Categories: Longform

When My Dog and I Go Birdwatching, We Discover Bangalore’s Hidden Delights

By Bhanu Sridharan

Photo courtesy Roger Price via graffiticreator.org

Tube was a semi-street dog when he followed us home. It was 2012. My friends and I had just graduated with a masters in wildlife biology. There were six of us, four women and two men—including my boyfriend—and we were renting two flats in a small building in an obscure area called Sir MV Layout in North Bangalore. My poor parents were just getting over the fact that I didn’t move back home after two years in a hostel, and that I was sharing a house with both men and women when I had to explain the presence of a dog in the house.

We were walking home after a party (in er… high spirits) and at some point noticed this dog walking back with us. Tube slept on our verandah that night but over the next few weeks, he moved into the house one room at a time, until somehow he was sleeping on my bed and kicking me off it. We were both just entering adulthood and neither of us wanted to get our own food, but as you can imagine only one of us won that battle. While the humans learnt to cook, pay bills and be biologists, Tube learnt to bark and sharpen his teeth on our footwear and debit cards. Eventually, he found himself a huge cow bone. He was fiercely protective of that bovine remain—nobody else could touch it. That’s when I realised that we may never agree on politics.

Other than that, Tube was an easy dog to live with. He slept all day on a sofa in the living room and at night after dinner, joined his pack of friends outside. He would usually be gone from 10 in the night to 4 or 5 in the morning. He would knock on the door (with his paw, in case you were wondering) in the wee hours of the morning and cry outside my bedroom window until I let him in. This went on for four years.

As must happen, my friends moved out one by one. I married my boyfriend and he promptly left the country to pursue a PhD, while I decided to write about wildlife rather than study them. As soon as I had made this decision, I decided to procrastinate by focusing on other things, like moving houses. So I shifted to a new place, a whole two km away, in an area called Sahakarnagar. After four years of living with an assortment of friends and my husband, suddenly it was just woman and dog. We turned up on this beautiful street with a jackfruit tree, a pongamia tree and two huge raintrees. Tube wasn’t impressed.

I could see his point—dogs aren’t monkeys. He felt marooned in this new place; he had lost his territory and pack. And somehow I had chosen the only street in Bangalore with no other dogs. Actually there was one dog; an elderly one-eyed dog who did not like Tube. In fact most dogs didn’t like Tube. So he couldn’t just go out freely. That’s when it dawned on me that I would now have to take him out for walks every day. Something I had never done before.

On our first day out for a walk, Tube tried to mark my neighbours’ car and he has never given up. You can forget about having friendly neighbours after that. So we walked around looking for suitable car-free, dog-friendly streets where he could roam freely. It was during these explorations that I discovered a lively living neighbourhood. Sahakarnagar and its surrounding areas are relatively new suburbs that have exploded in value thanks to Bangalore airport. A surprising number of trees soften the huge houses that have sprung up here. I would drag my dog through these streets every morning, evening and night. Unlike old Bangalore neighbourhoods such as Basavanagudi or Rajajinagar, the streets are not filled with gulmohars, tabubias and copperpods. The most common trees here are pongamia, Singapore cherry and a mix of raintrees, bahunias and coconut trees. Occasionally, a jackfruit or mango tree would pop up.

A red whiskered bulbul. Photo courtesy Bhanu Sridharan

Most people would walk their dog on a wide road parallel to a railway tack. This railway track runs from north Bangalore to the Yeshwanthpur railway station in the west. For those who say walking your dog is great exercise, pardon me while I scoff at you. Tube sees no point in running, unless we are chasing or being chased by a dog. Walking him involved a lot of standing around, while he sniffed every single pile of dog poop and rubbish. Because I didn’t want to look down at what caught his attention, I started looking up, at the Singapore cherry trees lining this road. These trees were constantly flowering and filled with fruits and birds. In the morning, purple-rumped sunbirds drank nectar from the flowers with their long bills. Pale-billed flowerpeckers, tiny enough to fit in the palm of my hand, would eat the fruits, sharing space with squirrels. In the evenings, rose-ringed parakeets, barbets, jungle crows and jungle mynas would settle on the trees, loudly announcing their presence.

But Tube was soon bored of this bourgeois life, of orderly walking and sharing defecation spots with large pedigree dogs. These quiet streets held no appeal for him. I think he also found me inadequate. I could never walk as fast as him, slow down at the right bush or clear off when a friendly dog approached. We were also frequently disagreeing about which tree to stop next to—Tube had no time for my bird-watching. I realised that these outings would be most fun if we could both do our own thing. That’s when we crossed the railway track.

