I was first attracted to birds when I moved to Dharamshala in 1997. I remember being woken up every morning by the song of a blue whistling thrush (I didn’t identify it then). Slowly, as I settled in, I started recognising a few of the most common species of birds such as magpies, barbets, woodpeckers, tits, thrushes, wagtails, kites and vultures. After a few months I could differentiate with certainty a large grey-headed woodpecker from the similar looking great himalayan barbet.
When I met Jan Willem den Besten, an ornithologist and environmentalist then living in Dharamshala, my interest took on a new vigour. With Jan, I started an informal club called the Kangra Bird Club and assisted him in conducting birdwatching excursions in the area. Jan Willem wrote an excellent guidebook to the bird species of the area Birds of Kangra which was published by Moonpeak in 2004.
As the pressures of work mounted, my interest waned somewhat but I continued to be delighted by bird sightings around my home and during my walks. On my recent visit to Bangalore I chanced upon a paperback copy of Tim Birkhead’s Bird Sense: What It’s Like to Be a Bird at the excellent Blossom book store near M G Road and bought it to read on the journey back.
The book has seven chapters, each devoted to a particular sense (including the uncommon magnetic sense) in which Birkhead constructs a convincing picture of the avian sensory world. Page by page he engages us with his scholarship and astute insights as he builds for us a map dotted with anecdotes, case studies and personal encounters with birds. We marvel with him at the superior faculties certain bird species have — like the fine sense of hearing in owls which allow them to fly and hunt in complete darkness, or the sense of smell which aids the albatross to pin point food (krill) on the ocean’s surface from a great distance or the ability of chicken to use each of their eyes to a different purpose; one to forage for food and the other to look out for predators.
He gives us a sneak peak into the avian sex life (touch) and informs us that copulation may be more than just a mechanism for producing offsprings — male buffalo weavers seem to enjoy a protracted vigorous copulation and achieve orgasm.
We also learn that birds are born with an inbuilt magnetic compass which help them migrate great distances without losing their way. Bar-tailed godwits cover a distance of 11,000 kilometres in a non-stop eight-day flight from New Zealand to Alaska, guided only by their magnetic sense.
Geolocator, a tiny device when attached to the foot of a bird records light-levels to keep a log of bird’s locations, has helped greatly in advancing our understanding of the migratory habits of birds. Birkhead hopes that with the increasingly sophisticated instruments available to modern science we will soon have a better understanding of bird behaviour. To the aspiring ornithologists he suggests many interesting if challenging projects such as to study the association of bright colours with toxicity or the role of lateralisation in natural selection of birds.
So out I go with my binoculars and a copy of Birds of Kangra* in my backpack. I am certain that I would look at even a common hill mynah with new, more wonder-filled eyes.
*Available at a discount with Moonpeak