Why birds sing Image Credit: Shutterstock

When I read Margaret Renkl’s column in The New York Times about bird identification with an app, something inside my heart softened. This little tool that Renkl spoke about in her column used bird sounds to help with identification. “Interesting”, I thought as I walked up to my garden to listen to some feathered banter.

The chirping was soothing but my thoughts mulled over the phone app, “how did someone think of that?” I wondered for a split second, when something crossed my mind, “of course”, I chuckled.

It was nearly six years ago that I encountered magic in the beautiful country of Uganda — a country that is rich in green foliage and colourful avian species. A country where bright winged tailors fluttered about without a care and painted storks caused traffic jams.

At the crack of dawn

It was here that we met Frank, a young forest ranger who shook our hand at the crack of dawn at Semuliki, a thick tropical forest in the West.

He wore a dark green uniform with deep pockets and he held a worn out book under his arms. “It is going to be at least a four and half-hour trek. Do you have mosquito repellent?”, he asked, eyeing our backpack. I looked up taking in the thick warm air.

I wondered if I would last till noon. But, I declared, “all set”, as I patted on the insect spray in my bag. Frank nodded and turned around towards the path that quickly disappeared behind thick green shrubs.

Following Frank on the trail is an experience I cannot forget. His eyes and ears were sharp and he stopped every now and then to point at some insect, a bird, a fallen tree — anything.

Occasionally, he bent over to pick up the trash that visitors had left behind and pushed them into his trouser pockets. But, at times, he would simply stop to listen to the forest sounds.

Just live the moment

We followed his cue and paused often to take in the quiet, smell the earth, take pictures and just live the moment. But, what we didn’t know was Frank could do many more things. At one point, he stood in a small clearing with one hand across his mouth. As we waited clearly confused, we heard a sound — that of a bird. “A bird call”, he said while we waited in our tracks without a stir.

A few seconds passed when we heard a similar sound coming from behind the bushes. “That’s a blue throat”, he said pointing towards a spot behind the bushes.

Just as we craned our necks to get a view of the tiny bird through the leaflets, we heard another sound. Frank was at it again. This time, he said, “there, that is a Tinkerbird”, he smiled while the bird responded to his call.

“This is incredible”, we chuckled in disbelief. But, Frank went about his business as he continued on the trail — making sounds — a tweet, a caw, a trut-trut, a trrrrr and so much more before opening the big book with bird pictures and pointing at many more little feathered beauties. I soon lost count of the winged creatures we saw and heard. It was a blissful hour of live performance of sounds that we had never witnessed before.

Excitement of colours and sounds

At the end of our trip, still reeling in all the excitement of colours and sounds, we stood at the edge of the forest and shook hands. “You are extraordinary — so knowledgeable and so gifted”, we huffed.

“Well, we all learn this. It is part of our training”, he said, as a matter of fact when he pointed to the sky as a flurry of African greys buzzed by and four hornbills pranced about a few feet away.

“You live in Paradise”, I said, as he got down to pick a cookie cover someone had left behind. “I know”, he said, pocketing the trash and cupping his mouth to make another sound. I am not sure if we saw a Palmnut vulture or Kingfisher. But, at that moment, all the hunger, weariness and the heat disappeared.

Now, after all these years as I stared at the new app I finished downloading, I am reminded of Frank and his mimicry. With a click, I stepped out to my garden to test this technology.

Although I listened to an orchestra, I couldn’t deny the simple truth — that there is only so much that technology can help us with and that I only have a pale shadow of Frank on my phone.

Sudha Subramanian is an author and writer based in Dubai. Twitter: @sudhasubraman