We are Birds of the Unbound Sky
With science and poetry ‘with an illuminating story of a parrot’. An educationist takes us to the realm of freedom.
By Vagish K Jha
Recently, one morning, I spotted a parrot on the Neem tree across the western boundary wall of the school. There are a few Neem, Sirish, Peepal trees visible from the classroom windows. Suddenly one of the parrots flew out; other one followed it in tandem, as if one chasing the other. It was actually a flock of parrots frolicking out there, as if competing with the sun that played hide and seek on this particularly foggy morning of Delhi winter.‘This must be a foraging party’, Pawas, our colleague and an avid bird watcher, gave me a clue. I wanted to watch more carefully now. But they had vanished into the thick foliage of trees. Disappointed that I was, my thoughts flew back into the variegated jungle of my old memories. My old friend ‘Mitthu’ flashed in my mind.
Mitthu was the name of a pet parrot that our next door neighbour had. It was called Mitthu for it had a sweet sound, the grandpa of my friend had explained to me. Early in the morning it would ‘religiously’ recite ‘seeetaraam…seeetaraam’. The grandpa, with folded hands and in deep reverence, would reach out to him.
However, the moment I would come out to go to school at am, it would start whistling – ‘Oyeeee… kauuunhai…kauuunhai’. I found this sound rather shrill and irritable. Didn’t he know me already? I wondered in frustration. Or was it her? I didn’t really know! But how do we know if it is he or she?
Parrots are dumb anyway; I would console myself on my way to school. Didn’t our teachers often scream “Try to apply your brains, don’t be a tota”, the Hindi term for parrot. Using the same metaphor Raindranath Tagore wrote a poignant story ‘The Parrots’ Tale’ to highlight the evils of modern day education. Being a parrot is still considered to be dumb; to imitate without understanding. It continues to be the phrase for mindless aping especially in the context of learning. “If you want to make your Pota (grandson) a tota, please look for another school”, a senior colleague told cheekily to one doting elderly person who had come to seek admission in one of our schools last year.
Later, it came as a big surprise for me to know that parrots were not exactly like ‘parrots’ as we humans thought them to be. Scientists have found that they don’t only mimic human sound. They have the ability to associate words with their meanings and more. Alex, an African grey parrot, not just had a vocabulary of over 100 words, but he apparently had an understanding of what he said. So, when Alex was shown an object he could find correct association with its shape, color, or material and label it accordingly.
Some other scientists have gone further in their findings about parrots. They found out that in terms of the relative to body weight parrots have brain sizes on par with chimpanzees and orangutans. “In fact, if you overlay a graph of brain size to body mass for parrots on top of one for non-human primates, they sit in a perfect line”, says Dr. Andrew Iwaniuk, University of Alberta, in his research article: “Developmental differences are correlated with relative brain size in birds: a comparative analysis”.Unaware of the scientific truth, I was convinced that our Mitthu was really intelligent when he helped catch a thief by shrieking frenetically ‘Oyeeee…kauuunhai…kauuunhai’as a petty thief was trying to sneak away a brass lota (a pot for carrying water) from my neighbour’s house one night.
Despite this, frankly, I did not like the way Mitthu called out rudely, and I found it lewd too, to me -‘Oyeeee…’. However, I still liked going near it for its sheer beauty. It was not green, not even parrot green, as the name given to some kind of bright yellowish green. Mitthu had many colors on it – apart from vignette of green, it had red, yellow, grey and black. “Let me tell you a story of how parrots get these colors”, said the grandpa of my friend one day. It is a Jataka tale – the stories related to the birth of Buddha.
Long, long ago, once the Buddha was born as a little parrot who lived in tree hole in a thick jungle. One day a storm fell upon and soon the forest was ablaze. Parrot flew out towards the river nearby to save its life. As it flew the parrot saw that unlike him many other animals were trapped and had no way to escape forest fire. I must do something to save, thought parrot. A desperate idea dawned on him. It darted to the river, took a dip in the water, and flew back over the now raging forest fire. He shook his wings and released the few drops of water which still clung to his feathers. The tiny drops fell into the crackling blaze and vanished on the way with a hissssssssss.
Undaunted it went again to river, dipped itself into water, flew back and fluttered its wings to release s few drops of water on the leaping flames.
At this time, Gods above saw the little parrot flying among the flames. “Look at that foolish bird! He’s trying to put out a raging forest fire with a few sprinkles of water! How absurd!” And they laughed. But one of the gods was moved by such an act. He changed himself into a golden eagle and flew down towards the little parrot which was nearing the flames again. “Go back, little bird!” said the eagle in a solemn and majestic voice. “A few drops of water can’t put out a forest fire! Your task is hopeless! Cease now and save yourself before it is too late.”
“Don’t give advice. Help me, if you can, to put out the fire”, said the panting parrot as it hurried to the river for another dip.
What avail of being a god when my own creatures cried out in pain and fear from the flames, the god as golden eagle felt ashamed. Could I not be and do like this little parrot and help those in crisis? “I will help!”, the god exclaimed as he broke down in tears in appreciation for the selfless determination of the parrot. A stream of sparkling tears poured from his eyes and washed down like cooling rain upon the fire; upon the forest; upon the animals and upon the little parrot himself. Fire died down soon.