Tube eating lantana. Photo courtesy Bhanu Sridharan

The railway track is a long gash, separating the affluent neighbourhoods of Sahakarnagar from the empty spaces that will soon be affluent neighbourhoods in Rajiv Gandhi Nagar. Across the railway track we discovered a land divided into 30×40 sites. Some of them were being turned into huge houses, but there were plenty of empty plots filled with bushes of castor, calotropes and lantana. Grasses and reeds almost made the area feel like a grassland. Early mornings here were filled with migrant labourers defecating in the open, before building massive bathrooms for the area’s future residents. But Tube loved these parts—here he could walk free of the leash. He sniffed and marked bushes, sand piles laid out for construction, and garbage strewn on the side of the road. Occasionally, he would flush out an ashy prinia hiding in the lantana. Parakeets, jungle mynas, wagtails and black drongos would pass us by. Satisfied with our spot, we came here every morning and evening. But at night I stuck to the railway track road, close to my house.

It’s not because I felt unsafe. But thanks to his past life, Tube became alert and excited after 9 pm. He would want to join every howling dog and investigate every passing pack. Sometimes, he would just sit on a pavement and watch the empty street. It is a huge conflict of interest, because I wanted to sleep at night and wake up in the morning. By sticking to the boring street, I tried to convince him that there wasn’t much happening at night.

Others did worry for my safety at that hour. One of my neighbours (who attempted to lecture me about having boys in my house at 11 in the night) tried to dissuade me from walking Tube after 9 in the night. When I refused to take his advice, he offered to wait up for me to come back into the building every night. He gave up when his wife reminded him that he had to wake up early and take his children to school. Passing policemen have asked me why I’m out so late. There are criminal elements at night they tell me. Sometimes, I tell them to catch the criminals and leave me alone; on more peaceful nights though, I just shrug and point to the dog, who will move things along by growling. Elderly men occasionally warned me that there are snakes about at this time. So I try to tell them that I am a trained wildlife biologist and know what to do, only to realise that I had better leave because my dog is peeing on their car.

Women rarely show concern for my safety at night. Admittedly, there aren’t too many around at night, but occasionally they will turn out in groups of two and three enjoying the night air or taking in a brisk after-dinner walk. They never look surprised or worried by the sight of me roaming alone. Occasionally, people catch me staring at an electric pole, with my mouth hanging open and Tube desperately tugging at the leash. I would be watching a pair of spotted owlets or a beautiful barn owl. Of course by the time I could show them the birds, they would have flown away, leaving me pointing at nothing. People always walk away quickly when this happens.

Winter is my favourite season as a birdwatcher. Birds escaping the harsh cold weather of the Himalayas and Europe come down to peninsular India. Warblers, flycatchers, eagles and other birds of prey make the long journey down to warmer parts, where I imagine them settling down, relaxing and fattening up. There are certain birds that mark the arrival of winter. Down south, I think it must be the Blyth’s reed warbler. By October, I began hearing a familiar chak chak from the lantana bushes. It is a small dull-looking brown bird—but here all the way from places like Kazakhstan and Mongolia to spend winter amidst garbage and rubble and Tube’s ungainly scrambling. By late December, other visitors had come down. Hundreds of rosy starlings occupied every inch of an electric transformer, wires, bushes, trees and the ground. They are really pretty birds with a pale pink body and a jet black head and wings. A flock of starlings are called a murmuration. I understood why when I saw about 300 of them arrive together, weaving through the sky in synchrony one evening. By the next morning, they had split up into smaller groups of about 30 to 60. Up close, they are a crude noisy bunch, squawking loudly and surely quarrelling with their cousins, the mynas.

Photo courtesy Ron Knight via Wikimedia Commons

Further up, near some new apartments is a huge fig tree. Most trees don’t fruit in winter, but figs do. A fruiting fig tree will provide for almost everybody. Barbets, parakeets, rosy starlings, spotted doves, mynas, crows and pigeons flock to these trees. A golden oriole, another winter visitor, has settled down here. This area is right next to the GKVK campus, a huge agricultural research space. GKVK has a mix of agricultural fields, orchards and tiny patches of the original scrub forest from which Bangalore has been carved out. Birds passing by this area on their way into the campus were a frequent sight. A common kestrel (a small falcon), a rufous treepie (a member of the crow family) and grey hornbills occasionally pass by.

