An Aural Journey through Nagarahole: The Language of Deception

Published on: 13/05/2024


Photo title: Cicada


Photo Credits: Santosh Saligram

Nothing in Nature exists to befool humans by design. We are well above the deceptions of the Venus flytrap and the ‘spectacles’ of a cobra. Our perceptive intellect allows us to see through thedubious parenting of a cuckoo and the shenanigans of a firefly. Yet, there’s one thing that often succeeds in pulling the wool over our ears: sound.

What we see when we hear something isn’t always what it is.

Still reeling in the aftermath of the tiger encounter, you plough on into the afternoon. ‘We go to the backwaters now,’ exclaims your naturalist. The air is warm as the draught from an oven but movement through it gives it the semblance of coolness. You wonder how when every other type of friction produces heat, the motion of air against the skin serves to dissipate it.

As you thus regard the seeming paradoxes of silent tigers and vexing thermodynamics, the faint beginnings of a rhythmic, drawn out sound meet your ear. You look up and around to pinpoint the corner in which a blacksmith seems to be sharpening a knife by grating it against a stone wheel, for such is the hard and high-pitched metallic drone.

The next moment you find yourself in the midst of the jolly din, as though a whole gang of these invisible knife-sharpeners were in concert! Then a new dimension emerges to this performance: a distinctly electronic chirring that at first sounds like the static of a radio being tuned. Then it seamlessly morphs into a track that adds harmonics to the background buzz in an undulating staccato of a raked pitch, like a DJ working a disc in slowmo. Suddenly, more ‘voices’ join this symphony, making a chorus of a deafening volume, louder than the Silk Board junction at primetime.

You wonder what extraordinary creature is cooking up this clamour: an army of frogs retrofitted with amplifiers? A colony of stressed palm squirrels squealing an inspired performance belying their default firmware? Or in fact a large assembly of rattlesnakes (of which none exists in Kabini) wagging their tails in concurrence?

But you realise it’s not an amplified amphibian, a mammal under duress or a defensive reptile, when your naturalist declares: “Cicada!”

Now, besides being surprised by the way it is pronounced, you are stunned to learn that a wee insect can produce a noise of such sustained loudness, but the very foundations of your faith in earthly perceptions is shaken when your naturalist tells you that the ‘song’ is not coming from the cicada’s throat, but either the tymbal – a drum-like sound-box in the abdomen rapidly vibrated by muscular actuation – or, in a process called stridulation, simply the rubbing of its wings against ridges in its thorax!

Sure you’re familiar with rumbles of the stomach (a common consequence of deferred breakfast on safari), but it staggers you that an insect can make its belly speak louder than the throat. And as for the latter technique of stridulation, you can barely conceive that wings could be commissioned to let sound fly at the rate of decibels!

It occurs to you that the only other wing noise you’ve heard is that of pigeons as they take off from the loft of your high-rise apartment or the low awning of a streetside cafe, and this couldn’t be more different from that. Just as a series of fuel-air mixture explosions in a car’s cylinder spawns the illusion of a continuous sound, cicadas make a series of clicks at a terrific rate to create a seemingly unbroken song. But the choir is so well camouflaged, you can’t see any of its members, turning the forest into a theatre whose speakers are hidden behind the walls.

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Photo title: Greater racket-tailed drongo


Photo Credits: Santosh Saligram

You are plunged into the woods of pallor, which such heavy revelations oblige you to traverse, when deception of a different kind, altogether deliberate, welcomes you into a deeper neck. Stopping near a cluster of trees a little further, your naturalist turns around with a mysterious smile and asks you to guess the source of the dominant call issuing with some fervour from a branch near you. By now, thanks to the all-inclusive aural parade over which you’ve presided, you are well familiar with this call, and taking it to be one of those learning outcome assessments you have encountered at the end of each chapter in your online courses, you say, ‘Why, I know this. It’s a crested serpent eagle, of course!’

It’s when this prompt quip meets with not a proud avuncular gush from your naturalist (of which you were confidently expectant) but one that loosely translates to ‘I got you!’ that you realise you’ve been tricked again. Your naturalist points to a low branch, where a rather princely looking bird with an apparent affinity for squash is strutting his extravagant racket-shaped coat-tails, wearing a plume in his hat, taking you for a royal ride. ‘Greater racket-tailed drongo,’ she declares, ‘impersonating an eagle.’

‘Oh boy,’ you think to yourself. ‘Identifying a bird by its call is hard enough; identifying a bird trying to be identified as another…!’

You learn that this drongo is a versatile thespian, a Rich Little with iridescent robes, known to mimic at least thirty birds, and even some mammals and frogs. You are of course familiar with parrots mimicking humans, maybe even the superb lyrebird in faraway Australia displaying a stunning array of impressions, but the entrenchment of such a stellar mimic in your midst astounds you. ‘To what end may we attribute this talent?’ you pray, but nobody can say for sure.

It’s thought that they use it chiefly to summon and liaise with mixed flocks, on whom they rely to forage with. Perhaps they also use their vocal facility to disabuse avian predators of their complacency as they play cop to keep their neighbourhood free of manslaughter.

Whatever their object, we’d be ill-advised to deceive ourselves that it’s only mimicry (imitation of style) and not language (reproduction of code). For it’s perfectly possible that the racket-tailed drongo is not a mere parodist but a polyglot, speaking fluent woodpeckerish, tailorbirdish, babblerish, bluebirdese, mynan, fulvettan, crowish, treepiean and more with native fluency, all in a single paragraph.

Presently, this becomes an increasingly real possibility as you hear the bird switching ‘languages’ in quick succession, like an impassioned orator trying to impress their critical message on an eclectic audience, or a stand-up comic throwing jokes on a wall and hoping that one will find regional resonance.

And you realise that sound can be a tool of deception or connection – a choice that is dictated by whether you want to be someone you’re not, or in fact everyone you want to be.


Santosh Saligram

Santosh Saligram is a writer, editor, photographer, designer and content-and-communications strategist from Bengaluru, who is enamoured with ‘all things sentient' and the tragically futile effort of capturing their magic through creative media. Santosh describes himself as a 'pen-and-camera-wielding raconteur', for his style involves narrating a story in partnership with images, films and graphics to sing paeans of the mystery and joy that are inherent in Nature. He's been a photography mentor, leading tours to various wildernesses for nearly a decade, authored at least two known books partly or fully, and been awarded both nationally and internationally for his pictorial work.

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