Culture Mulch Columns

Why do birds awaken such joy and wonder in us?

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Where is joy to be found? This is a question that I suspect has been plaguing us all, with even greater urgency in times of impending apocalypse and climate doom. I imagine you have read the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s damning new report too.

Recently, I left home and hearth for a few days to visit the Nilgiris and found my joy in the calls of birds, langurs, and deer. My favourite moment on this trip was a birding walk I took, guided by avid birder, consultant, and fabulous raconteur Rohan Mathias. In the span of three hours and barely a few kilometres, we spotted 26 kinds of birds with names I had formerly encountered only in nature guides and National Geographic. Between orioles, owlets, parakeets, and shrikes, my heart sangeth over.

What was it about my birding venture that sparked such joy? Ethno-ornithologists, who study the long-standing relationship between humans and birds, might tell me to look to folklore, for stories about birds in human culture far exceed those about any other creatures. Think back to your childhood narrative of the canny crow. Anthropologists will point to the constant and repeated appearance of birds as totems, symbols and emblems to this day. Think of nation-states and national birds. Others might point to the colonial legacy of taxonomy, where birds were exotic things of wonder to be collected from the colonies, and stuffed and displayed in museums to study colonial topography. Even Salim Ali, India’s pre-eminent naturalist and ornithologist, cut his teeth at the Bombay Natural History Society after shooting an unusually coloured sparrow for sport with his toy air gun. Perhaps a tinge of the exotic continues to dot my own amazement, even as natural history and bird-watching in the post-colony, not to mention Salim Ali, moved the field to a more humane complex of categorisation, conservation and wonder.

Yearning to fly

Alternatively, I wonder if it’s the promise of flight that keeps us tethered to the idea of the bird. Remember all manner of half-human, half-bird mythological beings, not least Icarus, who flew too close to the sun. Consider also the history of human flight. It’s not surprising that the Wright Brothers were avid birders and learnt from their contemporary Otto Lilienthal, who studied soaring birds like turkey vultures and hawks. Fans of Sudha Kongara’s recent hit film, Soorarai Potru, inspired by the life and work of Captain G.R. Gopinath of Air Deccan fame, will also remember the scene where the hero watches the movements of a sparrow to draw inspiration for low-cost flight.

In a twist in the plot, however, did you know that sparrows are disappearing from urban centres such as Chennai? And of the many individuals who have taken on the mantle of addressing this loss? For example, Ganesan D., a professor at SRM Institute of Technology, has mobilised “sparrow champions” to create secure homes for sparrows across North Chennai; and Sadhna Rajkumar, a nutritionist and fitness consultant, sources terracotta nests from a potter named Perumal to distribute across the city.

Homage to beauty

My brief encounters of the avian kind may not inspire in me any such capacity for transformation, but what they did was hone both my imaginative and attentive capacities. A few months ago, I sat spellbound by ‘Bird’, a series of four solos choreographed and conceptualised by Preethi Athreya and inspired by Gabriel García Márquez’s short story, A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings. I revisited my memory of this performance to realise again how much I was moved by the incongruity of the human body in its hopeful, albeit tragic, approximation of flight. I also thought that perhaps it was not an approximation as much as an admission of human frailty and rootedness, and a homage to the beauty we call a bird.

In her memoir, H for Hawk, Helen MacDonald writes of her attachment thus: “The hawk was everything I wanted to be: solitary, self-possessed, free from grief, and numb to the hurts of human life.” And yet, the bird is precisely that and more, a reminder of everything we are not, and a re-assertion of the human as not the only form of life worth attending to in the world. Emily Dickinson famously wrote, “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers — That perches in the soul —” and I can never once think of the poem without thinking of a wee bird fluttering away somewhere, waiting to be spotted in times of gloom.

The writer teaches anthropology for a living, and is otherwise invested in names, places, animals, and things.

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Printable version | Oct 18, 2021 4:51:45 AM |

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