Birdyard, mourned

All the trees have been marked to be cut. Every single one.

Not just the gangly teak (Tectonia grandis), but even the ones that have no ‘value’ – the red-leaved Indian almond (Terminalia catappa), the green-barked, symmetrical silk cottons (Bombax), the fallow but foliaceous mango (Mangifera indica) and the stout jackfruit (Artocarpus heterophyllus). Maybe even the cashew trees will go.

And with them, some others that had turned the backyard of that not-so-old grandparental home into my childhood birding paradise. From the bamboo thicket on the verge of the dry deciduous forest patch to the edge of the paddy fields, I spent my boyhood here watching so many birds I now know so intimately that just their calls, trickling through to my ears from afar in any wooded patch, can assure me of their presence.

Golden and black-hooded orioles, white-browed and red-vented bulbuls, Indian pitta, orange-headed ground thrush, racquet-tailed drongos, white-cheeked barbets, coppersmiths. Up in the canopy were Indian scops owls, jungle owlets, crested serpent eagles, shikras, leafbirds, ioras.

I watched the gaudy Indian pitta rummage about among the dry leaf litter by day, and listened for its wheet-ew call at dusk. Red spurfowl came into the cowshed to pick at maggots in the dung. Jungle bush quail whirred into the air even as my heart pounded at the sudden announcement of their presence. Grey francolins called from the gateposts. Peafowl courted in the yard. For three days, I watched a black-naped monarch fly sorties almost at eye-level. In those camera-less times, I have seen black, bronzed and racquet-tailed drongos share perch on a tree branch. And, as if to compete with that, a tree full of vernal hanging parrots, rose-ringed and plum-headed parakeets.

And then, there were other magic moments: when a 16-foot king cobra was found spitting and hissing in a pit meant to catch wild pig. And in the pit next to it, two jackal cubs (one blind) and two terrapins. One night, a small Indian civet slunk out of the forest to clean up the banana leaves from a feast.

I chased skinks without luck. I collected glow-worms and trapped their pale light in bottles. Under stones, I looked for scorpions. And scanned treetops for green agamid lizards. Once, in a dry field, I saved a lapwing’s egg from two circling pallid harriers, innocently unconscious of the fact that even harriers needed to eat.

I go there less frequently now. The people who once lived there – my grandparents – live with my parents in Bangalore. At night, the only sounds in the house are of rats racing on its rafters, bats squabbling on its beams and the crunch of termites eating away its innards.

Half of the birds I saw in my youth don’t visit any more. The jackals have stopped calling. The wild pigs still come sometimes. I have seen neither the pitta nor the monarch on recent visits.

That house was a place I had saved in my heart for my daughter’s growing up years. But now, with the trees numbered for the axe, I have nothing to go there for.

If I want to remember that house and its patch of forest, I must plant the seeds of memory before I forget.

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