I squeal when I see a bird for the first time. It’s an instinctual response. I am ecstatic that I don’t flap my arms and run around like a crazy person. The birds will never let me photograph them.
But I can be a squealer. I just can’t help it. I am a clay-animated puppet around them. I tilt my neck and rock it back and forth. It’s as though I am watching a tennis match while listening to a Beatles song. My limbs feel sedated. I will be useless in the event of a disaster. If turns into a fight or flight scenario, I can only head-butt my way out of it. Or bewilder the attacker by collapsing into a seated yoga pose and chanting Om. At times, I gargle words, with neither poignancy nor panache, before clapping my hands.
I impersonate an eager elephant seal just to show my new feathered friends how excited I am.
When I first saw the Coppersmith Barbet, on a December morning, I thought it was a figment of my imagination. It was feasting on wild berries at the Vedanthangal Bird Sanctuary. I had to snoop around by listening to its metronome calls.
And I found some delightful questions to toy with. For instance, I couldn’t tell if the forehead was plum-red or if a piece of berry was lodged in it. I wasn’t sure if the bird wore yellowing spectacles. Or if it, by some chance, had dipped its face, beak-first, in digested mango pulp.
There was a streak of crimson near the throat too. Perhaps, the barbet was in a gang fight. The other birds must have wielded thorns of flowers – like pocketknives. The upper part of its plumage was bathed in green and rinsed in gray. But I quickly assumed that it was a winter leaf-colored overcoat.
The Coppersmith Barbet soon flew away from the berry tree. I saw her land on the deadwood branch. Only then did I notice the bright red feathers on its head. I squealed – like children do when they meet adult-sized versions of their favorite cartoon characters at the mall. Or when someone steps on their toes.
Since this encounter, I have spotted this bird all over southern India, hundreds of times. It also haunts the outskirts of the city I live in. And I can’t still stop squealing every time I see it.
She took with her
some pickled love and
a few other precious things
that she could use
to grow herself
a fresh pair of wings.
(Photographs – Tamil Nadu, Kerala)