I first spotted the Coppersmith Barbet on a chilly morning, outside a bird sanctuary in Chennai. I followed its metronome call to a large berry tree. I saw the barbet feasting on wild berries in one of the branches. The long winter shadows had cast a spell over the leaves, and I was unable to revel in the barbet’s gorgeous features.
When I caught a better glimpse, its beauty took me by surprise. Its plum-red head shone, like lost treasure, as the tufted yellow rings around the eyes gave it a scholarly appearance. The upper part of its plumage was bathed in green and rinsed in grey. There was a streak of crimson near its throat too.
I could not help but mumble oohs and aahs in appreciation. I even made that sub-erotic hissing noise which comedians use in Kollywood movies when titillated via double-entendres. By the time I pointed the camera towards it – the Coppersmith Barbet had flown to another tree.
Then, I saw it land on a deadwood branch. And I squealed. Like children do when they meet adult-sized versions of their favorite cartoon characters at the mall. But the barbet did not fly away. I managed to take plenty of photographs of it, as well observe its intricate actions.
I used to scream whenever I saw a new bird. Unable to contain my excitement, I have scared them off their perches. After year one of birdwatching, though, I graduated to squealing while spotting lifers. These days, I palm my mouth to stifle the elation. Even so, a shrill cry escapes the corner of my lips. I cannot seem to limit my movement, and lower my voice.
I break the rules of birdwatching because I feel like a clay-animated puppet around them. With every move they make – a string is pulled. Losing track of what else I am supposed to be doing, I end up colliding with bystanders, slipping down ridges and stepping on poop.
Since my first encounter with the Coppersmith Barbet, I have seen it hundreds of times across southern India. Each time was special. It was not just because no two barbets looked the same.
The thing is that – no two squeals sound the same either.
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.