October 17, 2016

Birdiness, birditude, and birdicity

Turns out ornithology isn’t for the birds.

(Published on October 15, 2016 in Business Standard)

I love nature, but never had much time for birds. They’re skittish, they poop all over the place, and they’re fiddly to eat. Plus they conduct jihad from across the the LoC and have to be locked up, x-rayed, and put on suicide watch, and we really don’t need more than one kind of bipedal anti-national. Anyway, my birdwatching experience has been minimal, and I have spent one hundred percent of it going ‘Where? Where?’ because I never remember to carry binoculars. As far as birdiness is concerned, I’d rather watch paint dry.

This week I lived out one of my worst nightmares, which is that I am travelling to a place where there is nothing to do but birdwatch, with eleven family members including six children, and only one bottle of whisky.

It was trying. Everywhere I went, there were six little demons shrieking and running around, and shrieking, and leaving the doors open at mosquito time, and spreading sugar all over the bathroom floor and, oh yes, shrieking. I kept trying to wake up.

No, seriously—I really kept trying to wake up. Birdwatching is a crack-of-dawn activity. The only creatures that rise even earlier are small children, who don’t like to sleep when they could be screeching. But the kids were dressed and lined up by the hotel door while the adults were still stumbling around with one shoe on, stalling for another sip of tea. It turned out that their enthusiasm had nothing to do with birds, it was all about cycle rickshaws. Kids are weird like that. My niece who still can’t write in joined-up letters was carrying a knapsack containing night vision goggles.

In Keoladeo National Park, internationally famous for its birditude, you glide silently around the wetlands in a cycle rickshaw manned by a guide with visual superpowers and bewildering enthusiasm, who can spot and name a bird from half a kilometre away. You spend ten minutes fantasising about applying a chloroform-soaked napkin to this person’s nose, but then the clouds pink up in a sky threaded with gold, and you take out the binoculars you finally remembered to bring, and suddenly everything is better.

The blue startle of an Indian roller. This grey heron doing a solitary slo-mo tango in a tree-filled pond. A cormorant drying its netted wings in the sun. A darter scything snake-like through water; a spoonbill stork with its spatula beak. A whole nursery of painted storks with pink-splashed rumps, feeding their noisy chicks and sheltering them against the sun.

We contemplated this scene of parental tenderness while munching on our boxed breakfasts, which wasn’t macabre at all until my sister-in-law said, “Is it bothering anyone that we’re sitting here eating eggs?”

We saw drongos, tailor birds, purple moor hens; even an elusive nightjar that rolled one sleepy eye at us. We saw a mighty crested serpent eagle, and forty other kinds of beautiful creatures.

It was all unexpectedly enjoyable, especially since I had my own room, which remained a calm and quiet oasis after I announced, without raising my voice, that any child who came in would be put to death. They amused themselves outside, shrieking and swimming and smearing food into their eyebrows, while we drained the whisky bottle.

I think I’ll go back to Keoladeo for some more birdicity, minus kids—though I admit that even the kids were entertaining; I can totally relate to their logic. I asked my littlest niece which bird she liked best. ‘The cuckoo,’ she said. I asked why. ‘Because,’ she said, ‘it’s a silly name.’

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