Excerpt: Words for the Birds: Salim Ali’s Collected Radio Broadcasts

Time and time again during my birding experience, I have come across people who left me with the feeling, as they retreated, that they were tapping a sympathetic finger on the forehead inwardly. Their first glimpse of me has very often, it is true, been that of a distinctly khaki-clad, mechanic-type individual, wandering quietly and rather aimlessly through the countryside and peering surreptitiously into the bushes, and the holes in the trunks. trees and earth banks. . Sometimes they saw me suddenly become rooted to the ground with a pair of heavy-looking binoculars glued to my eyes for long periods of time. I have no doubt that some of them suspected that all these rigged tactics were carried out in the name of a foreign power with nefarious designs.

Prime Minister Indira Gandhi releases Handbook of Birds of India and Pakistan by Salim Ali and S Dillon Ripley on December 16, 1974. (Babu Ram/HT Photo)

A few years ago I had a building colony of Baya Weaver birds under close and regular observation for several consecutive months. To put myself at the level of the baboon on which the nests hung, I had built a raised platform on which I spent several hours a day with camera, binoculars and notebook hidden behind a screen of leaves and branches. In a short time, the birds became perfectly accustomed to this strange craft almost in the middle of them. They worked at ease and paid no attention to me, perched only a few feet away, although every now and then there were mysterious clicks inside as the Reflex shutter was released and the slides changed. I remember this particular occasion because of a question that came to my mind forcefully – the question of whether birds possess a Consciousness, and what is actually the thing we call Consciousness. I noted down the various incidents almost as they happened.

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As the owner of a half-built nest had gone with a group of fellow builders to get strips of fresh grass from a nearby field of rice seedlings, I observed his neighbor, who had stayed behind , surreptitiously jump to the unattended nest and feverishly tug two or three of the intertwined strands. Soon he flew off with the loot to his own structure and began to work them into the fabric of his own nest. I soon discovered that he was the only latecomer to this industrious colony. He rarely flew out with others to retrieve his own nesting material, and he was in fact a repeat offender. Whether it was the small inner voice or the memory of an unsavory past experience, I can’t tell, but the pilfering bird certainly showed every evidence of guilt and sheepishness in its actions. His hasty draws, furtive glances around, and hasty departure before the “column of supply” returned all made it clear that the bird was fully aware that what it was doing was not done. When we do our customs declarations, for example, is it fear of the consequences if we get caught, or is it – as we smugly imagine – a virtuous Consciousness that guides our pen?

Baya weaver bird (Shutterstock)

If someone asks me why I spend hours and days watching birds when I may be doing something more useful, I must admit that it is not always easy for me to produce a convincing answer on the fly. of head. Yet, on reflection, I see no difficulty in pointing out half a dozen good reasons why I do it. But I suspect that with most investigators, the crux of the matter is that one word – “useful”. If by useful they mean the ability to produce cash dividends, then it’s good not to try to justify birdwatching. For there is perhaps no other occupation less likely to provide a means of subsistence than the study of birds, especially in India where its importance is still so little perceived.

Tara Gandhi, editor, Words for Birds (Courtesy of Hachette)

Among the so-called amateur ornithologists who make a valuable contribution to science, I would cite as an example a young assistant barber in Basel who works under the direction of a university professor. This young man is engaged in a problem related to the population dynamics of different tit species and has already collected extremely valuable and complex data. He cuts his clients’ hair all week and looks forward to the clock striking one on Saturday afternoon.

READ MORE: Interview with Tara Gandhi, Editor-in-Chief, Words for Birds

As soon as the shop is closed, he jumps on his bicycle with his binoculars and his backpack (containing his nest-marking rings, his scales and other accessories) and heads straight for the forest four miles away which is the theater of his operations. He dives into the investigation for the rest of Saturday and all of Sunday and comes back to attack his clients’ heads and beards on Monday morning!

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