How I mess up the parenting habits of birds

Great Indian Hornbills look visibly upset when they sense danger in their surroundings. They let out a guttural cry as they take flight like wondrous paper planes, to find a vantage point. They aren’t scared easily, though. They are one of the largest hornbills in the world. Any predator would think twice about pissing them off. Malabar Trogons panic, like most smaller birds, when their nests are under attack. With one swift movement, they position themselves at a safe distance. Then, they stare at the intruder, dead in the eye, and purr softly – like a spellbound cat.

Earlier this year, I had the dubious distinction of interrupting the feeding sessions of these gorgeous birds. Yet I was spared the guilt of being a nuisance, and the Hitchcockian tragedy of being pecked to death by birds.

I saw an adult male Trogon leave a tree stump, near the Attakatti forest check post. He resembled a red lava lamp shot out of an invisible cannon. I found him perched, still as a painting, on a hanging vine. In-between his beak was a praying mantis, either dying or practicing a dangerous form of Tai Chi.

It was my second sighting. I first spotted them in Thattekad, with the help of a professional birder whose time I had paid for. This time, it felt a lot more special.

He took flight after three full minutes, heading back to the stump. I inched towards it for a closer look. My heart jumped out of my chest and body-slammed itself on my third eye. He was feeding the mantis to the fledglings. Excitedly, I clicked a few photographs. He seemed to be vastly disturbed by it, as he flew off again.

Soon, a female Malabar Trogon landed on the same vine. She looked at me like a mother would a petulant child. I put the camera down and backed away, leaving them in peace.

Later that morning, I went to see a Great Indian Hornbill couple at a familiar spot. I have known them for three years. And I was already informed that the lovely pair were feeding their chicks. A few photographers were shooting the male by the time I arrived. The hornbill was hopping around on a fig tree and collecting fruits. The female was nowhere to be seen. I sauntered around, waiting for one of them to return to the nesting tree.

In a few minutes, I heard the loud flapping of wings. I craned my neck to see the Great Indian Hornbills in flight. They landed in spectacular fashion, as my stupid Nikon digital camera was pointed towards them. The wind sang in the key of A-minor. I might have been sexually aroused too. Not that I was lusting after the birds or any of the members of my species. It was a bodily reaction to something that my mind was unable to cope with. The sheer beauty of it all.

At once, they began placing the figs, one at a time, in the tulip-shaped mouths of the baby hornbills. I stood there and photographed the feeding sessions. A forest officer then came over, riding a tiny moped, and told us to back off. I tried to argue that there was no disturbance. My ego grew in size as I passionately told him that I knew what constituted to ethical birding and what didn’t.

He frowned and asked us how we would have reacted if someone photographed the children in our family. He added that the District Forest Officer had recently instructed them to keep away large groups from the nest. No matter how well-judged the distance might be, we were disturbing them one way or the other.

I left with sunken lips; disappointed with myself. I couldn’t help but ponder about how ethical my birding activities have been over the years. It would crush me to find out that I have been disturbing birds for the sake of reassuring a love for them.

I would feel trapped. With my left foot inside the gutter and my right forefinger pointing towards the stars, I might stumble upon a realization that all might be fair in war, but certainly not in love.

Great Indian Hornbills, Anaimalai Hills

(Photographs: Atakatti / Valparai – Anaimalai Hills)

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13 comments

  1. I too have felt that shame ‘as a petulant child.’ It’s the reason I went ahead and sprung for the 600mm lens. No more shameful stalking! It’s difficult to draw the line between ethical and not. I feel that as long as people are engaged and watching — whether excitedly or not — that connection to nature can only be GOOD for the birds. I always remind myself that I am in their living room and try to act accordingly, but certainly they come to know I’m no threat to them.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Wonderful to hear from you, Shannon. Summers need more dirt. More kids. More S-rooooos! (big smile). And yes, I do agree that a meaningful engagement can only lead to good karma for the birds. Correction, I hope dearly that such is the case!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I’d have to agree with the forest officer. We need to remember we are guests out there, and especially considering the crowds I’ve seen around the mango nest – it’s something that needs to kept in mind. To be honest, I’m not sure if nest-based photography as a whole is allowable – it’s an easy means to an end and can often lead to more harm than good. Nevertheless, I am slightly jealous of the trogon enounter 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I agree with your reasoning, GB. Makes a lot of sense. Remember we discussed this before? The thing is, the officers, naturalists and animal conservationists bring their guests, often in large groups, who even park their cars right next to the tree. Their excuse is that they are authorised to. I wonder if the hornbill knows this.

      They also bother the locals who are making a living under the pretext that they want to protect the wild. Having met a few, I opine that they do these things to feed their false sense of entitlement too. They pay tons of money to come there and conduct research, and feel as though it entities them to know when exceptions can be made, and when they can’t.

      Have a heard some awful stories from the local wildlife rescue teams too, GB, about this naturalist society trespassing areas they really shouldn’t simply because they feel that they do enough good.

      That’s a dangerous logic.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. There is definitely a fine line. Having worked with naturalists in the area, though, from what I can see they do all they can to minimize disturbance – I know the team observing the nest does so from behind the fence so as to minimize observability; the precautions they take to protect nests seemed almost over-cautious to me! But I was there only for four days, so I definitely don’t have a full picture – there is a sense of entitlement, certainly, but that entitlement and the research they do must be weighed against the purely selfish desires of many photographers just fishing for FB likes. Again, I don’t know the full picture in Valparai – just speaking from what I saw.

        Liked by 2 people

      2. I d hope that there is more of the kind you describe, GB. Not in Valparai as far as I can see it or the local rescue teams believe it to be. FB likes are an embarrassing excuse that borders on harassment but some of their activities just seem far worse, considering that they really ought to know better.

        Liked by 1 person

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