The Boy and the Bird

Awareness and knowledge of the importance of conservation of wildlife and nature are still absent in a major portion of India’s backward class. Here is the sorry tale of an untimely demise of a  Common Flame-back woodpecker.

As per my usual daily routine, I was driving to my university in Bhubaneshwar, pausing on several traffic signals along my normal route, as and when they turned red. Usually around this brief time on signals, the needy and underprivileged ask for money or sell petty objects. That day on one such spot, a boy of around 8 years old, from the Banjara (nomadic) community came knocking on my car’s window.  I took a quick casual glance at him. He was offering some fancy pens with one hand while clutching his stomach with the other. Discomfort around his stomach made me curious if he needed some help. I was also apprehensive that he could be tricking me, so to be sure I looked at him again without lowering the glasses. I had sufficient time to watch him as the timer on the signal showed 56 seconds remaining. Something was surely disturbing him around his stomach.

In the exchanges of stares, the boy had sensed that he was successful in grabbing my attention as he didn’t move ahead to the next vehicle waiting in the queue. He had probably understood what he offered for sale didn’t interest me but rather,  the suspicious bulge around his stomach had me intrigued. I saw that he had tied a cloth around his waist from where he began to unwrap it. He showed me a bird’s head and again tucked it back into his shirt. “Was what I saw for real or a toy?” I thought with eyes wide open. He smiled and showed his hand gesturing to give him money for food. And in that flash of a second, he pulled out of his shirt, a flame-back woodpecker with its head hanging loose! Moving the dead bird on my window he asked for money again. It was sickening to behold.

At that moment the traffic lights turned green and the commuters in queue honked to make me move out of their way. I helplessly drove away from that place looking back at the boy with the bird in my rear view mirror. Most likely he had hunted the bird down. It must have been fun for him to grab the bird that later he used as an instrument to escalate empathy of passerby or to scare them while extorting money. And I simply couldn’t figure out where my empathy should be directed: towards the poor bird or the poverty-stricken boy. Though I was trying to analyze my feeling while trying to remain unbiased, the dead flame-back had left me in flames. I reached university disturbed and pain-stricken.

This episode emphasized the stark difference between the harsh reality of birdlife conservation knowledge and awareness in laymen and my usual engagement with birds on a daily basis.  I usually wake up to twittering birds and follow them on my morning walk in a popularly known forest park bordering my house. The forest park, as the name hints, houses many forest tree species that is invaded by numerous feathered beauties. They usually overflow into my little backyard garden full of old trees and seasonal flowers. After a brisk walk in the park, when I settle down to meditate under a copper pod tree on the lawns, the birds’ sing-song around me overpower the conversations of co- joggers. With the growing day, the increase in vehicular movement and other noises overshadow the nature’s melodious singers, yet the hangover of the beauty of birds linger in my soul all day long.

On this particular day, at the university, keeping away the assignments – current and pending, I reclined on my chair scrolling through the bird photos on my point and shoot camera that I always carry with me. A flame-back appeared among the photos that I often see in the park flapping its wings, making a shrill kir-kir-kir call, hammering into a tree trunk and taking flight from one tree to another. I just hoped it wasn’t the same bird.

The horrifying flashes of the day wouldn’t leave my mind despite the fond recollections. In the meantime, Minakhi, a senior friend who had dropped by, found me lost in my thoughts with visible creases of worry on my forehead. I had to share the story with her. Coincidently, she too had spotted two boys lurking around her house with a bird. She wasn’t sure of the bird to be able to identify as the flame-back in question, although she had clicked the duo that she shared with me. I instantly recognized the boy and the deceased bird. Minakhi had tried interacting with those boys. She had asked them from where they had come, why had they killed the bird, where they lived…and so forth, but they didn’t speak a word and just smiled. Either they didn’t understand what she said or were trained not to answer or speak to strangers. Friends in nearby desk also joined the conversation. Some said let’s find those boys and report to the forest department and few suggested organizing an awareness workshop for them. But analyzing our incapacities to take up appropriate action, I thought to share the word further, calling for a solution while drawing attention to pertinent nature conservation issues.



Read also:  Of Dancing flames and Geese

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About the Author /

Medha Nayak is a research scholar at National Institute of Science Education and Research in their School of Humanities and Social Sciences. When she is not pursuing her academic engagements of understanding human and elephant relationship, can be found painting, story-writing, exploring culinary delights and wandering in the forest.

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