I remember waiting near a watering hole in the Aravallis on a day that was so hot that the piercing sun would not let me completely open my eyes. I saw common birds coming up quietly to the water, woodland creatures who knew how precious water was in the midst of summer, lining up for a drink without squabbling. Among them was the common woodshrike — an ashy brown bird with a smear of black over its eye. Like the more ubiquitous common myna, this bird also looks like it is wearing a mask. A bandit in the trees. As the heat simmered in the afternoon stillness of the forest, the Zorro-like woodshrike amused me in the oppressive summer.
I realised then that seeing birds was a way of memorising and framing the landscape, creating vivid postcards for the mind. Asola Bhatti Sanctuary would forever be about the Zorro in the trees, rather than how many right turns I had to take to get there.
For me, Keoladeo bird sanctuary was less about its famous pelicans sloshing in the water and more about a single small minivet at the very top of a dry tree in the golden hour. Framed like a molten flame; upright, tiny, but magnificent. A lily pond at the side of a grey highway was unforgettable because of a lone cotton teal swimming quietly in the waters, looking woolly against the blues-greens-pinks of the lilies and their leaves reflected in the waters. A roadside dhaba in Maharashtra was etched in my mind because a glittering, migratory blue-rock thrush chose to poke around on a wall smeared in cooking oil. Of all the places it could have gone on its migratory route, it was here, an unexpectedly stunning backdrop to a plate of onion pakoras.
These “common” sights have become a little more precious. Because many bird species thought to be common birds have steeply declined in India. In February 2020, the first report card of wild Indian birds — the State of India’s Birds Report — was released. The report, a coalition between ten institutions, analysed ten million bird lists uploaded by birdwatchers. Old records were also examined, in order to determine long term trends (over last 25 years) as well as current decline (over last 5 years). Range size was also gleaned in the report.
Several critically endangered birds such as great Indian bustards, Bengal floricans, and gyps vultures are not doing well. This was perhaps expected. But many common birds are in steep decline too, despite having much larger ranges. These include the lovely yellow-crowned woodpecker, the bird that makes a tapping sound against wood. The forest-dwelling large cuckooshrike. The cotton teal, that loves water. The serpent-hunting short-toed snake eagle. Birds with ‘common’ in their names: such as the common woodshrike. The common greenshank. The splendidly colourful little minivet. The stone-and-scrub loving Indian thick-knee. The migratory blue rock thrush. And birds only found in the Indian subcontinent: such as the sirkeer malkoha.
The thrush at the dhaba was a flash of unexpected magic, interrupting otherwise ordinary day. Beauty and the banal merged together in a piquant mix that I have come to love about life in India.
But if these birds have declined sharply, I wonder who will miss them. If we don’t see something for long enough, we develop what is known as generational amnesia or shifting baselines. We simply believe the missing thing was always missing.
For the untrained eye, the large cuckooshrike — which only resembles a shrike but is not one — may never be missed. People may see a long-tailed shrike, commonly seen on wires and open woodlands, and consider that to be the declining large cuckooshrike. In Hindi, many birds of prey are called ‘cheel’, so the short-toed snake eagle may never be remembered because people see ‘cheel’— black kites — flying overhead. And while looking for larger birds, no one may recall the small minivet.
To see birds, you have to wait. And to know the land, you have to know the birds. Time and birds are both becoming rarer — and thus, we must force ourselves to stop and to look. And then, to ask for the protection for the voiceless.
My mind goes back to a patch of scalding rocks in Asola Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary, on the peripheries of Delhi, and a pair of Indian thick-knees in their very middle. You can’t see them unless you really look. And when you see them, they look like goblins, with knobbly knees and bulging eyes. And yet those birds were perfectly suited to that rocky, thorny place, disappearing in plain sight, not minding the prickle of the Aravallis. They were meant to be there; they had etched the land. They gave the area a sense of place, a gravitas, a particular tilt.
We have been lucky to be surrounded by a swathe of colour and a flood of precise bird sounds: bouncing off rocks and trees, swinging over the skies and reaching us like spells cast in foreign languages. The more abundant “common” birds have kept their dates with us, at roadside ponds and teashops. They are unlike the rarer ones who we have to intentionally go looking for. These common ones are wild spirits that come to us. Our eyes and ears would be impoverished without them; I desperately hope for common birds to remain common.
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