It is local communities’ observations that we use to inform our research, they are indispensable for ecological studies
The jade thickets of the Biligiri Rangaswamy Temple Tiger Reserve are frequented by an excellent mimic — a small black bird, with a glossy neck and elegant, elongated tail feathers. This bird, the greater racket-tailed drongo, can imitate the calls of 38 different species of avians and even the sounds of frogs and insects.
On an expedition to record birdsongs for her Master’s research project, Samira Agnihotri trekked through the forest with her field guide Madha, a member of the Soliga community. They spotted the mimicking bird and heard its many calls. Madha turned to Samira and told her, “you should do your PhD on this bird. It is doing PhD on all the birds.”
Why do these birds mimic? More importantly, why is their mimicry accepted by members of the multi-species flocks that they travel in?
These questions loomed over Samira Agnihotri, sparking an undying curiosity within her.
When she eventually decided to pursue her PhD at the Indian Institute of Science, Madha’s words echoed in her mind, as did the call of the racket-tailed drongo.
In India, such targeted research on a bird, particularly the racket-tailed drongo, is rare. “Studying how and why these birds use mimicry and understanding their nesting and mating habits can tell us a lot about bird vocalisations and how mixed flocks function,” she says.
One particularly riveting insight was identifying which trees the drongos use to nest. After many quests into the forests, Soliga field guides Marian Kethegowda and Jadeswamy observed something unusual. “On several occasions, we observed the drongo pair peeling away bark to make the surface even,” says Samira.
This behaviour, the team thinks, is to ward off predators – including humans – who could use the uneven bark to climb the nesting trees. “Year after year, the birds return to the same trees to nest,” she says.
Given that the birds are sticklers for these trees, habitat loss and destruction can have a devastating impact on nesting and migratory patterns.
In the larger scheme of ecology, such observations can help in understanding how the birds are adapting to climate change and habitat loss. The findings not only provide integral insights into inter-species bird communication to support further ornithological research but also help in the conservation of their populations and habitats.
Rightly so, the publication featuring the drongo’s habit of smoothening barks featured Kethegowda and Jadeswamy as co-authors. “It was their observations that led to the publication. It was only ethical,” says Samira.
An example of the community’s expertise is apparent in the role that they assigned to drongos. Known as ‘karali’, the greater drongos are classified as kolukara (or rod-bearer). “The village elders often refer to them as police birds,” says Jadeswamy.
Over the years, research on the greater drongos has suggested that the birds use their mimicking ability to attract a number of species to form multi-species flocks. This implies that this possible role of the bird was noted by the Soligas long ago.
How the Soliga community navigates through the forest is also an example of how thoroughly they know the forest. “The Soligas use unique place names that act as ‘pin codes’ or ‘addresses’,” Samira says. For instance, the name ‘Gummanagudda’ means ‘big owl’ in Soliga and denotes a tree with many owl nests.
Passed down through the generations, many of the landscape features, trees or plants these place names denote may have disappeared. “Many plants have been destroyed completely by lantanas, a common weed that is threatening forest biodiversity,” she explains. However, the names of these locations live on as an oral historical record of the biodiversity in the region.
When there is a loss of forest diversity, there is extreme sadness in the community. Samira attributes this to a collective “solastalgia”— a deep suffering or grief caused due to environmental loss.
This bond, both intellectual and emotional, is often dismissed by academics. In the two decades that Jadeswamy has worked as a field assistant and driver, for instance, he has noticed that field assistants and drivers are mostly given instructions. The subject and objectives of the research are rarely discussed or explained.
Samira’s efforts to learn both Kannada and Soliga to facilitate better communication was a game-changer.
“After a trip into the jungles, we also had group discussions,” says Jadeswamy. This opened up the corridors of conversation and paved the way to share knowledge. It also helped the community become more invested in the research that was rooted in their geography.
Samira makes a conscious effort to print out field observation charts in Kannada, to be filled in by members of the Soliga community, even though she cannot read the language. “It is the least that we can do,” she says.
The Soliga language
Understanding just how inextricable the Soliga language was from the thickets of B R Hills and its birds and animals, led her to question many existing conservation practices, which tend to view traditional knowledge systems with a colonial lens. “It is local communities’ observations that we use to inform our research, they are indispensable for ecological studies,” she says.
Samira and Aung Si, her colleague and collaborator, have consolidated words from the Soliga language, which does not have a script. The language is classified as endangered, with less than 10,000 people conversing in it.
Currently, Samira leads a project that facilitates the opening of communication channels between successive generations of the Soligas. Lakshmi, the field coordinator of the project, makes Youtube videos, documenting the oral histories of elders in the village. Lakshmi spent several years studying and working in Mysuru before discrimination and loneliness caused her to return to B R Hills. “After coming back, working on the project is like a breath of fresh air. The forest is my home and there is so much to learn that is not valued by the outside world,” she says.
Such interventions for cultural and linguistic revival are particularly important as language and knowledge have an interdependent relationship, Aung Si explains. “The disappearance of one usually would also cause a decline in the other,” he says.
Steeped in language and culture are the canopies of B R Hills and its residents. Even then, conservation efforts and research have been exclusionary to the community. “The Soligas have been coexisting with forests for generations. We have only started recognising that now,” Samira says.