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A Barbet’s Hollow

While at the Yugaantar conference at the Bhoomi College in Bangalore I


chanced upon a White cheeked Barbet’s hollow. It required no keen eye
or an arduous search. There it was obviously, directly facing the
walkway, some eight feet up the trunk of a Singapore cherry tree
(Muntingia calabura), right beside the entrance to the main building of
the campus. Just beneath it, staff and students constantly fled in and
out in preparation for the upcoming sessions of the event.

The hollow looked like a long cavity within the craggy tree trunk with a
perfectly circular hole, as if it was stenciled, for its entrance. There
were two more hollows, abandoned albeit, just below this one at
different angles and I wonder if the parent barbets ever were in the
habit of raising two broods simultaneously. Now only this one, shown
directly on the walkway, had chicks in it. From the squawks and
squeaks I could hear as I stood below and strained my ears, I would
say there were about three little birds inside the hollow. One of them
perpetually peeped out its curious head and watched the world
outside, leaving its siblings to quarrel beneath. Its pink flesh was seen
between its sparsely growing neck feathers and its large eyes were all
pupils, no white. As seen from a little hole up a tree, only a little bigger
than an eye’s orbit, the vast world outside must seem a strange and
wondrous vista. I wonder what was kindled within the little bird, to
which this land is still foreign and nature still a mystery, as it watched
the changing skies against the still trees or the incessant activity of the
beetles and the bees around the summer blossoms.

During the breaks between sessions and during the free spaces in the
evenings, I came to watch the Barbet chick, watching the world. The
Singapore Cherry tree was bearing copious fruit. And even as Bulbuls,
Orioles, Leafbirds and Koels indulged themselves day in and day out,
there came about no dearth of the red berries. Tiny flowerpeckers
came to the remaining flowers on the canopy. The Barbet chick
watched all this wide-eyed with its head tilted to the side.

Over to one side of the tree was a well trimmed hedge, behind which I
squatted to secretly observe the chick’s behavior over the three days.
Expressions of great dismay crossed their faces when a few of my
distinguished colleagues spotted me squatting behind vegetation in
broad daylight and I had to reassure them of my intentions by pointing
out to the tree and the nest.

As people went back and forth along the pathway, the young bird
would follow them with an unblinking gaze all through, right to the
extent its stubby neck would allow. It would try to follow the
movements of squirrels running about, chasing eachother and
squealing from the canopy. Once in a while a staff would step out of
the office to attend a phone call. From above the young barbet would
listen intently to the private conversation. If an eye at anytime
happened to turn towards the nest, the overtly inquisitive bird would
all of a sudden feel shy, drag back its head and slowly sink into its
hollow, keeping just one eye above the hole. Then later it would come
out again when it feels it is not going to draw anyone’s attention.
The parent White Cheeks would come intermittently to the hollow to
feed the nestlings. At other times of the year, their sole activity the
entire day would be to sit on a lofty branch and sound their repetitive
calls, which soon becomes part of the background noise of the
landscape. Breaks for fruit and nectar would be very short and they
soon are back to their calling posts again. Whether the Rooster crows
or the Robin sings or the Cricket chirps, the Barbets will shout. But now
both the parent birds work overtime to raise their young and the land
seems to have fallen unusually silent. They bring the chicks fruits from
the same tree and also from the Hill neems. They bring Katydids and
Mantises from the organic fields around. Sometimes they excavate the
leaf litter in the compost pit and bring back fat beetle larvae.

The sibling which likes to peep out of the hollow, barricades the
entrance and demands every feed for itself. Its beak which it holds
wide ajar fills the entire hole. It will clasp it then over the adult bird’s
beak when it arrives till it lets go of the food into its mouth. The chicks
below try to rise up to get their fair portion of the feed but are often
shoved down by the dominant sibling. But parent birds are parent birds
and make sure they care for all their children. They push aside they
snatching chick, when it has managed to already consume an
extortionate quantity of the grubs and berries they bring, and squeeze
themselves down into the nest to feed the rest of their progeny. But at
some other times the chick above gives them their way as well and
continues to observe the happenings around it. One day when it grows
up and has to fend for itself and raise its own family, will it still find the
leisure to watch the stars and the skies? Will it still find the time to be
entertained by the strange activities of the human beings below?

But now it watched unwaveringly as the gardener carried the long hose
pipe, much of it trailing behind him on the sand and then watched him
water all the plants. It watched the yellow leaves spinning as they fell
from a branch of the tree to the ground. It watched as me and
everyone else bore our luggage and boarded vehicles and left to our
homes.

There is only the act of watching, of being aware. Our efforts and
intentions are but insignificant drifts of a brownian particle, our
volition, a sand grain in the tides. Does it matter if it floats or sinks?
Only the silence and surrender of awareness is real in the universal
dance of this mind-body-space continuum.

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