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The thing with feathers...

Written in engaging prose, this is an informative book on the many joys of birdwatching.
Last Updated 17 July 2023, 06:35 IST

The Living Air by Aasheesh Pittie is a fine book for anyone who would like to begin bird-watching or is already an amateur birder.

Immensely readable, as it is not just a factual rendition, the author does well to weave stories around the magic of birding, taking the reader along in his expeditions.

The book has four broad sections. The first section deals with specific birds, getting under the skin of their idiosyncrasies and understanding the scientific reasons for their quirks. The next is about a few of the author’s birding expeditions. The third is about three distinguished birders and the fourth is about the author’s ways of birding. Pittie has a way with words when he describes the landscape and the drama of the immediate environment surrounding the bird under observation, which enhances the experience of the reader.

A recurring theme is the interconnectedness of nature and environment and how one species influences the others. How we all — birds, insects, humans, animals and plants — are threaded by a common vein of interdependency. And how any tampering with these threads, mainly thanks to human callousness, has disastrous consequences.

There is an interesting description of winged life which cohabit our own space. There is bird life everywhere if you only know where to look — between cracks and crevices, bricks and stone walls, on electric wires and poles, and in hollow pipes.

The book opens up a world, a civilisation parallel to that of ours, existing simultaneously in all its splendour.

This indeed is a readymade botanical garden around us, which we are blind to. The onus is on the reader to connect the dots of this parallel world. This is where we, as humans, would truly find our place, and importantly, understand our roles, in the larger scheme of nature.

Sometimes, the flourish of the language, with its metaphors and dictionary-seeking adjectives, ruffles the easy flow of reading. For example, ‘… rufous of deepening shadows reflecting a crepuscular firmament,’ or, ‘ … resilient continuity from the spinning, tilted orb we all inhabit.’

On other occasions, the usage of common names along with scientific ones would have been easier for the less-informed reader. For instance, ‘Two Urva edwardsii were on the right side …,’ or, ‘ … a Circus aeruginosus was seen ….’ But to be fair, these are few and far between.

The emotional tenor of the book would endear the less-initiated readers of birding. The description of the display of a male bird, with all the song and dance that he undertakes, to woo a female partner, is delightful. The author deals with the common misconceptions we often harbour relating to birds. How, in our zealousness to do good, we can do unintentional harm to not only the birds but also to the surrounding environment as well.

The book unequivocally spells out the cardinal rules of birding and also provides useful tips on how to attract more birds to our neighbourhood.

A bonus, in the third section, is the short introduction of three great birders of India (no, Dr Salim Ali, whom many have heard of, is not one of those three). Most of us would not have heard of all of them, other than ornithologists, naturalists or avid birders. On the subject of birds, it is good to know about those who have dedicated their lives to the cause, not just to the birds, but also to the environment as a whole. It is interesting also to know about the birth of the earliest journal of birding in India, and how it all began after an evening walk with Dr Salim Ali.

The chapter on bird banding — putting coloured bands on the bird’s legs for the scientific study of their movements — is engrossing. The glossary of the technical terms of birds is useful for the more serious reader. The book is a good buy for the lay reader who wants to take the first step towards birding, and for novice birders to indulge in the hobby more actively.

While faraway, exotic birding expeditions are always alluring, the author drives home the point that birding can begin and continuously happen in our own place, locality and city.

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(Published 17 July 2023, 06:34 IST)

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