You should read this book if you know nothing about birds, and equally, if you marvel at them or enjoy watching them and listening to their calls. Madhaviah Krishnan, one of India’s greatest naturalists, and incontestably our finest nature writer in English, will hold you spellbound with his lapidary descriptions of birds in the forest, waterfowl, grassland birds, nocturnal birds and even common urban birds like the house crow, the mynah, parrots, pigeons and (alas, the no-longer-so-common) house sparrow.
This collection, appearing on Krishnan’s birth centenary, is drawn primarily from his writings in The Illustrated Weekly, The Hindu and above all, The Statesman, to which he contributed the fortnightly Country Notebook for an uninterrupted 46 years. (Its last instalment appeared the day Krishnan died in 1996.) As the countless numbers who discovered nature through that column will testify, Krishnan’s writing has appeal both for its content and literary quality. One marvels at the wonderment he conveys about birds as our companions amidst “the suffocating architecture”, pollution, filth and noise of our cities. He also brilliantly succeeds in arousing “the natural curiosity of every child” in the animate world, an essential component of education. He reminds us of many mysteries—how do migratory birds remember routes thousands of miles long?
India, among the world’s 10 countries with the most number of bird species, has some 1,200 bird varieties in varying environments, and hosts numerous migratory species too. Krishnan brings home the staggering wealth and captivating beauty of our avian heritage, with engaging conversation about and acute observations of the plumage, beaks, legs, wings and other physical features of birds, their habitat, food, breeding and rearing habits, social behaviour, and flight characteristics.
Krishnan elevates bird-watching into high-quality story-telling—with delectable accounts of the postures and gaits of rails, crakes and waterhens, the feeding habits of hawks, shrikes and cormorants, the splendour of Painted Storks, Red Junglefowl, Spotbill and Pintails, the predatory swoop of the Peregrine Falcon and the White-Bellied Sea-Eagle, the calls of orioles, larks, wagtails, koels and bulbuls, and the playfulness of parakeets, sunbirds and bulbuls.
Some of the book’s most beautiful passages come from close observations of birds for weeks on end, with a childlike curiosity about how avian plumage changes with adulthood, sex and season, how defenceless species build their nests, for instance, under the ever-watchful eye of the Black Drongo, who will fiercely prevent egg-snatching, how raptors kill (the Peregrine stooping at an incredible speed of 200 km an hour, as its “murderous” talons strike the prey with lethal force), how birds sing to warn or attract attention, or as Krishnan believed, out of joy, “from sheer high spirits”.
Unlike most ornithologists with clinically accurate, dry expressions of bird movements, attitudes, flights or calls, Krishnan relishes their aesthetic qualities. He exults at the radiant colours of kingfishers, woodpeckers and pittas, the “soaring and gliding of eagles on taut wings”, and the breathtaking variety of musical notes that birds produce. This last is perhaps the book’s uniquely strong aspect. Nobody has noted with greater poetic sense “the welling melody” of the Shama, the “modulated whistle” of ioras, or the “ineffably sweet, ecstatic note” of bush-chats, and brought alive the world of birds with more sensitivity, playfulness and wonderment.