Bird watching with Sálim Ali

Our terrace penthouse adjoins a lovely small public park with many tall trees and some water bodies. The summer heat was on us until a month ago and the cuckoo-shrike’s early morning call used to wake us up. It was “a rising crescendo of coo-hoo coohoos, followed by cooroo-cooroos as a signing off.” He often sat on a rusty shield-bearer, flicking his feathers like “a nervous gentleman tugging at his tie, an action rendering identification easy at a distance.” These vintage observations are from the ten-volume masterwork Birds of India and Pakistan by Sálim Ali and S Dillon Ripley (as are all other quotes here).

Our present residence is a bird-watchers’ paradise. On my morning walk on our terrace, a score or more rose-ringed parakeets tweet me good morning.  Since the lockdown, birds have returned in numbers to reclaim their territory from human trespassers.  That meant daily consultations with Dr Sálim Ali for me.

This set was one of our earliest acquisitions on our return to India in 1971. Its cost was Rs 900, a tidy sum then, almost a whole month’s salary of my husband. One evening, on a stroll behind the main building of Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad in a stretch of brush, mostly acacias (later to become the famed Louis Kahn Plaza), we spotted some quails shepherding their young.  Ravi Matthai, who had just stepped down as the Institute’s first director, was with us and quipped that he always pictured them with their legs up under a cloche!  He introduced us to the book and we rushed to buy it, without a doubt among the best investments we ever made.  With its help, we identified many small birds living on the campus, such as the pipits (named after their call), red-vented bulbuls, sunbirds, but no parakeets.  There were no peacocks either, which would have looked nice on the green strip between faculty housing and the dormitories. 

Perhaps IIM-A should seek advice from 7 Lok Kalyan Marg about getting them!

On a summer morning more than 15 years ago, we chanced upon the secretive and stunningly bright golden oriole, perched on a high branch of a bare tree, calling out his mate lustily, with a Zorro-like mask around his eyes.  Dr S confirmed the identification, much to our delight and the envy of our dear friend Dr I G Patel, then living in Baroda. Several couples now visit here regularly, bolts of bright yellow flitting from tree to tree. The drongo is their great buddy, sharing the same perch, frequently as an early-warning system of approaching danger. Orioles become “bellicose when nesting and can put to rout big birds like the crow or even a shikra [falcon].”

The raptors take over the park in early afternoons, the master-flyer kites, ravens and shikras. The last named once sat still on the parapet of our terrace and swooped down on an unsuspecting squirrel in the flick of an eyelid, carrying it away, no doubt as a tasty meal.  The kites have found the tall mast lights in the park as favourites to perch on, while savouring an afternoon snack. One was flying low the other day with what looked like a string in his beak, which I am sure, was a small snake.  The tree-pie’s “large, harsh and raucous and at times musical calls” are attractive to us, but not to the monkeys, who cohabit the houses around the park not quite peacefully.  “Also called the king crow, it is highly inquisitive, cunning and wary as the occasion demands.”  

Our nocturnal friends, the pygmy owlets and shriek owls, are alas, fewer now than when we moved in first two decades ago.  I saw them sometimes on the parapet, and at other times on lamposts in the park, preying on moths and beetles attracted to the light.  “Their harsh screeching chirrurr-chirrurr is often followed by a chevak-chevak.”

My year-round companions are magpie robins, songbirds of Indian gardens. The sparrow-sized male has a shining blue-black coat and a spotless white front, a dapper tuxedoed gent!  He courts with “the chest all puffed up and the tail fanned out, almost hitting the head.”  He sings, “with the tail partly drooping and wings depressed.”  When the female, smaller and drabber, answers, it becomes a most agreeable concert, especially in the mornings.  Other small birds, especially in cooler weather, are bee-eaters, sunbirds, and barbets, whose call is “exceedingly like the time-pips of All India Radio”.  We have seen 20-odd bee-eaters swinging on cables, facing one another and dipping their tails. Bulbuls and wren warblers are permanent residents, as are mynas.

My nephews and nieces think I am antediluvian, relying on books for identifying birds when it is so simple on the Net. But the Sálim Ali opus is treasure trove to be cherished for its pithy descriptions and listing of easy-to-identify traits, besides being the capstone of the magnificent career of India’s premier birdman.  We could not have identified our most recent visitor, the lesser cormorant, never seen here before, but for the s-shaped neck clearly identified by Sálim Ali.  William Wordsworth said it all: “Oh joy that in our embers/Something yet doth live/That nature still remembers/What was so fugitive.”
Pandemic Perusing is an occasional column on books and reading

Business Standard is now on Telegram.
For insightful reports and views on business, markets, politics and other issues, subscribe to our official Telegram channel