And, where the teardrops sparkled on the parrot’s wings, new feathers now grew. Red feathers, green feathers, yellow feathers — such bright colors! That is how parrots got so colourful, said the old man.
The story did not appear believable to me but his conclusion was. Mitthu was really beautiful to look at. So much so, I would like to spend all my evenings with him. I must tell you four things that I liked about Mitthu the most.
The first thing was the black and red ring that circled its neck like a shining neck band necklace. At that time I did not know that it was one of the Afro-Asian parakeet species known as the rose-ringed parakeet (Psittaculakrameri) or the ring-necked parakeet. And now I can tell that Mitthu was a male. I came to know that female Indian ring-necks do not have a ring. In females just a hint of green ring around the ring may be spotted at times. I was also told that Females of this variety are stockier with thicker feet. Mitthu had the prominent ring and did not fit the description.
The second thing was its curved beak and curling feet. While I could never detect how it can swing inside the cage and next moment stood upright holding another rod with the same grip. When we offered some hard nut it took it with one of the legs and stood in perfect balance on one leg. How! We wondered. And it used its shining red curved bill and we never knew how it broke open the nut by using the sharp greyish tip of the beak. How could it do that? Also, while breaking nuts with its beak its head remained firm and unmoved! Was the beak not fused to the skull? I still do not know.
The two sparkling yellow streaks under its feathers which revealed only when it opened its wings was the third beautiful thing I noticed on the body of Miththu. Even the characteristic parrot green acquired different hues and tones. The glistening green gave way to greyish green as it moved away from the rounded head backwards to the body and turned bright green again with a tinge of yellow. How one color merged into the other and then acquired its own individuality was fascinating.
Finally, what I found most beautiful was its eyes – round glowing dot of back high on the head. The glistening black eye was circled by pale bluish middle ring which turned into a vibrant shade of pink ring. I stood near it for hours to understand the unusual way it blinked while it had no eyelids! What happens when they fly? Our eyes close in an automated action the moment there is wind outside. Do the parrots or other birds fly their eyes closed? Is it for this reason that they have eyes on both sides and not in the front so that the wind action is minimized for the eyes? But in that case what about other birds like owl that have eyes in the front?
I was really curious to know if it could detect the piece of a chilly if I held it under the tip of its beak. To my surprise it always went for it so accurately and did not know how because I had placed the object clearly beyond the vision of its two eyes stuck laterally on both sides of the head! Did it get the smell of the chilly and went for it in anticipation?
|Diagram showing the orientation of the Senegal parrot’s head and its binocular field|
It was much later that I came to read about an experiment about ‘vision, touch and object manipulation in Senegal parrots’in which scientists found that Senegal parrots had a very “broad frontal binocular field in the horizontal plane and a near comprehensive field of view around the head.” (see the diagram)It is not just Senegal parrots but other parrots can also see from just below its bill tip, all above its head, and to quite far behind its head without turning its head.I could never have imagined how was it possible that its head did not point to the object it was looking at.
But then why Mitthu tilted its head at me at times? It must be trying to look at you from another angle, said an ornithologist friend of mine with an impish smile.
One day, Mitthu flew out of the cage. How could it be? Every one wondered. No one knew that it was I who set it free. I was very proud doing that. But did not speak as others felt it was wrong. If it was a wrong act to do, the Hindi teacher of my school should be held responsible. Let me explain.
That was a Friday. Sahdev Babu, our Hindi teacher, entered the class in the very first period with a caged bird in his hands. Without explaining anything he kept the cage on the table. He asked me to recite a poem ‘Hum panchhiunmuktgaganke’written by Shiv Mangal Singh ‘Suman’which I still remember:
Pinjarbaddh nag a payenge
Kanakteeliyon se takrakar
Pulkitpankh toot jayenge
(We are the birds of unbound sky
We can’t sing in the cage
Battered our happy feathers be
Hitting the gold –bars in rage)
Once he had explained some of the difficult words, the poem revealed itself more vividly even as the caged bird cried a few times to make the meaning more poignant. The entire class was filled with an animated excitement. The feelings became really intense by the time we came to the last stanza:
Need na do chahetahnika
(Give me not a home on the tree-branch,
Destroy my nest, if you wish
But, please do not obstruct my eager flight
I have these wings for sky to kiss)
Charged as the whole class was, he called up another girl in my class and asked her to open the cage door. The flutter of the bird flying out of cage still rings in my ears. The scene of letting the bird fly out on freedom was the best moment of our lives.
That evening I came back with a resolve. I went a few times to the cage of Mitthu and tried to figure out the mechanism of the cage door. I enacted the act of opening the cage door many a times as I pretended to offer a Chilly to Mitthu and went back. As the dark descended hiding from the eyes of the family members I had skillfully opened the door of the cage and slipped away. I heard the flutter of the happy wings eloping in the darkness of night from a distance. It was better than the best piece of music. I never felt guilty of doing something wrong either.I look for Mitthu even now. Parrots have a long life. Who knows the parrot flying around the neem tree near our school is my Mitthu. What I do miss is offering chilies to him. But I still wonder if parrots do not find chilies hot? Or they don’t feel the sensation? In that case what does it mean to say parrots ‘like’ chilies?