In this piece selected by Ilona Yusuf, the author introspects on the healing power of bird-watching in the times of Covid-19.
The trees are all sparse, leafless, brown. It’s still not spring up here. As usual, I’m in my new uniform: one of three jammies. And a Uniqlo traditional Japanese print tee—one of three. I love them, my art collection in this bare home. And always, always, my one and only black fleece. I’ve come here with these and a few more: a pair of black COS trousers, a few shirts. One beautiful silk sari. I’ve been wearing all but the sari for so long now, I feel I’ve been pushed prematurely into Vanaprastha, or the life of the forest hermit—the Vedic stage three of life.
In ancient times, each next stage was about your next act. In Vanaprastha, you renounce much of the world, say goodbye to your family. Here, in what they call ColdCountry(1) at home, my next act is the same as the previous day’s. Nobody has disrupted it for the last few weeks. I’m living in a long yogic moment, the present, uncontaminated by the pesky past or the uncertain future. There’s not a person I really know here, save my significant other and housekeeper of several years.
I don’t even know the birds. Them I’ll come to know, it’s what I do. I’m a birder. I get the accent, the syntax. I enjoy their world. Take the robin, small and brown with rich, henna-orange underneath. It can have iterations, but it’s more or less that one shape, build, structure. I’ll always have that sense in me.
And now, at the edge of the flat world map I’ve studied for years, I arrive, followed on my heels by a lockdown. I work—we all do. I read, but I get somewhat distracted—it’s a new experience. Maybe it’s part of the package deal: new city, new country, new pandemic, new lifestyle.
In all this, there’s new stuff to see. I have this guidebook I bought the day before we were asked to stay home to stay alive. It’s by a man called Dr David Bird. I’m so tickled, I pick it up over the others. Dr Bird identifies the feathered flashes I see everywhere as American robins.
I am befuddled. That? With a thrush-like build? Apart from the colours of its breast and belly, it has nothing to do with a robin. You can’t have that structure and then robin-ify it. I’ve seen about 800 birds in my life. Robins don’t masquerade as thrushes. Encountering an American robin in the throes of COVID-19 should help me know this: don’t rule out anything.
“These people,” my Indian birding buddy tells me, “they have a different thing going. Have you seen their warblers? They are so easy to identify, you won’t believe it.” Warblers are these brown-green little avian creatures that flit around so much, you barely ever see them. They even look so similar to each other that you’re advised to identify them by call. If you know your warblers, you’re glorious. Not so in these ColdCountries, it seems. It’s child’s play here. They look distinct.
“These people,” I think to myself, “they’ve turned everything upside down. Everything, but not me.” I grab my binoculars for the long learning ahead.
We’ve moved to #BalconyBirding back home. The rules are that you can’t step outside the space that the Indian emergency-like conditions won’t let you leave, anyway. No local lawns, no neighbourhood park. Just home-sad, rectangular cement capsules to save oneself from a proteinaceous menace. You report them on WhatsApp groups. Several a-ha moments are shared.
A Chestnut-headed bee-eater has been reported in the very heart of Lutyen’s Delhi. It’s been photographed well.
“Anyone nearby can come and have a look,” invites the spotter who has posted it. “It’s still around.” He’s an undergrad at an engineering college. The city’s under curfew, so he can’t invite anyone from far away.
“First record from Delhi state, if I’m not wrong?” he asks.
“Twice from Najafgarh and once from Okhla,” replies a food entrepreneur. He knows this from memory and our favourite site, eBird, a Cornell citizen-science database.
A tech app developer has already mentioned Okhla, but she’s been corrected: the protected sliver she’s referring to is not in Delhi at all. It’s in Uttar Pradesh.
ColdCountries don’t have our kind of desi balconies. They don’t sit out, husband and wife side by side, sipping chai grimly in their nightclothes, staring at people. They have decks—but that’s open air—no use in this cold. I’m #BalconyBirding from my window. I report back the only sighting I’ve had all day: the robin. From my second home, a new one in this ColdCountry, I see only four species in the first few days. Chicadees, American robins, ring-billed gulls and crows. This number is ridiculously sparse. I know very little about them, and I ought to be reading up instead of seeking new conquests. An old friend had once mentioned: birding is half about seeing and half about reading. The truism of seeking knowledge instead of trophies looks me in the eye. I’d still like to go out for the ducks on the river, but the world is under siege.
The deluge was long coming. Last year, they broke the bad news: the American continent has lost a third of its birds since 1970. Three billion individuals have vacated their spots in the skies. Their homes and habitats have gone, overrun or poisoned by human buccaneering. When you build your summer beach cottage, you also build a graveyard for the plovers.
Three billion is just under half the planet’s population. What if we lost half of us in the next 50 years, with no replacements?
COVID-19 is waving a playbook at us. Almost a hundred thousand people have died of this vicious virus. That’s a fraction of all the birds one single continent has lost in less than a lifetime. Human numbers seem miniscule compared to this, yet we’re shaken to the core.
