Birding Guru Today is my maternal grandmother, Nalini Shankar rao Brahmavar’s birthday. Born on 17th April 1919 in Dharwad, Karnataka, Aie was one of the twin towers of my life. She passed at the age of 72. Each birthday is a day to “visit” her memory and discover new insights and parallels. Most people who knew her, loved and admired her poise and her calm, smiling presence.
Aie was 46 when I, her first grandchild, was born. Strong, tall and robust, she took charge of me. She and my grandfather looked after me, while my parents when to work. From her I inherited her love for nature, dogs and storytelling. If I were getting back from a trip, my instinct would be to go straight to her, and show her photos, while giving her an account of the place.
Two Birdwatchers Aie was a nature lover and an amateur birdwatcher. Aie taught me to observe and to listen to birds. She would seat me in the crook of her arm and point out birds and trees. Our favourite spot was at the window, watching birds whilst she fed my two year-old self while telling stories of birds and animals.
Because both my parents worked, my recently retired grandfather and grandmother baby sat me through the week. My grandparents had leased a third floor apartment and I lived with them weekdays, going home to my parents on weekends. As I grew older and heavier, Aie made me stand on the chair by the balcony window. The nests in the mango tree were perfectly visible from my perch. Many an afternoon hour was spent watching the crow build its nest, marking its daily progress. A crow makes a haphazard nest of twigs. It looks flimsy and makeshift. We watched the crow roosting, the eggs, the crows feeding the chicks, and finally flying out the nest.
A keen observer, Aie told me about the of intelligence and cunning of birds. “The crow is the most intelligent of birds“, she said. She would mimic the crow’s tilt and turn of head. She spoke of the cunning of the Asian Koel or cuckoo, stories of the cuckoo laying her eggs in a crow’s nest, and the ongoing risk of the hatchlings being safe or eaten by the crow, once discovered. Birders know this behaviour as ‘nest parasitism’.
Then there were stories of house sparrows. She taught me how to tell the male from female sparrow.
‘I can watch them for hours’, Aie would say. ‘Observe the colour, the size, the dark ‘bib’ on its throat. That’s the male. The female is lighter coloured and slightly smaller’.
This difference in described by the term ‘sexual dimorphism’. Even when I was older and we came to live together one more time, I came home from school and college to reports on her bird observations.
On birding trips we are told, ‘don’t just go by colour. Observe the form, size, shape, the beak, notice the markings on the back’. We listen to bird calls, structure, form, behaviour and habits, bird anecdotes and stories. Science and fact, laced with adventure, drama, mystery and thrill, all add up to make the story stick.
Aie would have loved to listen to the calls, spot the bird in its habitat through binoculars. She would have exulted in watching the bird through the spotting scope, a wondrous device we learned about when we started going on birding excursions. Aie would have observed their details, the markings, she would have mimicked calls and would have remembered details of bird behaviour. And she would have written down and told stories of her birding trips with passion, making plans for her next trip. Today we use photos as ready reckoners to go back to the moment. In those days we relied on what we committed to memory, listening with all senses to remember and pull up the instant to tell our story.
Observe – listen are two life skills in any social interaction. Talking/ the dialogue comes later. I learned observation and listening through these early nature explorations from the window my grandmother, my first birding Guru. When I talk about Observe – Listen – Dialogue, I know how much I owe to those earliest lessons in noticing the world around me.
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