The birds of spring: messengers of a beautiful season in India
Spring in India -- Basant -- is the season when lots of trees are flowering, there is warmth in the air, it marks the start of brighter days, and old, dry leaves are falling and new leaves are emerging.
Ramesh Pandey 10 Feb 2024 1:14 PM GMT
Spring in India is known as Basant, it is the season when lots of trees are flowering, there is warmth in the air, it marks the start of the brighter days, the hues of the season are predominantly yellow and red, and it’s a rapidly moving season where the old, dry leaves are falling and new leaves are emerging. The arrival of spring in our country comes after a long span of harsh, chilly, foggy winters. It brings in the feeling of warmth and upliftment of the soul.
Most of the geographical landscape in India is deciduous in nature, so far as the classification of the forest in the Northern Plains goes, there are mostly dry deciduous forests and a few moist deciduous ones. There is the feeling of joy in nature when a lot of herbaceous plants and shrubs start flowering, simultaneously with the leaf fall in many species. Leaf fall is basically the periodic phenomenon in the deciduous trees which undergo a regular shedding of their leaves. So it is a mix of moods, that at one hand you are feeling elated and are taking in the sights of the flowering, and at the same time you are able to see the leaf fall followed by the emergence of new leaves.
Apart from flowering, leaf fall or adventing of flushing of new leaves, there are certain instances or events that happen concurrently in spring, but are somehow not so recognized because they are not very visible. The kind of brightness of the day, warmth, light and impression which we get after the winters, go across unnoticed because they are very subtle. Similarly another event that happens incessantly but isn’t noticed much, especially in the urban and semi-urban landscapes, is the change in the sounds of the season. The spring season, especially in Northern India is dominated by the calls of birds like barbets. Interestingly, as soon as Basant starts, we start hearing very dominating and distinct calls of consistent kutroo kutroo characterised by the gutral sound of this bird.
Across the Indian landscape, ten distinct species of barbets can be found in different pockets. In the North, specifically, we usually can see three types of barbets which are commonly found, the Brown-headed barbet, the Coppersmith barbet, and the Blue-throated barbet. The Brown-headed barbet is the most common one and it emits the sound of kutroo kutroo, because of this sound that it makes, in Hindi it is also known as Kutroo. This bird call is an incessant, almost omnipresent sound during the spring months. Since it’s heard in the Basant season, there wasn’t a reason for these birds to be known as Basanta, locally. The Crimson-headed barbet is known as Chota Basanta and the Brown-headed barbet is known as Bada Basanta or Hara Basanta.
The more common barbets are a naive looking bird, their head is brown in colour while the whole body is green, usually they occupy the top canopy of the tree and the sound that they emit, comes from their throats, without the opening of their beaks. It is difficult to locate from which tree the bird is calling as barbets prefer to perch on top of the tree canopy and their call sounds then go in all directions. If one is moving from one place to another in an attempt to locate the caller, we find that the sound is coming from all directions. This makes the spotting of the bird more of a task.
At the onset of spring, barbets are looking to mate and hence, the reason behind their incessant calling is the males’ invitation to the females for mating and bringing forth offspring. Then the birds pair, make nests and hatch their eggs. Since they are hole-nesters, barbets make their nests by making holes inside trees. But they do not make new holes and new nests in each season, so if they already have some nests in some holes, they will make use of that nest again and occupy it for laying eggs in the current season. Now, this is the same time when Rose Ringed Parakeets are pairing, mating and laying eggs and these parakeets are also hole-nesters. So, sometimes there is a fight between the parakeets and barbets to occupy the holes - both of which are vivacious, excited birds - and is extremely endearing to spectate.
A fascinating facet of Basanta is another Hindi name of the bird which is Kutroo or Koturoo. This name is purely based on the sound that the people of the earlier generations heard the bird making. This shows that earlier, we not only had more time to perceive the sounds coming from around, but were also closely engaged in the seasonal comings and goings of nature and its species, which are possibly the least ‘hooked-to’ thing for people at the present time. These days we are more concerned or aware about the sounds and vibrations of gadgets, rather than the calls coming from the birds, which have taken a peripheral position in our auditory compass.
It is becoming harder to hear and locate bird calls in urban landscapes, however, Brown-headed barbets are birds that are fortunately surviving in good numbers, even in urban landscapes. For instance, in Delhi, one can find their guttural calls in local parks and in most residential pockets. Their incessant calls during spring are hard to miss since they keep kutroo-ing for hours on end. So, if you put your ear at it, from morning to evening one will find numerous bird calls vying for attention and one may even start spotting and identifying the birds that are chirping.
The incessant kutroo kutroo of the birds in spring and the name given to them by our ancestors which are Bada Basanta or Chhota Basanta because of their calling during this pleasant period should be shared with people, especially the younger ones, so that they can connect with the sound more meaningfully, appreciate its significance, and spot this innocent and naive looking bird, hiding somewhere in the top canopy of the tree outside their window.
(Ramesh Pandey is an IG Forest in MoEFCC. He was awarded the UNEP Asia Environmental Enforcement Award 2019. Views expressed are personal.)