Book Review | Giving wings to amateur birders

Aasheesh's collection of essays, written over nearly four decades, makes justice to the phrase The Pleasures of Birds and Birdwatching'

“Every birding excursion left an incredible impression upon me…. I felt like a creature amongst creatures, an existence amidst existence,” writes Aasheesh Pittie in his book ‘The Living Air.’

Aasheesh’s collection of essays, written over nearly four decades, makes justice to the phrase ‘The Pleasures of Birds and Birdwatching’ seen on the book’s cover.

“I was introduced to and began birding in 1978,” writes Aasheesh. Drawing inspiration from noted ornithologist Dr Salim Ali’s ‘The Book of Indian Birds’, the author began his journey.

Written in a language not burdened with the jargon of ornithology, ‘The Living Air’ is essentially a collection of Aasheesh’s experiences in birdwatching, toned down for the everyday audience to relate to. It narrates his journey, the nuances of birdwatching and his observations on how the field has evolved over the years.

Apart from highlighting the joys of watching birds in their zone as well as the danger facing avians, the author talks about the role birds play in our ecosystem and why our focus must be inclined towards making safer spaces for all life forms.

Aasheesh also explains the difference between a ‘simple’ birder and a bird photographer. While a birder is happy to watch their subject from a distance and are well-aware of the impact they may have upon getting too close, most bird photographers have no respect for these boundaries as they are in search of that perfect shot – the right frame, the best lighting and the perfect frame.

Understanding and respecting the space of a bird is important as it allows one to observe the subject without making it conscious of its actions.

Deccan Chronicle spoke to Aasheesh about his book. Here are some excerpts:

Q: What is the thought behind the title ‘The Living Air’?

A: The title comes from a phrase in William Wordsworth's 1798 poem, Tintern Abbey. In its simplest interpretation, it symbolises the most typical habitat that birds inhabit and enlivens or the habitat we humans consider to be their domain. At a deeper level, Wordsworth uses it as one of the phrases when he is implying the oneness of life on Earth, the interconnectedness of everything, including mankind, which fits into what we now consider the science of ecology, or on that deeper plane, the common philosophical thread that runs through the various paths mankind takes on its spiritual quest.

Q: Birdwatching is not an easy passion. There is a lot of patience and other factors at play. In a world where people are increasingly losing their attention span, what is your suggestion for amateur birdwatchers?

A: One has to bring one’s entire attention to whatever one pursues with passion. Otherwise, one cannot be passionate about that pursuit. There are skill sets we learn for everything we do. What is so difficult about patience? We have to decide what we want to do with the limited leisure time we have and choose how we spend that time in such a way that it benefits us the most. It's the ultimate question about what we want to do with our lives, how we wish to spend our time, and towards what end. Ask yourself whether a short attention span is benefiting you, whether you are gaining anything substantial from it; peace of mind, a sense of well-being, a calming of the mental churn that life's situations throw up. Only with patience will anyone enjoy what they are doing, because patience allows one to deepen their interactions, making them better at them. So is it with birding? I would suggest slowing down your sense of urgency, for real life is not a one-hour film or documentary. To understand it, you have to do so at its pace, not yours. You go about it bird by bird, and gradually join the dots to form the larger picture.

Q: For someone new to birds, what are some places/resources that can instil a passion in them?

A: All pursuits use tools to make them better experiences, be they physical or mental. The simplest birding tools/resources comprise binoculars, writing material, a bird guide and patience. The entire world is your playing field, but you can start in your neighbourhood, looking out from your window, walking in your community park, or sitting on a bench at a wetland. Passion stems from the attention one brings to and the quality of one's seeing. Once these traits are rooted firmly, you will enjoy birds everywhere you go. There are, of course, sanctuaries and protected areas that are magnets for birds, because they are not disturbed there, and one can spot a greater diversity of species than one would around one's house.

Q: You described the hurdles faced while searching for Jerdon's Courser. In the pitch of the night, how are bird enthusiasts able to identify the features of that particular bird? Do you carry reference guides or familiarize yourself with all its features before going on an expedition?

A: Without learning the notes, one cannot sing; similarly, without learning the identification features of birds, how can one identify them? So, a primary aspect of birding is to be able to identify birds by yourself, which birders do with the help of the various and wonderful field guides that exist. Your companions could tell you the name of the species, but the charm of discovering it is reduced due to the secondhand nature of this knowledge. The Jerdon's Courser is/was such a rare bird that its identifying features are engrained on birder’s minds; especially those that go looking for it. As I write in my essay on the bird, we carried torches. But birds can also be identified by their calls, if one is familiar (or has learnt through recordings available on the Internet) with them.

Q: Is it not a bit ironic that technology, which helped mankind get closer to birds and capture their ways of life, has also pushed birds away from us? What are your thoughts on this?

A: It is not the technology that does this, but the person using it. If you are implying intrusive and aggressive birding behaviour, it is not the telephoto lens that impels one to disturb the bird, but our desire to use it for the best picture possible, irrespective of what happens to the bird. It is a choice one has to make. Is the safety of the bird paramount, or is your desire for that perfect photograph which makes the difference?

Q: When it comes to birds in urban spaces, most people think of pigeons. You have stated that the best way to curb their multiplying population is to do nothing and let nature take its course. Do you think this may have a negative impact of sorts on pigeons as a whole?

A: If by negative impact you mean a reduction in their population, is that not what we want? Their present populations are at artificially bolstered levels due to the excessive feeding by people. The 'pigeons' we speak of, are feral. They are not truly wild. They depend almost entirely on what we feed them. How can we complain about them, but continue to feed them? Stop feeding them, and let nature take its course. The world will be a better place for it. Compassion is not about feeling inflated about what you do mindlessly, but about being mindful of all your actions and their consequences.

Q: There is a common belief that radiation from cell phone towers harms the bird population, particularly in urban areas. We have also seen birds being electrocuted to death. Do you believe a safer space for birds in urban areas is a possibility, given the race to build bigger cities?

A: As cities expand, it is imperative for us to plan and build them so that they encompass habitats that encourage all life forms to flourish. Man cannot live in absolute isolation. Diversity of life is necessary for the human soul. City planners would do well to incorporate suitable habitats for non-human life, for that will make the cities better places to live in. And by 'suitable' I mean, from the point of requirement of that non-human life/s, not from what is convenient and easy for the planners. Sentiency and empathy are required for this, as is an understanding of the natural phenomena that are the essence of a place: the lay of the land, the water regimes that exist, the flora that characterizes the landscapes, etc. Just as building new infrastructure is necessary for expanding cities, so is the expansion of green areas and water sequestering systems.

Q: I have known people who fear birds; say they are unpredictable and messy. What can be done to counter their thoughts?

A: People are no less predictable or messy. Ultimately, a successful life is one where you live and let live. Otherwise, it is a constant strife. And let us not fool ourselves that we can get rid of everything that troubles us. Some people feel that pets are dangerous, messy and unpredictable. And some feel that feeding street dogs creates unsanitary and dangerous situations. One has to strike a balance.

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