The thing with feathers

Don’t look too far for life’s purpose in middle age. It’s probably singing in a tree near you

bijoy 1 The Purple Sunbird (picture courtesy: Bijoy Venugopal/Facebook)

A few months ago, a painful illness left me bedridden for weeks. What came after gave me reason to get up every morning to pursue what I love. It has renewed the meaning and purpose of my existence. 

Each morning I cycle to a nearby wetland. There, I fill my senses with an hour of freedom and the pure joy of watching birds. It’s been over 60 days and I’ve not missed a single day. 

On travel days, I watch birds on the way to the airport, or from a cab, or a bus or train window. I wander around parks and peek around gardens, or up at treetops, or into vacant lots. On sick days and rainy days, I gaze out of my balcony. Last month, I attended a wedding and a funeral. On both occasions, while participating sincerely in the ceremonies, I kept my eyes and ears open for the birds.

You might think I’ve gone cuckoo. 

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You’re not alone. 

I’ve watched birds all my life. My grandmother started me off when I was five, throwing scraps to mynas as she hand-fed me breakfast. She pointed out birds in the backyard and got me hooked. My obsession became a family joke. I earned plenty of nicknames. I was never embarrassed; in fact, I was too immersed to take notice. 

bijoy 3 A Grey Heron (picture courtesy: Bijoy Venugopal/Facebook)

At the cusp of middle age, I realised that a certain madness is the pure essence of life. People know it by different names. Some call it obsession; others passion. It means the same thing. 

Birding is the name of this pursuit. Not birdwatching, which has fallen out of favour as it connotes a desultory casualness. Birders are not ornithologists (who are scientists), but are no less serious about documenting birds and maintaining a ‘life list’ of every species observed.

There is a dark side, too. Birding, like most hobbies, can get intensely competitive. Some affluent birders take it too far, travelling long distances in the pursuit of a ‘lifer’ and then scooting back once it is ticked off their lists. We call these types twitchers, and not without a tinge of derision for their selfish disregard of the bird’s well-being and the ecological impact of their actions. Trophy-hunting is often worse with photographers.

Be it diversion or compulsion, birding is about taking delight in birds, and bringing awareness about the need to conserve them. In an organised manner, it becomes citizen science. eBird, a popular checklisting app for birders developed by Cornell Lab of Ornithology, collects vast amounts of data from birders worldwide and applies it to conservation science. In February, eBird released State of India’s Birds 2020, the first comprehensive report on India’s birds and their conservation status powered by this data.

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You might wonder what got me here. During my convalescence, my family showered me with comfort food and loving care but there were days when I was home alone with my pain and my medication. One such morning, I woke up to the rich, trilling song of a Pied Bushchat, a bird of fields and wetlands that now sings in concrete cities built over its former home. I have heard this song several times, but this time it got a hold of me. As I listened intently to each note and phrase, it brought tears to my eyes. I counted the ways in which I was grateful for being alive. 

At my bedside was a tiny book about Ikigai, a Japanese approach to a life of meaningful longevity. A runaway best-seller, it is not without its faults, but what stayed with 

bijoy 2 Rosy Starling (picture courtesy: Bijoy Venugopal/Facebook)

me was the possibility of how passion, mission, vocation, and profession could intersect in one’s life.

I am not the first birder to be overcome by such an epiphany. Phoebe Snetsinger, daughter of American advertising legend Leo Burnett and an avid birder, was diagnosed with terminal melanoma at age 50. In the mid-1990s, when about 8,500 species of birds were known to science, she made it her life’s mission to observe and document every one. Her brilliant memoir Birding On Borrowed Time is a birder’s touchstone. As she globe-trotted, she survived malaria and a terrifying boat accident, and was gang-raped in Papua New Guinea. Ironically, she was killed in a road accident after spotting her 8,398th bird. She never let the cancer win. 

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Similarly,  British writer Joe Harkness overcame mental illness and alcohol addiction by submitting to the healing experience of watching birds, a journey he has documented poignantly in his book Bird Therapy. Their stories inspire my own pursuit of purpose, my Ikigai. 

The American poet Emily Dickinson wrote: ‘Hope is the thing with feathers/ That perches in the soul/ And sings the tune without the words, and never stops at all.’ 

Birding is my meditation and comfort. It makes the monotony of city life bearable. It gets me up on my feet to greet the sunrise slinging a pair of binoculars.

Maybe life does begin at middle age. 


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