We’re in a state of terror. Anyone can be next. It’s keeping us indoors. The tourism industry has crashed, and the new tourists don’t need guidance: pumas in Chilean cities, dolphins in Mediterranean ports, wild boars in Barcelona, deer in people’s backyards. The pandas in Hong Kong Zoo have finally made out.
It’s almost sacred, were it not a grim warning: being enclosed, scared could become our new normal unless we stop savaging ecosystems. A credible theory is that COVID-19 came to our bodies via bats and pangolins, sold in Wuhan’s wet market as food. It did no harm to these creatures, but we were never designed to bite into the wild. If you walk on water, you’ll drown. If you edge into territories that aren’t yours, you’ll stop breathing, even if you’re attached to a ventilator. Wild creatures don’t stay trapped in in cages and crates. Many are invisibly small. Take away their homes and hosts, they’ll get right in and ravage you. Man and Beast—two can play the game.
Walking around my many-windowed home, I see another species: cardinals, those unmistakably grand, rich-red beauties, chirping cheerily. This is the kind of Twitter I enjoy waking up to. They rule the bushes outside. I’m disappointed at my low #BalconyBirding score—even now, it’s only five. The next day, when more cardinals surface, I wonder why I’m not celebrating these sightings? Should a thing of beauty not be a joy forever? A fortnight later, I feel gratitude for all manners of things. Some are absurd—the presence of an unidentifiable animal, for example, that comes into our home and sits on a pale, white rock. But are my limited sightings a sign of the times? Three billion can’t not be missed.
Zoom has expanded its empire in this era of social distancing. You plan e-dates here. A corporate honcho has invited us all to birding early morning on Zoom. Nobody’s sure what this entails but why miss an adventure in our placid lives? He sets the tone. “I see from my balcony,” he begins. Blip. I miss that. My neighbour and her husband walk around with their cell phones in their lawn. We hear calls. Someone else aims a phone at the sky—a parakeet flies by. “I just saw a crow behind you,” I overhear one person tell another. There’s a warm reassurance: familiar faces, familiar voices, familiar birds. An army officer, a fellow birder in Delhi, has touched 50 species rapidly—spirits are high. This is the only meeting where all Zoom participants have the video on. Most people switch off the video, or keep the lights low. It’s tacitly understood: you’re feeling unpresentable in your oil-drenched hair, or some such thing. I keep it off for another reason. I’m always in pyjamas, the same ones. I feel silly. Maybe I am the victim of that human invention, fashion. But does it make any sense?
On a cheery spring afternoon, I watch a flock of crows chased a brownish-grey, streaky bird out of a park, onto a lone clump. It flew back, unhesitatingly. It was chased back. I could see the action from my lawn (yard, actually, in ColdCountry speak). I took a good look at it through my imperfect Zeiss binoculars. Later, I identified it as a merlin. If the creature had multiple change of clothes, I’d be clueless. That’s why some gulls are so annoying—they look different every season. We assume that nature’s own stay wrapped in the same feathers, but we’d be mocked ourselves for such insouciance. There’s a rising call for reigning in human consumption—a foundational cause for COVID-19. Fashion should be called out first.
Except avian fashion, I’m thinking, watching #7 fly by. It’s a cormorant. I know it instantly from home turf. One can learn a few things about frugal fashion from this one—it preens, it glows, it shines, it’s taut. They’re all taut. They eat clean. When did you last see an ageing, wrinkled bird? The only thing is they dress the same, except to woo. In the mating season, males don their party wear till they find someone or the other agrees to have chicks with them. It’s an annual cycle. Then, they’re back to the same. When a feather is done, it’s shed. A new, identical one replaces it. Classic, the fashion-world might say. I’ve managed a happy life in three sets of clothes for several days. I hope these won’t become my classics but I’m ready for less. Perhaps, when the new-normal dawns, I can be the inspired birder who gets by without so much.
I don’t know when that will happen. I’m not homesick. I’m not friendless. I’m just in free-fall.
As winter gives way to a tentative spring, the green shoots and melting snow gesture at change. It’s warm enough to stand outside at five thirty in the evening, gazing at turkey vultures (#8) soaring in the blue sky. I do this for as long as I like, hoping to catch a flash of their red heads. Since I’ve never found a sitting vulture here, I’ve missed this dramatic feature. Maybe there’s a social distancing reminder for me in the sky. With the feathered world, you learn to look and look again. The determined runners, shedding fat, racing along the local road outside, don’t fire a sense of competition in me.
The lockdown is growing a womb around me. Birds and birdsong are my calming, nourishing, amniotic fluid. I am being sustained by the ruptured, suppurating natural world, tending to me with gifts of beauty. In the same breath, it’s unleashing its tsunamic anger on us all. Seeking refuge from one avatar, I lean on its other avatar, its wondrous joys. This is my quarantine: learning from the birds.
Bharati Chaturvedi is an environmentalist and writer based in Delhi, India. She is the founder of the internationally acclaimed non-profit, Chintan, an environmental research and action group. She keeps her connection with the wilderness by birding and writes a weekly column for several newspapers and online portals, including Scroll.in and The Hindustan Times.