WHERE HAVE ALL THE BIRDS GONE?

It is April and another Vishu came and is gone. It is the New Year festival of Kerala, and closely related to the beginning of agricultural activities. In the past, immediately after Vishu paddy would be sown, and agricultural activities would start anew. Farmers believed in the rain god and the rains never failed them. But even if the rains played truant, there was one bird — vishupakshi — which never failed to wake up farmers with its vitthum kaikkottum (seed and spade) song. Every year starting in the first week of March, the bird was heard singing its never-ending vitthum kaikkottum . It was a reminder to the farmers and background music to the beginning of farming activities. I have never heard any other bird, except the cuckoo, that sings so beautifully as vishupakshi . And this song would be heard only in March and April.

This summer, the bird might have watched that even if it urges the people to take to the seed and shovel, nobody has seeds to take and it might also have observed that in the district which was once called the granary of Kerala, there is no place for sowing the seeds and it might have decided not to sing or even visit us (I think it is a migratory bird. It sings even at midnight. It perches only on the top of very big trees and their felling may be the reason why the bird did not turn up). Not only are the song and sound of vishupakshi missing today; there are many other birds which won't be seen and heard again.

We were an agrarian people. And my main hobby in my early teens was to wander through paddyfields to see the different kinds of birds and how they nest. On the outskirts of the paddyfields, there had been many coconut trees and black palm trees. Beautifully crafted nests of the weaver-birds — t hookkanaam kuruvikal — would be seen dangling from the ends of palm leaves. Hundreds of these little birds would land on the paddy to squeeze the milk from the tender rice. They would come to the fields when the young stalks come out of the rice-plants. At this stage of the paddy, my father would send me to our field with a tin-drum to scare these birds away. But often I have enjoyed the sight of these little birds balancing on the tender stalks and squeezing the milk out of the green rice. When the paddy is ripe enough to harvest, flocks of parrots would land there and cut the ripe stalks with their sharp beaks and fly away with the stalks dangling in their beaks. I have always liked to see this sight also.

The nests of parrots were neatly crafted holes in the trunks of palm trees. I continued to wonder how they made these holes on the hard trunks until I saw the patient work of the woodpeckers. They were the carpenters and their long, sharp and strong beaks, chisels. They make the holes (in search of worms inside the weak spots of the trunks) and the parrots occupy them. If I heard the sound tak, tak, tak, I knew it was a woodpecker chiselling a hard trunk. I would go after him. It seems that the woodpecker is the only bird which can walk perpendicularly on the tree trunks! How beautiful the sight was! Its strong legs, red crest, the dark red stripe on the face and black beak and the tak, tak, tak sound used to captivate me.
One of the coconut trees near the pond was thunderstruck. It was a headless trunk for a long time and there were at least three parrot nests on its top. I have seen many parrots entering the holes and coming out to bring food to their little ones. One day, I saw the tree was being cut. I rushed to the site and begged the tree cutters to spare the trunk as it was the home of many a parrot. But I was laughed at and the tree fell with a great thud. I ran to the top end to see two just hatched chicks thrown out of their nest and smashed to death. I looked into all the nests and saw smashed eggs in two of them and one little chick in the other one. Fortunately, the little one survived the fall. I brought it home. The chick can be identified as a parrot only by the shape and colour of its beak. No feathers had come out. I carefully fed it with milk and within two weeks it began to eat bananas; and two months later, it started to fly and I let him fly away. But he wouldn't fly long. He used to linger on the coconut trees in our compound and when I reached home from school, he would fly down and land on my head!

I would show him my finger and he would jump on to it from my head and drink the milk I offered him in a little plate. By putting the sharp end of the upper beak stationary in the plate, he would drink the milk by moving his tongue and lower beak to and fro. Then he would fly on to my shoulder and eat paddy from my palm. He put each grain between his upper and lower beaks and deftly removed the chaff, pressing the lower beak against the upper beak; and swallowed the rice. After filling his little stomach he would go into his cage and sleep putting his head inside his right wing. I will close the cage and put it near my pillow. At 6 sharp in the morning, he would start to be restless and the moment I opened the cage, he would fly on to my head and from there to my hand and then would drink some milk in haste and fly away like an arrow.

When he became a fully grown up one, he began to go far and wide. I didn't know where he went, but after six o' clock in the evening he would be waiting for me on the coconut tree. If I was not home someday, he would not come down. He would roost on the coconut tree and fly away in the morning. The most interesting fact was that all fellow parrots would be there on the coconut tree to take him with them in the morning and all of them accompanied him to the coconut tree in the evening.

They would be wonderstruck at the sight of his landing on my head and fly away together, making musical sounds in a chorus. For more than three years he had been my intimate friend whom I had given all the freedom he was born to. At last, he stopped coming. His family bonds might have become stronger than his friendship with me. Still I miss him, but I am happy that he was not denied the joys and ecstasy of the arboreal life to which he was born.

Today, this real story is the one my five-year-old younger daughter wants to hear again and again. I have recounted the story umpteen times. And every time after hearing it, she asks me to show her a woodpecker which makes nests for parrots.

Alas, they are not seen nowadays! Not only woodpeckers, even the parrots are not seen in our locality. And what happened to the weaver-birds? Not even a single nest is seen today. How can they be seen? Paddy cultivation is disappearing from my village and can these birds, who feed mainly on paddy, survive the man-made ‘climate change' or rather the ‘cultivation change'? But where have all the woodpeckers gone? What happened to them? In the yesteryear, the bird was spotted in pairs almost everyday, but now I have not been able to show my five-year old younger child even a single woodpecker! I have been listening long since to hear the sound — tak, tak, tak…tak, tak, tak…