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Parakeets

When I saw the two men pushing a handcart loaded with bamboo baskets from Victoria Terminus towards Crawford Market, I immediately assumed they were carrying chickens. For those are the kind of squat baskets made from split bamboo used to ferry fowl. However, when I heard the sound emanating from the baskets, I was intrigued. Some chickens, I thought to myself, as I crossed the street to investigate…


It’s too dark inside the baskets to make out the kind of creatures packed in. But they definitely sound like parakeets, making the kind of hoarse, screechy racket caged parakeets make when they are frightened or angry. I also notice that for all that cacophony, the birds sound pretty feeble. Their screams seem to be coming from somewhere far off or as if they are gargling through gags.


When I ask what they are carrying, the man pulling the cart replies laconically over his shoulder, toton ke bachche (baby parakeets).”


And this “parcel” of parakeets has apparently arrived by an overnight train from Uttar Pradesh. It’s just one small consignment in the annual spate 10,000 to 1,50,000 parakeet nestlings, which insiders say, arrives every year in the city from January to June.


The sheer scale of the enterprise blows my city-bred sensibilities; imagine scouring the countryside, peering inside steep wells and abandoned building; clambering over all kinds of trees, to locate the nesting holes of these blood-beaked, grass green pollies. Imagine the commotion, the screeching of the feathered furies, as they swoop and protest to protect their young, in vain. Worse, imagine the collective cries of the bunched up babies as they are yanked off from the warm, dark security of their nests into crowded baskets and packed off to distant cities in noisy, thundering trains….


Depending on the variety, each nestling fetches anything from Rs. 10/- to Rs. 100/-. The commonest or garden variety is the rose-ringed parakeet; less common are the larger Alexandirine parakeets. Blossom headed parakeets from the forests and their fringes are scarcer as are pink-breasted parakeets from U.P. and the eastern Himalayas. The rarest are the blue-winged parakeets; stray specimens land up from areas lide Bhiwandi and wada in Maharashtra. Although they live in the Western Ghat from Maharasthra to kerala, south India is really the stronghold of the graceful blue-wings. But one reason why so few land up in Bombay is that both the nestlings and adults are found to be delicate and vulnerable to the kind of handling that the rest of the flock are subjected to.


Over the years the bird-handlers have also discovered that wild parakeets are able to withstand starvation for “a couple of days”—the time it takes to transport them from regions like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Gujrat and Madhya Pradesh into Bombay.


Although, the collection of chicks is banned under the Wildlife Protection Act (1972), the trade in parakeets goes on all over India. One reason why the provisions are less stringently enforced is that parakeets are widely perceived as pests. And the reason why nestlings are favoured is because young birds can be easily taught to “speak”. The learning ability, to imitate speech and other sounds, is said to be strongest in the first year or two. And once they grow up, parakeets tend to be proverbially long-lived.

Talking parakeets and mynahs from India have been highly prized since time immemorial. And the large Indian parakeet is named in honour of Alexander the Great, who introduced these birds to Greece and Europe. He is also known to have presented a particularly loquacious one to his equally talkative master, Aristotle! Depending on the ability and the degree of tameness, these talking birds fetch a handsome price, particularly from foreign visitors (especially those from the Middle East).

Not surprisingly, a variety of myths, misconceptions, even downright deceptions about these birds abound. For instance, the blue-winged or the Bababudan parakeet enjoys a (spurious) reputation as a talking paragon and is credited with the ability to converse with human being in Arabic! This is based on the birds’s association with Muslim sage called Bababuddin who settled in the Mysore Hills (named after him) over a hundred years ago. In addition to introducing coffee-growing from Yemen to India, Bababuddin kept some blue-wings and taught them to recite holy words from the Koran. That marked the start of Bababuddan parrot’s inflated repation as a trainee linguist who could put Eliza Doolittle to shame!

Also, Alexandrine parakeets are likely to be offered as “Nepali” parrots. (The “wholesale” market refer to them as Channai or Chandana.) What the gullible buyer ddoes not know is that these “Nepali” parakeets are found through the whole range from the Himalayas to Sri Lanka and eastwards to Burma and Thailand! Indeed, if you are lucky (as I am) to have a bit of greenery around your house you might even find one of these “exotic: parakeets calmly munching on a guava or a mango in Bombay. Some of these raucous-voiced, large-headed parakeets with crimson shoulder patches are wild. Others are former in mates from glided cages, enjoying a bit of free air (they may even greet you with a “Hello” or “Ramram”)

Some of these birds owe their freedom to pious people, especially from the Jain community, who pay the shopowners at the bird bazaar at Crawford market to release birds like bayas (weaver birds); munias and parakeets on festivals and special occasion.

Thus, for a couple of hundred rupees you can have the pleasure of seeing scores of birds flapping off for freedom. That some of these tame birds return to their cages is another story.

What is more wasteful, many birds, even when released in wooded localities, just don’t make it to freedom. Being unable to fend for themselves, they often land up in a cage of different sorts—inside the belly of a kite, crow, or a cat!

Crawford Market is the heart of the licensed bird trade in Bombay: out of 19 licensed shops in the city it has 16. Besides parakeets, you can find a variety of birds including zebra finches; canaries; budgerigars, cockatoos, love-birds, mynahs, bulbuls, pekin robins and green bulbuls. This multi-coloured, moving, mosaic of featheres is a fascinating spectacle… but for the bars. Lronically, it’s only thanks to these bars that you are able to ogle at these birds in this concrete jungle.