Confessions of a bird man

Shiv Visvanathan
I cannot think of a morning without birds. I always need a piece of nature, before my coffee and the newspaper. If the first two are odes to culture, birds capture nature for me. Between walking and watching birds, my sense of the cosmos is renewed. There is an everydayness to birds which is fascinating. For me they do not merely greet the morning, they are the morning. They are the morning rituals of play and therapy where nature reminds you of the enchantment of life. There is an eccentricity about each of them that I found fascinating.
My bird of the month is the stork. For gluttons, they are graceful in fight and walk and I confess I find their watch therapeutic. The stork walking the grass, stacking worms has a touch of the comic. It seems to be perpetually rehearsing its steps, imitating itself to see if it can do better. If they realise the lawn is being mowed, they dance in anticipation reeling deliriously behind the lawnmower celebrating the new harvest of life to be consumed.
Next to them, the crow is an everyday affair. To call or suggest a flock of crows insults their singularity. A crow, at least in relation to a spectator, is an individualist, an egotist, a performer. The crow reminds me of an everyday philosopher at work; whether it is teasing a trail of water out of a half-punctured pipe or playing near a dustbin, there is a touch of the experimentalist to the crow. A delightfully urban bird that charmed the cartoonist R.K. Laxman into drawing it. The crow is animation incarnate, a living cartoon looking sceptically at itself.
The language of kinship
Recently, an American lawyer narrated a legal battle around crows to me. The population of the Hawaiian crow, Alala, once virtually ubiquitous, had been drastically reduced to a mere 21. Stunned by the decimation, Hawaiians argued that merely being labelled an endangered species was not adequate, the Alala should be given the rights and status of a person. I sensed the beauty of the argument.
I sensed this same feeling when tribes in Arunachal Pradesh objected to a hydroelectric project on the Tawang river, contending that the river was a nesting ground for black-necked cranes. The crane, the tribe believed, was a reincarnation of the sixth Dalai Lama. The court upheld the claim, sensing in a deep way the relation between survival and the sacred, hinting that in a way the language of rights is a poor language for the sacrament. I realise Aesop and the Ramayana might have done more to save birds than any legislation. Myths and festivals do more to sustain birds and other species than legislation. Legislations are contracts, they deal with ownership and property. Myths tap into the unconscious. Rituals play into the tacit understandings of a society. I still remember a Pongal festival where a wide variety of rice was cooked. My sisters used to teach me to make little rice balls, spread them out on a banana leaf, and then remind me “one was for the sparrow, the other for the crow”. These childhood rituals of affinity and caring did more for me than any later culture in ecology. As a child, I always thought that birds were ritual time keepers announcing the rhythms and seasons of nature.
I loved watching birds in flight. They choreographed the sky, mapped out a dream time as a child watched them. Birds in flight suggested deeper mysteries about migration and evolution that one dreamt about. I am glad my generation was allowed its sense of mysteries and riddles. Big questions were not downloaded in instant time and riddles reduced to information – one sat and chewed on them.
There was only one bird I was never fond of, and it was the pigeon.
The pigeon somehow never seemed a fact of nature. It seemed native to the urban habitat. It seemed at home in flats, on pipes, creating nests and muck, little imitations of urban life I could not quite appreciate. I was envious because the pigeon loved the innards of houses and the city. Its addiction for the urban put me off.
As a child I always felt pigeons were born simultaneously with middle-income housing. Even dogs, stray dogs could not quite compete with pigeons in their addiction to the city.
A composite identity
Watching birds in childhood leaves memory traces behind. Their performance as outlines, stances, tactics remain in one’s head and I later realise I often choreograph the world with prototypes of them in my head. Doing this often I suddenly realise how easily a totemic nature with plants and animals develops. One senses a spiritual double in an animal or bird, an affinity, even a kinship one wishes to articulate in ritual ways. The primordial sense of childhood understands the need for these affinities. They tap into some deeper evolutionary unconscious. In India, a person evolves not just in relation to animals, birds, trees, soils.
My genealogy is not complete without my songlines to birds. My identity as genuinely part crane, part crow. I can fully resonate with tribals’ understanding and addressing animals as brother bear. Modern education has amputated these affinities in creating a sanitary idea of citizenship. Today when birds disappear I feel a part of me is already fading away and that I too am doomed to extinction. Yet I cannot speak in the language of sustainability.
The science of extinction I grasp but without mourning, all we have is a pathologist’s report. Without my birds nature becomes a kind of empty time. But as I hear the chorus of sparrows, crows, mynas, cranes welcome the day, while the parrot screeches out a later entry, I feel my sanity returning. I remember a sacred prayer in gratitude realising that as long as birds are out on the grass, to quote a poet, god is not yet tired of the world.
Shiv Visvanathan is Director, Centre for the Study of Knowledge Systems, O.P. Jindal Global University.

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