It’s a common notion that the ‘wild’ just grows itself. That’s why we refer to it as the wild. Farming – the practice of controlled growth of vegetation – is a human invention. From a point in history where we foraged and gathered produce from forests, relying largely on luck to gather enough food for sustenance, to modern day where we produce enough to feed a giant collective, our efforts to control the availability of our food has been at a super human scale. The forest in comparison is a shining example of life that thrives beyond a structure of control. No one decides what needs to grow, no one plans a forest and nothing is fenced in or out.

Yet, the forest feeds far more mouths than we can imagine, catering to thousands of species at the same time, unlike farms that produce food for a handful of species at best, but primarily for humans alone. Which leads us to the question, does the forest grow as wild as we think? Isn’t the forest a perennial product of a joint effort? Flowers pollinated, seeds scattered far and wide, rains pouring right on cue, ‘weeds’ pruned by leaf eaters to make space for aspiring trees, aren’t they all a result of a diverse collaboration of forest denizens?

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Malabar Pied Hornbill – Photograph: Vikram Nanjappa

 

Take, for instance, Malabar Pied Hornbills that have earned the epithet Farmers of the Forest. Slightly smaller than the Great Hornbill, these striking birds feed in flocks, gathering in trees swallowing fruits whole and dispersing the seeds to great distances as they cackle through the forest through the day. No creature would take on the job of sowing dangerously toxic trees like the Poison Nut tree (Strychnos nux-vomica) but the Malabar Pied Hornbills do it with flair. When the tree bears pulpy fruits, these birds relish them with enthusiasm, swallowing the toxic fruits with the poisonous seeds, potent enough to kill a human. As they say, one creature’s lunch is another’s poison. When the seeds are ejected out of the bird, passing through its digestive tract, not only is the bird unharmed, but the seeds are ready to take root.

Fruits of the Poison Nut tree – Photography: Vikram Nanjappa

 

Fruits of the Ficus trees form the staple of their diet. The best bet to catch these birds at harvest time is to watch out for Ficus trees, where they hop from branch to branch gorging on the produce. Kabini is one of the few forests in India to observe these birds in their full glory. Unlike the Indian Grey and the Malabar Grey Hornbills, these birds put on a great show in flocks, gregariously frolicking after a scrumptious feast. My favourite memory of them is watching them fly overhead, at sunset, along the riverbed, landing on the top branches of bamboo clusters, their silhouettes dancing as the branches swayed under their weight.

Watching the sunset is a soul-satisfying experience. Watching hornbills celebrate the sunset is a soul-enriching sight. When they roll in the dust, take wings and joust with each other mid-air, hang from the tips of branches as the sun goes down, you are vaguely reminded of farmers’ families in a village returning home from the fields, sitting down to swap stories, singing ancient songs, teasing and laughing at each other as their weary muscles loosen up at the end of a good work day.