Beside the fig tree is a plot of land fenced by a huge concrete wall—we both always peek in there. Tube has to climb a pile of rocks and jump onto the wall to look, but he makes the effort. I don’t think he think he finds this exercise particularly rewarding, but we would find three green bee-eaters sitting in there, waiting for the sun to come up, so they could snatch up little insects that flew about then. Occasionally, a startled Indian robin would rush past us. This is usually the end of the walk. We would never go beyond this spot because there was a sweet dog that Tube hated. I wasn’t allowed to be friendly with any dogs he didn’t like. It’s oppressive, but I kept a stiff upper lip and turned back

Towards the end of February, tragedy struck. Tube was badly hurt on one of our walks and we were house-bound for three weeks. We only ventured out for him to pee and shit or visit the vet. The rest of the time was spent cleaning his injuries and finding new ways to feed him his medicines. During his worst days, he spent all day in my bathroom, maybe because it was cool and dark. I would sit with him there, trying to comfort him while he whimpered continuously in pain. I spent hours there: reading, watching movies and American comedy shows mocking Donald Trump, on my laptop. I love my dog, but I felt my sanity ebbing during those times. After about 10 days, he started leaving the bathroom for short periods and sitting under the dining table. So I set up my laptop there and tried to start working on that writing thing. It was then that I was really grateful for the trees in my neighbourhood. From my second floor window, adjacent the dining table, I had lovely views of the canopy of a kadamba tree, a coconut tree and a jumble of bahunia, gulmohar and badam behind my house. From the kitchen, I could look into the canopy of the raintree that stands in the front. I had forgotten until then, that a pair of black kites had a nest in there. I had seen the female sitting in the nest for almost two months, but I was never very interested.

A black kite and it’s nest. Photo courtesy Bhanu Sridharan.

Black kites are basically one of the most common birds you will see in Bangalore and in most Indian cities. The female was standing in the nest and looking down at something. I grabbed my binoculars and looked through the metal grille surrounding my kitchen utility. A furry chick stood uncertainly in the nest, staring at the mother. Its eyes and head looked huge on its tiny body, while the curved beak typical of a bird of prey looked almost comical—nothing remotely threatening about its appearance. Soon, through my binoculars, I spot another smaller chick. Watching them every day became a ritual. Sometimes mid-morning, the female would leave them alone for a bit and the larger older chick would peek out over the rim of the nest looking forlorn. In the afternoon, the mother would feed the hungry chicks, while they screamed for more. A black kite sounds like a horse whinnying; the chicks sound exactly the same but higher-pitched. Black kites will often nest on water tanks on top of tall buildings. But watching them on a tree like that, reminded me that they did have some wilderness in them.

As March rolled by, things started looking up. Tube slowly started doing much better. He left the bathroom much more, he didn’t cry as much and let me clean his wounds. We were walking as far as the railway track road again; he even tried to cross the track a couple of times. As the weather turned warmer, other birds started breeding or at least courting. Birds were pairing up and males were calling all around, marking territory and advertising to females. Male pied bushchats—small black birds common in dry open areas of peninsular India—were singing loudly from their perches on electric wires.

At the kadamba tree outside my dining table office, tailorbirds were calling loudly and a pair of jungle crows had built a nest. Crows are aggressively protective of their nest. While the female cawed loudly from the nest each day, the male would chase away every bird, big or small. Black kites, bulbuls, pigeons and barbets would suddenly find themselves being unceremoniously escorted off the tree by a large (or depending on the size of the victim, small) black figure. But they reserved a special anger for the koels, and understandably so. Koels are brood parasites. They lay eggs in the nests of other birds like crows, who then raise the koel chicks mistaking them for their own. Outside my window, a male koel would call out loudly from a nearby pongamia tree, in what seemed to be a move to distract, while the female sneaked up on the nest in the adjacent kadamaba tree. It never seemed to work. The crows would always find the female skulking on their tree and chase her and the male for good measure. This happened every day and then one afternoon I noticed both the crows left the nest unattended. Right on cue, a female koel flew onto the lower-most branch of the tree. Taking a circuitous route, she hopped cautiously to the nest right at the top and peeked in. She then looked around, jumped in and was out within a minute. I excitedly called my husband, who is much better with the birds. He confirmed that it was enough time for a koel to lay an egg. Eventually, the poor unsuspecting crows returned to their nest. In about two more weeks, I hope to find out if there is a little koel chick being fed by these jungle crows.

Blyth’s reed warbler. Photo courtesy Shankar70 via Wikimedia Commons

Today, Tube decides he has had enough of these short stints on the boring railway track road. He drags me towards the railway crossing, looking defiant. I relent and we cross. For the first time in days, he looks truly happy. He is not off the leash; I don’t have the courage to do that. But he marks every lantana bush and looks longingly at garbage piles, while I try to explain the risk of infection. I am not looking forward to birdwatching though. It is getting hot and I expect all the winter migrants would have left. I feel a pang thinking that I didn’t see them off. But then I hear the familiar chak chak. The Blyth’s reed warbler is still here, enjoying the warm but not too hot sun. And at the fig tree, the fruits have gone but a few rosy starlings are still there. They are diminished in number but the ones that remain are in good spirits, looking happy to be here. Just like my silly dog.

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