Call of the birds

by Garima Bhatia


Did-he-do-IT…. Did-he-do-IT… Did-he-do-IT …. Anjum woke with a startle on hearing the shrill noise piercing through the night, like a demented detective faced with the all important question of guilt. She made a mental note to ask Ma in the morning, covered her ears with a pillow and tried to go back to sleep.

“Ma, was that Sherlock Holmes on his rounds last night?”

“Ha ha, you mean the Red-wattled Lapwing, don’t you?”

Anjum, fondly remembering the Christmas holidays, asked “What’s that? Santa Claus on wings, returning home?”

“It’s a bird, silly! One of our own, not a visitor from a foreign land. You might have seen it on our drive to the farm, a lanky bird with long legs and a fleshy red patch in front of the eye. What you heard last night was its alarm call. Not the kind you use to wake up for school in the morning, but a call it makes when alarmed by some sort of danger, like after spotting a dog or jackal.”

“I didn’t know that birds call in alarm too. I’ve only heard them singing in the morning. They sound rather frivolous to me”, Anjum added.

“Oh but the reasons they sing are not frivolous at all! Sometimes they sing to mark their territory and tell their rivals – hey, this is my tree, so stay away! Or they sing to attract a mate for the breeding season.” “Have you noticed that in the summer, some birds become very noisy? Like the bird which callskutroo kutroo – the White-cheeked Barbet. Also the birds of the cuckoo family, which each have loud and distinctive calls, like the Koel with its ku-oo ku-oo rising call.”

Anjum was intrigued now. “So can we tell birds apart by the sound they make?”

“Yes of course! Most of the time, we hear the bird before we see it. In fact, ‘bird watching’ should often rather be called ‘bird-hearing’! But be careful, because there are some clever birds which can mimic the sounds of other birds. For example, the Magpie Robin sings beautifully, and when it sings you might think that there is more than one bird nearby. Similarly the Racket-tailed Drongo, which lives in forests, can mimic many other birds. So you have to listen very carefully to identify whether it’s the imposter or the actual bird calling!”

“Wow, so it’s a bit like solving a mystery and a bit like learning a new language!” Anjum made up her mind that she would learn the sounds of at least 5 common birds and impress her friends with her detective skills. It’s easy, and you can try it too!

This article appeared in the Hindu in School on 31 December 2014.

Picture: The ever-watchful Red-wattled Lapwing.
Credit: Rajneesh Suvarna/NCF