Sad how the great animal orchestra has fallen silent

Prerna Bindra
Prerna BindraMar 17, 2016 | 16:25

Sad how the great animal orchestra has fallen silent

One leading newspaper recently published what JNU is reading, and featured among books on cricket and an analysis of the situation in the Northeast is one on ecological soundscapes: Bernie Krause's The Great Animal Orchestra. The author has been recording the soundscapes of the wild for 45 years, and has archived the sounds of over 15,000 species. Over half of the sounds he archived have been silenced - human noise has drowned out the symphony of nature.

Writes Krause: "A great silence is spreading over the natural world even as the sound of man is becoming deafening. Little by little the vast orchestra of life, the chorus of the natural world, is in the process of being quietened."

Well, the book set me thinking, about the "biophony"- as the author calls the sound of all living organisms (except Homo sapiens) that surrounded my childhood, and how the sounds are now barely a whisper.

In the early days, and I am talking about the 1970s-80s, as the sun set, and the din of the urban jungle dropped to an occasional sound, a different kind of acoustics arose, increasing in crescendo as  darkness engulfed the city. It usually started with a metallic "tchaktchakcharrk". I would peer, warily, above the bed, and there it would be, glued to the wall in the neighbourhood of the bulb - a house gecko.

A gecko living in the wild.

Small, slender, slimy, to my wild imagination, the lizard seemed not unlike a tiny avatar of the Komodo dragon, with its disproportionately large eyes, and a tail that had a life of its own even when cut off from the body (chucking the tail off is a ruse to distract a predator while the gecko makes its escape).

Ma, who had a philosophy of "live and let live",  dismissed my fears and pronounced the creature harmless, and useful, as it ate (ugh!) flies, mosquitoes, termites and the like. So, I lived with it in peace, as long as it kept to its space, and did not invade mine - especially falling, platt on my face, usually at night, as had happened far too often for my liking.

There were other sounds - the most pervading of which was the crickets. I hated it, seriously, truly hated its insistent, ear-piercing screech, till I discovered that  even this decidedly ugly insect (the sound was omnipotent, but it is almost impossible to spot, which is not a bad thing really) was an interesting little thing.  Only the male - thank god for small mercies - is blessed with speech, and manufactures its music by rubbing its wings mainly to attract a mate. It changes its tune to claim its territory, and ward of other males vying for favours.

Love and land (territory) pretty much sum up the motivation for bird song too. Though ornithologists will argue, and rightly so, on this terse dismissal of what is surely the most beautiful, vibrant repertoire of melodies. I agree with them, bird song is the only music I am addicted to, nothing, not the finest opera compares to the avian symphony.

I recall the varied ditties that accompanied the day: the raucous call of the peafowl at dawn (and dusk as well), and as the sun climbed, the koyal's soulful cry would waft in through the window. Sparrows chirruped, babblers quarreled, and the magpie tobin, attired in its dapper black and white suit, sang its heart out. If you were lucky, the faint hoot of the owlet broke the stillness of the night.

The Indian cuckoo.

Cawing, cooing, cheeping, tweeting (I mean it the old-fashioned-bird sort of way). Wonderful.

Bees buzzed, squirrels chattered… and then there were the strong, silent types like snails encased in their shells ponderously making their epic journey from one end of the garden to the other.

Monsoons brought alive another orchestra - the guttural chorus of horny frogs as they serenaded their mates in the pools formed by the first showers. The croaks, while not high on the melody scale, were so very welcome.  Along, with the song of the pied-crested cuckoo, they heralded the monsoon.

Many years later, I read Khushwant Singh's note on this, "For many years I have recorded in my diarythe date when I first heard the meghapapeeha (the aforementioned cuckoo) in summer. Last year I heard it on the June 8 and prophesied that in 10 days, the monsoon would reach Delhi."

What moved me the most, though, were those memorable nights when the jackals howled, the eerie yowl piercing the soul. It was primitive… it was the cry of the wilderness in a soulless and concrete jungle. I marveled at this ghost of the darkness, which I only heard, never saw: Where did it live? Who was it calling? How did it survive in this hostile, peopled world?I can't pinpoint when nature went silent… but it has. The orchestra has dropped to a soft, apologetic murmur.

Birds still sing - but the abundance has gone, and it's an increasingly rare pleasure. I hear the occasional parrot screech, welcome the odd squirrel into my garden, sparrows visit, attracted by bird seed and water I put out. Dawn breaks, silently, and dusk falls, but minus the soft hoot of the owl, or the insistent "did-you-do-it" call of the lapwing.

No wonder, there are no old trees for owls to tuck themselves in, no messy shrubs for the ground nesting peafowls or lapwings to hatch their eggs. No bee dares to construct a hive in the odd tree that finds space amidst concrete towers. In gated colonies like mine, the hives are simply sprayed with pesticides, killing the bees in one efficient stroke. I have not heard the papeeha since years, it is TV which informs me that roads have been clogged, thus announcing the arrival of monsoon.

Keoladeo Ghana Sanctuary, Bharatpur, Rajasthan.


The Indian jackal. Photo Credit: Aditya Chandra Panda.

As for the jackals… I can't recall when I heard them last, and I miss them the most. Forget the edges of urban India, you can't even hear them in the forests anymore. I particularly recall the famous bird sanctuary, Keoladeo Ghana Bharatpur in Rajasthan. You couldn't sleep at night, as jackals howled the night through, mainly in winters. If you stepped out, you could also listen to the quite foraging of the occasional porcupine, Last time I went (some four years ago), the nights were silent, but there was no peace in the quiet, only a deep sense of loss.

I know this silence plagues other forests. Many moons ago, I was in Dachigam, in the beautiful valley of Kashmir, where live hangul, a beautiful rare red deer endemic to this region.  Once, the golden valleys of the forest boomed and echoed with the rutting call of the hangul. Now, with barely about a 150 of these deer remaining, only the odd rut pierces the air.

A rutting hard ground barasingha in Kanha National Park. 

There are many such examples, where within one lifetime, natural sounds have muted.  Not just in the terrestrial landscape, the mighty oceans and vibrant coral reefs suffer the same fate.  We know of the magical songs - cries, wails, howls - of the whales which travel vast distances, across oceans. Other marine creatures are equally musical-fish, crustaceans, shrimps, puffers et al "talk" as well - gnash their teeth, swing their tails, exhale, grunt, belch.The freshwater dolphin is famously deaf, but it still speaks, through echolocation. The desolate sounds of extinction are making waves here too.

As extinctions take place - the earth has lost half of its wildlife in the past 40 years - a silent spring dawns on our natural world.  

We are all witness to it, but we have chosen to close our eyes, and ears, to it.

Last updated: January 03, 2017 | 20:13
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