Justice League of Malabar Grey Hornbills

We have superpowers. We can make good things disappear from our lives. Ambitious goals turn into pipe-dreams. Exciting jobs become boring routines. Serendipitous affairs crumble into sexual favors. Warm relationships are deputed to cold storage units. It’s not as though we pursue unhappiness. Ruining a good thing is our self-defense mechanism; an inherent villainy.

But the world can show us that it has extraordinary powers too. It balls up a fist, punches us on the bridge of the nose, and announces, “Well, here’s what I can do”. We wipe the blood off and look up to see something beautiful. Some proof that everything will turn out to be okay.

A Malabar Grey Hornbill may then fly past us, holding hostage in her throat – a song to shake the love out of our hair, and to scatter it on a bed of leaves.  Instinctively, we will throw our hands up, palms cupping the sun, semi-confused and aroused.

I haven’t had much to say about Malabar Grey Hornbills until now. They are mid-sized hornbills endemic to the Western Ghats. They have large beaks and piercing eyes. Their plumage is milky-grey with white streaks covering the underparts. Their calls are eerie and hysterical, like the Laughing Kookaburra but with more baritone.

A few weeks ago, one Sunday afternoon, I was on a birding trail in Adimali, Kerala. I was having a lover’s quarrel with myself because I had a bus to catch in a few hours. I didn’t want the trip to end. What if a white-morphed Asian Paradise Flycatcher had planned to visit me? So I took a short detour and went for a long walk by the river-bed.

Racket-Tailed Drongo, Kerala

In the back of my mind, I knew the chances were slim. It was hot and humid – God’s own squealing teapot. An hour into the stroll, I had only spotted a few Jungle Babblers and a pair of Racket-Tailed Drongos. I was in a bitter mood by then, covered in sweat.

As I was huffing and puffing my way out, I heard the call of a Malabar Grey Hornbill. As I looked around, she skirted through the trees in full view. It was an adult female. I followed her until she found a comfortable branch to perch upon. I got into position to take a few photographs.

She stared back, coyly, as though I had interrupted a laryngeal tai-chi routine. She let out a loud and piercing cry. In a matter of seconds, there was a response. And then, another. Soon, there were about 8-10 hornbills just a few meters away from me.

They didn’t seem to mind having me around. At least, that’s what I told myself. I can’t be sure. I can’t rationalize this feeling I have around birds. Why would I want to? I am just happy that the world still takes the effort to disable my superpowers, as and when it sees fit.

It makes me ordinary. Saps me dry. It lets the light leak out and leaves me without luminescence. Leaves me to bask in the brightness of birds. Their colors. Their songs.

These Malabar Grey Hornbills.

With every petal unfurled
– she smells less like a daffodil,
with every tail feather plucked out
– she flies closer to the ground,
puttering around, gowned in dust,
once a wild sonnet and
now a wise parable.

(Photographs: Munnar, Thekkady, Adimali)

32 thoughts on “Justice League of Malabar Grey Hornbills

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  1. Think of them this way instead: a morning cacophony of sweet, discordant symphony, honey-sweet off the tongue like the rising sun; a sheer, unadulterated joy to their jumbled laughter, as if the tea fields and sky were one, as if now they are here and soon will be gone.
    At least, that is my experience of Malabar Grey Hornbills (we spotted a flock during a morning run in Valparai) – and personally, I find it hard to find any hornbill not endearing.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Gorgeous description, GB, loved every bit of it, especially “honey-sweet off the tongue like the rising sun”.

      They are all so endearing. As I mentioned, it’s my sweet burden to bear for now and a bridge to mend sooner than later!

      Liked by 2 people

  2. ‘Laryngeal tai chi.’ Love it! This must be what I do when getting ready for a birding outing. I will forever call it that now. 😀

    I agree that we need them more than they need us, and I certainly feel that they don’t care so much about our species as we do about theirs, I try to be mindful not to intrude on their solace (or whatever). It’s hard being a birder/photographer; that invisible line is difficult not to cross.

    One of my favorite beach experiences was on the Straits of Malacca when a few hornbills decided to fly in and forage in a mangrove while my hubs and I sunned ourselves on the beach. I wasn’t a birder back then, but I was perfectly mesmerized by them!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Shannon! Been missing you around these parts (big smile).

      It is a blurry line, isn’t it. At some level I think perhaps we believe that they can sense the love we have for them as opposed to poachers or even those indifferent. I have heard that elephants can differentiate between the vibes, why not our feathered lovelies!

      You saw hornbills while sunbathing? So much poetry in that! These things can only happen to you, Shannon (bigger smile)


      1. Just wait ’til you see what we did this week: an over-night guest that had to be fed every 20 minutes. Needless to say, that was a sleepless one for me, but we’ll see if you can guess what it was (hint: my last bird post). Details on that coming to the blog.

        I see you have been busy with your birding by the amount of posts I’ve missed. frown Missing my darling Indian vegan birder and will be back in earnest when my break comes. frown turns to smile

        Liked by 1 person

  3. For a non-birder I will take your word about their superpowers, in return I hope you will take mine about superpowers of your own. That I have been saved not once but many times over by your cape of words. I reach out for it, hide inside and for those brief moments the world outside matters no more. So thank you this post, and for the safe, happy ‘cape time’ you sent my way this morning. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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