The Advisory Boar

By Abhijit Menon-Sen <>

Kurosawa's Bush Warbler

One of my most enduring memories of Kurosawa's Sanjuro (a sequel of sorts to Yojimbo) is of Mifune's sardonic smile as he explains to a group of well-meaning but clueless young men that they're looking for corruption in all the wrong places. The other is of a cheerful bit of bird song, repeated throughout the film; and, indeed, in many other Japanese films by Kurosawa, Masaki Kobayashi, and others. I'd always wondered which bird was singing.

I posted to the naturerecordists list a couple of years ago, describing the call: a loud, fluty (fwEEEE) whitch-chit-chew. It was quickly identified as the Japanese Bush Warbler Cettia diphone by someone in Hawai'i (where it is apparently a very successful invasive species). I learned later that the long, subdued whistle followed by an explosive jumble of notes is typical of a Cettia warbler's song; but I had never seen or heard one when I first watched Sanjuro.

I assumed the species was common in Japan (given how often its song featured in films), but once it was identified, I stopped thinking about it. There seemed little chance that I would ever hear it live (although C. d. cantuarians may occur as a vagrant to North-East India), and little else about the song to hold my attention… until now.

I had the opportunity to spend two days birding around Delhi with Mark Brazil (author of Birds of East Asia) this week, and one of the many subjects we discussed was Cettia diphone. To my delight, Mark told me that there was much more to the song of the Uguisu than I had imagined.

In Japan, the Uguisu's song is very well-known, and it pervades poetry and literature as a symbol of the spring revival; signifying rebirth, hope, and an end to the hard (winter) times. It is also called the "spring bird" and "poem reading bird", and its call is traditionally transcribed as "Hō ho-ke-kyo". In poetry, the bird is associated with the ume (sour plum) blossom, and is as evocative of spring as the cherry blossom. (Aside: the Uguisu's droppings are even powdered and used to lighten the skin, since they contain guanine.)

Its position in Japanese culture is comparable to that of the Nightingale in western Europe; and the bird's name used to be translated into English as "Japanese Nightingale", though it does not sing at night. (The only bird I can think of whose call is similarly well-known in Indian poetry is the Koel, whose incessant, plaintive song in early summer has also led to comparisons with the Nightingale.)

There are many other Cettia warblers in India. I've seen the Grey-sided Bush Warbler C. brunnifrons both in its wintering grounds and nesting near the tree line in Kumaon, but not heard its song (yet). Brownish-flanked Bush Warbler C. fortipes is also relatively common in the mountains, and other species may also occur. Now that I know something of what I have to look forward to, I always keep an ear out for them.

I may never hear Cettia diphone singing, but its song has brought me much joy.

Nikon Trailblazer Binoculars

I'm often asked about my binoculars, Nikon Trailblazer ATB 8x42s (often mistaken for the Monarch 8x42, but a lower-end model). Here's what I usually tell people about them.

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Three-in-one Raptor

Raptors are carefully designed to be difficult to identify.

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Bird watchers and purple prose

Speaking of bird-watching and poetry, I've noticed that bird-watchers, at least on the few Indian bird-watching lists I subscribe to, adore ornate, flowery, Victorian-sounding prose. They applaud it when they see it in other people's reports, and do their best to put it in their own.

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Poet, Lover, Birdwatcher

I came across a quotation from Nissim Ezekiel's poem, "Poet, Lover, Birdwatcher" in a book, and the title was so interesting that I just had to look it up. I found it in the minstrels archive, and it's such an intriguing poem that I'm quoting all twenty lines here.

Poet, Lover, Birdwatcher

To force the pace and never to be still
Is not the way of those who study birds
Or women. The best poets wait for words.
The hunt is not an exercise of will
But patient love relaxing on a hill
To note the movement of a timid wing;
Until the one who knows that she is loved
No longer waits but risks surrendering—
In this the poet finds his moral proved
Who never spoke before his spirit moved.

The slow movement seems, somehow, to say much more.
To watch the rarer birds, you have to go
Along deserted lanes and where the rivers flow
In silence near the source, or by a shore
Remote and thorny like the heart's dark floor.
And there the women slowly turn around,
Not only flesh and bone but myths of light
With darkness at the core, and sense is found
But poets lost in crooked, restless flight,
The deaf can hear, the blind recover sight.

— Nissim Ezekiel

I have read some other poems by Nissim Ezekiel (one was a part of my high school English curriculum), but I can't remember another one that made me sit up and pay attention. I love the idea of tying poetry, love, and bird-watching together through the patience and caring that each requires; and I love the unhurried, graceful way the poem segues between each activity and the feelings it evokes. I think the ending is a bit forced (did anyone mop the heart's dark floor or were they too busy eyeing up the slowly turning women?), and detracts from the light tone established by the first stanza. I notice, too, that poetry, love, and bird-watching are presented as implicitly male pursuits.

Myths of light with darkness at the core? Not so much. But patient love relaxing on a hill is a different feeling, one that I can recognise and will remember.

The ethics of being a bird guide

This winter, I may get an opportunity to act as a guide to bird-watchers visiting India. I've done it before, but this is the first time I've thought of it as a possible part-time job rather than just an occasional distraction. With this shift in perception comes a difficult ethical question.

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Feynman on bird identification

“I learned very early the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something”

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Greek and Latin Scientific names

My recent comment on names which mean the same thing in different languages reminded me of something slightly different: generic and specific names that mean the same thing; one in Greek, the other in Latin.

The Common Raven Corvus corax, revered in ancient cultures around the world, bears its own name in both languages, Corvus being the Latin name for the Raven, and corax likewise the name in Greek (even the name "Raven" comes from an ancient Proto-Germanic name applied to the bird). The related Carrion Crow Corvus corone and Hooded Crow Corvus cornix both take their specific names from Greek words for "crow". All three names were assigned by Linnaeus in 1758.

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Overloaded generic names

The Slender-Billed Scimitar Babbler Xiphirhynchus superciliaris has always felt somewhat mystical while flipping through the Babblers in any field guide. I've never seen one, but the photographs posted to the delhibirdpix list by Sujan Chatterjee in May 2008 and Ramki Sreenivasan a year later, both taken in Arunachal Pradesh, have stayed in my memory.

Unfortunately, I can find only one of these photographs on Google Groups now, and I can't figure out any sane way to link to that post here. But Google Images finds many photos of the species, including Sujan's photo.

Anyway, Xiphirhynchus superciliaris was somewhere at the back of my mind when I recently encountered a casual reference to the unrelated South American genus of Woodcreepers: Xiphorhynchus. These are essentially the same word, derived from the Greek xiph- (for "sword") and -rhynchus ("snout" or "nose", meaning beak)!

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Dual-use scientific names

Why do the Yellow-footed Green Pigeon and the genus of Flamingos share the name Phoenicopterus?

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