Rarely does one come across a book where nothing, absolutely nothing, seems to be wanting; where every word is felicitous and true, and every description is pure poetry. Of Birds and Birdsong by M Krishnan is that kind of book. It’s nature writing at its best.

Krishnan has a deep and genuine affection for the most ordinary and even the pariahs of birds. He calls the common partridge the “finest poor man’s dog,” and a “most confiding and attached bird.” Seeing through his eyes, you will be hard-pressed to think of pigeons, or Rock Pigeons, as the vermin of the bird world. And if you ever want to train a pigeon to deliver messages, all you have to do is follow Krishnan’s painstaking instructions on every aspect of this precise art, down to how to build a loft and to what to feed the Racing Homer, including “an occasional diet of finely chopped green vegetables.”

Chugging out of New Delhi Railway Station on an early morning train, I’ve often amused myself by looking out for the “telefauna,” or birds perched on telegraph wires.

There are the early rising Black Drongos, once called King Crows, shiny black with deeply forked tails. The flashes of turquoise, emerald green, and bronze against the brightening blue sky are the rows of tiny, long-tailed Green Bee-eaters. And then there are the turquoise and red plumed, deprecatingly named White-throated Kingfishers.

The passing fields may run on for miles on end, but keen eyes may be rewarded by the sight of a stately pair of dancing Sarus Cranes, mates for life, trumpeting in unison. In the evening, lithe swallows swoop and tumble, watchful, raccoon-eyed shrikes abound, and parakeets screech and careen before settling into their arboreal abodes for the night.

Krishnan’s writing is not merely about facts.

He’ll tell you all about a particular bird, its appearance, its eccentricities (endearing and otherwise), its call, its mating habits, its nest, and its mention in Indian Classics, its parenting philosophy, absolutely everything you’ve always wanted to know about birds (and never dreamed you would). The tiny, pert sunbird looks as if it feeds entirely on nectar, and yet who would have guessed that its diet consists of spiders, insects… and nectar.

A male Purple Sunbird loses its purple-blue-black iridescence when the breeding season is over. Only a thin purple line running from its buff throat to its belly distinguishes the male from the female. The Tailorbird too sheds its tail pins after the breeding season. Though the Common Hoopoe may be uncommonly beautiful, its nest is a “foul mess!”

Sleep, like love and hunger is a deep, primal need in all sentient beings. But did you know that most birds also rest at high noon and that ground-birds and waterbirds enjoy an afternoon siesta standing on one leg, shifting legs in the course of their sleep? And that a sleeping parakeet perched on both feet is a sign of its poor health? Who hasn’t overslept when exhausted? After a cyclone, birds have been known to wake up past 9 am!

While re-reading Of Birds and Birdsong, I was made aware of the fact that we are losing many of the birds Krishnan describes as perfectly common.

Yellow-billed Babblers have all but disappeared from the vicinity of North Indian railway stations. One can count oneself lucky if one occasionally glimpses a “strikingly decorative” Hoopoe on the lawn. The once ubiquitous Rufous Treepie is a rare beauty in Delhi.

When vultures feed on carcasses of animals treated with Diclofenac, they suffer renal failure and die. Consequently, the vulture population has precipitously declined in the last decade or so. While on the subject of vultures, Krishnan points out that though they are strong fliers, they rarely soar over the sea, and so, unsurprisingly, there are no vultures in Sri Lanka.

The vulnerable population of Sarus Cranes is further threatened as they have been known to perish after feeding on wheat treated with the pesticide, monocrotophos. Entire sparrow populations are disappearing, although in recent times an occasional flock has come to my balcony for a natter and a drink of water.

A Rose-ringed Parakeet has feet designed for grasping and climbing – its third toe has a versatile joint – and a beak that can shell a peanut “with dainty precision, or bite your finger till you feel the bone will crack.” Some will talk if taught to, and Krishnan once met a parakeet that could say “‘Okay, darling!’ in the most flippant tones,” and one who could articulate, in a “rasping, challenging tone ‘Who the hell are you?’”

It had been a mystery to him as to why Indian poets have spoken of women with voices as “sweet as a parakeet’s.” Until he chanced upon a parent parakeet summoning its nestlings to feed with “a low, long, tremulous, ineffably sweet call,” he had only heard their screechy shrillness.

Krishnan’s observations include the fact that birds in temperate countries tend to be less arrestingly plumaged than ours, and that some intensely shy and private birds abandon their nests and their young, even if one takes a “peep” at the nest.

There is no such thing as a stooped or a graceless bird.

In old age, plumage colours change. In young White-Throated Kingfishers the blue of its back is warm and bright, “deep cerulean or new blue,” its red is almost maroon and the beak is a vibrant red. In old birds, the blue darkens to Prussian or midnight blue, red turns to umber, and even the red beak turns dark brown.

Krishnan’s intimacy with and love for birds is apparent at every turn. His lovely, unselfconscious and often funny descriptions reveal a deep affection for words and language. He caresses the idea and the picture with the perfect word, or turn of phrase. No word is in vain, or second best. His words never get in the way of the prose; they don’t draw attention to themselves. There is nothing between the reader and Krishnan’s stories. It’s as if the reader has happened upon the scene. I leave you with his description of the Common Hoopoe and perhaps you will agree with me.

“As the bird moves forward on invisible feet, the slanting sun touches it, turning the fulvous sienna of its breast and crest to liquid gold, revealing fully the emphatic contrasts of black and white in the back. Then suddenly the crest is shut and the bird shoots up on slow, fluttering, broad wings, patterned even more rhythmically than its body.”

A lifelong reader and writer, Debika Lahiri has written a novel. She conducts nature walks in Delhi’s gardens and parks.