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Profiles

The birdwatcher

One winter morning in 1968, on one of his weekend ‘birding’ trips, an unsuspecting Theodore Baskaran was crouching by the bund of the Devarayan Lake near Tiruchirapalli, when a skein of bar-headed geese emerged from the skies, dropped their wings and landed on the placid waters of the lake, a few meters from where he was.

A fledgling birdwatcher since his college days, Baskaran could recognise them immediately. They were rare visitors to South India, coming in search of food from snow-bound Ladakh. Today, at 66, after more than four decades of bird watching, the retired civil servant recalls this encounter with a feeling close to awe. “Looking at those lovely geese while I was all by myself was a spiritual experience,” he says.

Baskaran’s tryst with birds goes back to boyhood. Growing up in Dharapuram village near Erode district in Tamil Nadu, he would often peer among bushes and trees to spot new birds, learn their names and call out to kingfishers and bee-eaters on his way to school. As a student of history at Madras Christian College in the late 1950s, Baskaran’s love for birds became more intense. Under the guidance of Dr Gift Siromani, then head of the statistics department and an avid birdwatcher, he would roam the 365-acre wooded campus looking for birds.

“Gift was a great birdwatcher,” remembers Baskaran. “He had a keen eye and could effortlessly move back and forth between his disparate worlds of bar graphs and birds with passion. He inculcated a love for nature in many students by simply taking them out on campus walks.”

Another inspiration for Baskaran was Dr Joshua from the zoology department, who would take students for visits to the Vedanthangal bird sanctuary, 85 km from Chennai. “Dr Joshua would watch the birds without taking his eyes off them, and insist we read Salim Ali’s The Book of Indian Birds and step beyond the realm of our regular studies.” Reading this book, Baskaran confesses, changed the way he looked at the world.


Later, as part of his job as director of postal services and then postmaster general, in the civil services, Baskaran travelled across India, exploring its rich avian life. His travels overseas – to Kenya (while on a UN assignment as adviser to Kenyan government on marketing postal services in 1999), Japan, Mauritius, America, UK, and Australia – official or personal, were never complete without special birding visits. Baskaran has a ‘life list’ of over a thousand distinct birds that he has sighted in his lifetime, which includes rare birds such as the Mauritian kestrel (small falcons with short wings and long tails that have been declared as an endangered species with only about 5,000 or less left), and Lesser Florican (among the smallest bustards in the world and found in the Indian subcontinent; fewer than 1,000 survive today).

He still hasn’t got over his encounter with the largest flying bird in the world, the sarus, on a visit to Kheda in Gujarat in the mid-1990s. Baskaran was with a group of nature lovers when he spotted the 6-ft-tall crane, its head coloured red, spreading its large wings to dance for its mate. “It pirouetted and trumpeted in wild ecstasy. It was an unforgettable sight.”


More tales come tumbling from the birdwatcher’s memory: “The sarus has been called krauncha in the Ramayana,” he says. “It is the sarus pining for its mate’s love that inspired Valmiki to write about Sita and her pain of separation from Rama. The sarus too is monogamous like Rama!” In 1999, Baskaran’s essays on birds and wildlife were compiled in a book titled, appropriately enough, The Dance of the Sarus (Oxford University Press).


Bird watching, according to Baskaran, is a great way to stay in touch with life and nature. “When people grow old, boredom becomes their greatest enemy,” he says. “Bird watching can work as a great antidote to monotony that claims everyone, young and old.”


Living in Chennai with wife Thilaka, who retired as principal of MGR Janaki College, Baskaran now divides his time between wildlife conservation and freelance writing. He is a trustee of World Wildlife India (WWI) at present and has served for five years in the Tamil Nadu Wildlife Board. Baskaran also writes on a wide range of subjects, from environment to cinema. His first article, on the bar-headed geese, was published in The Hindu in 1968.

While his son Arul lives in Sydney and works with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Baskaran’s daughter Nithila has followed her father’s footsteps and runs a Bengaluru-based organisation called Vanam, which conducts environmental awareness programmes in rural Karnataka. And yes, she sometimes goes birding with him. “Last year, I went with my family on a bird-watching trip to the Andamans,” says Baskaran. “It brought back memories of taking Nithila to Guindy Deer Park in Chennai when she was about five.”


He is quick to clarify, though, that you don’t need to start young to make a good bird watcher. “You can start anytime and watch birds sitting right at home for a start,” he says. All it takes is enthusiasm, patience and observation (see Go birding). He recalls spotting four birds perched on a tree within 10 minutes – a mynah, bulbul, drongo and tailorbird – as he sat and chatted with a writer friend in the open veranda at the entrance to his single-storied house in Thiruvanmiyur, which faces tall trees, flowering plants and creepers. His friend, reportedly, was amazed that there were so many birds around that go unnoticed.

For Baskaran, bird watching has opened up a vast world of nature waiting to be explored. “You watch the bird, the butterfly, then the plants and begin to care for nature and enjoy its beauty,” he says. “My relationship with birds and wild creatures has been intuitive. To me they symbolise the external world and my link with it,” he says.

GO BIRDING

  • Buy yourself a pair of binoculars – a decent pair would cost Rs 1,000 to Rs 3,000.
  • Look out for birds while going on your morning walk. It’s the best time to spot them.
  • Be quiet while looking for birds or they may fly away!
  • Unleash your curiosity. Peep into the thick of trees; listen carefully for birdsound.
  • Carry a camera or pen and paper to capture the features of the birds you come across. Later, you can look up a guide to learn more about them.
  • Start in places close to home. You can then venture outside to wooded areas, lakes or visit national parks. Orioles, tailorbirds, barbets and mynahs can be spotted within city limits, while lakes are mostly home to waterfowl like egrets and ducks. Wetlands on the outskirts of the city are home to many birds like kingfishers and migratory birds that arrive in winter.
  • Read Salim Ali’s The Book of Indian Birds or go to www.bnhs.org, website of the Bombay Natural History Society (see below for details), and www.indianbirds.in. To subscribe to journal Indian Birds, email editor@indiabirds.in or write to New Ornis Foundation, PO Box 2, Banjara Hills, Hyderabad-500034.
  • Joining a birding club can be fun. But remember, you don’t necessarily have to join expensive clubs to make a good birdwatcher. Just keep your eyes open whenever you’re outdoors.

(Originally published in Harmony magazine in April, 2007)

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About Vidya Venkat

Senior Assistant Editor, The Hindu. Anthropology graduate from SOAS, UK.

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