The fuchsia bougainvillea flowers snaked over the wall, the blossoms looking like butterflies. Summer was coming. There was a comforting warmth in the air: a soft caress, almost poetic, a love song.
In the garden of my childhood, a bird was turning over dry leaves with its beak-sword. It had stripes on its body, like a zebra. And the body itself was orange. Each time the bird got excited, it would open its crest! I was positive the bird communicated through this crest. Perhaps one hoopoe would raise its crest while relaying surprise or happiness to the other.
The hoopoe was in the garden every day. It would poke at the leaves on the ground, searching for insects. It would hop under the bougainvillea too. It looked like a warrior to me – in striped armour. The hoopoes were all over the city – though they preferred open areas, grassy plots, non-developed portions of land.
I noticed they didn’t sit on flowers, and didn’t perch on ledges like sparrows. This was a bird that liked the dust of unmanicured lawns.
Over the years, I noticed other birds that liked dust and thorns. They seemed like bravehearts – the kids in class who preferred the playfield to indoor classes. There are, for instance, shrikes. These clever hunters will catch prey and then impale them on thorns. This also leads people to call them ‘butchers’. Even when they are not hunting, shrikes can be found sitting on thorny branches.
If there’s a shrike on a thorny branch, there is a hoopoe on the ground below. While birdwatching on hot days—with the sky sizzling and blinding the eyes, one may not see many birds—but one is still likely to see the shrike sitting jauntily on a bare branch, and the hoopoe continuing its eternal search in the dust.
But as my garden grew smaller, and the bougainvillea was replaced by more fashionable flowers, the hoopoes seemed to shrink away.
Now I see far fewer hoopoes. The State of India’s birds report finds that there is decline in hoopoe populations. Could this be because we have intensely managed, chemical-rich lawns—or just concrete—in many places now?
When I recently saw a hoopoe after a long time, I showed the picture to a friend. It’s a woodpecker, he said confidently. Another one said this must be an African species. I went back to my childhood, remembering how I would look at the hoopoe and its opening and closing crest.
Birds don’t have expressions like mammals do. Dogs have eyebrows that go up and down like caterpillars moving on their faces. Lions have snarls and deep furrows on their faces. Elephants have tactile trunks that touch, explore, pull herd members a tad closer, and discipline their ranks. With birds, tilts of the head or alarm calls are the only indicators to what the animal is going through.
And the hoopoe has an added expression – its crest. It’s like an advertisement that it wears on its head to showcase what its feeling. I could watch this animated bird forever, large garden or not.
Yet the decline of the hoopoe points not just to habitat loss but also to the fact that such loss also means society is not paying attention. While the hoopoe is not so endangered as the tiger, the loss of its presence from many of our daily lives demonstrates the loss of landscape.
I look out for dusty, leafy, uncared for landscapes wherever I go – hoping for a hoopoe.
For Nature does not always need the human hand. One of the best things we can do for Nature is to leave it alone. Not mow every lawn. Not slather every flower with pesticide. Not prune every plant. Not pour concrete over every piece of dirt.
For the hoopoe may not have eyebrows, but I know what it is trying to say – give me my non-polluted piece of dirt, and let me live.
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