Hornbill Hills: the protector

by Swati Sidhu

Budhiram sat hidden in the bushes, staring at a large tree… this time not to hunt Paga, the hornbill

The rugged hills were invisible behind a thick haze. The river brought particles of ash that drifted with the water current as flotsam . Somewhere from within these hills came the sound of popping and cracking, like hundreds of fireworks going off together. Bamboo was bursting and exploding as a fire advanced through the forest, consuming everything in its way. Budhiram sat hidden in the bushes, staring at a large tree that stood across the dry stream bed. Beads of sweat appeared on his forehead and rolled down his neck. He sat listening to the fire as the heat rose.

Dry leaves cleared

Masked by the sound of fire, came the faint sound of wing beats. The hornbill flew over Budhiram and over the large tree, without feeding his partner who was waiting in the nest-hole. Budhiram crawled out of where he sat and walked up to the nest tree with its large buttress roots. One of these had rotten and dried up as the tree aged. If the fire were to come near this tree, its dry side would soon give it away. He picked up a stout pole and patiently cleared all the dry leaves and climbers around the tree in a neat circle. Once done, he walked home, frequently looking back at the nest tree. He came upon some men from his village, walking towards the forest. He spoke to them, ‘Ae bhai, hamare paga ko dekho, haan ?’ (Hello brother, take care of our Paga)

Did Paga escape?

As time wore on, the fire burnt more violently and red hot flames approached the nest tree. The fire became stronger and rose towards the nest, and at the last moment, the female hornbill broke out in time to escape.

Sigh of relief

That night Budhiram lay awake, waiting to hear the rooster’s call. Earlier in the month, he had spent several days following this pair as they flew from one part of the forest to another searching for a tree in which to nest. Now, anxious about their fate, he got up and hurried towards the forest in the dark. As he approached, the first light revealed the forest floor that lay exposed. Shrubs, bushes and a thick mat of leaves had been burnt the previous day.

With every step, he disturbed a layer of loose ash. He came up the dry stream bed and walked towards the nest tree. Finding the tree safe, he selected a hiding place from which to sit and watch the nest.

Gradually, his thoughts overcrowded his sight. His mind drifted and swam from the fire, to the tree, to the hornbills. His head felt heavier. But something snapped him back to reality. Instinctively , he looked up at the nest and to his great relief, saw the hornbill sitting there, feeding his partner. Weeks later, two blind and helpless baby hornbills will turn their beaks up for food inside that tree.

This article appeared in the Hindu in School on 4 March 2015.

Picture: Budhiram Tai in his traditional Nyishi head-dress smiles during a festival.
Credit: Swati Sidhu