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February '03

Birds of a different feather

- by Abha Prakash

Artura perched on Thomas' shoulder

Peacocks and a very special parrot.

Between approximately 5 and 6 a.m. peacocks and peahens of various hues and sizes descend with raucous cries from their favourite trees and terraces in Certitude, Sharnga, and Samasti. Having made safe landings, the birds then gather in troops of three or four, usually of the same gender, and delicately make their way to neighbouring Gratitude where Thomas's farm is situated. By 6:15 a.m. the spacious, sand-floored garden near Thomas's house is peacocked to capacity with scores of alert crows waiting in the sidelines. Almost 50-60 peacocks converge here for their morning and evening repast of corn kernels (peacocks also love fresh roses and cherry tomatoes, much to the chagrin of potted-plant owners in Auroville) that Thomas lovingly scatters in their direction. During this ritual, his old dogs - the black mongrel Bonnie and the tiny, sausage-shaped dachshund Cleo - get the chance to sniff out these long-tailed creatures that their master insists on feeding everyday. While not afraid of Thomas's dogs since they have never been attacked by them, the peacocks are still wary of village dogs and the civet cat that sometimes lurk in the dense Auroville undergrowth.

If one were to trace the lineage of the several hundred peacocks presently inhabiting the Auroville environs, one would be surprised to know that it all began with just two parent couples brought in the early 1980s from Trichy and from Kerala. The first generation of thirty peacocks born from these couples were necessarily bred in captivity, but when this flock reproduced in their third year, most of their offspring were able to survive in the wild. Auroville was still not wild enough in those days with its young, (but growing) forest cover, yet it was definitely better than the early days when there was hardly any foliage essential for the protection of these large, beautiful birds. Without adequate tree and bush cover, the birds were easy prey for predators, human and animal. Today, Thomas, the man responsible for introducing peacocks in Auroville and its surrounding bioregion, is relaxed about the safety of these birds. Talking to villagers over the years helped in establishing their respect for peacocks that used to be killed for their meat and feathers. Many villagers responded by bringing stray, abandoned, peacock eggs that were later able to hatch under his care.

Though Thomas loves the peacock, India's national bird whose characteristic cry, according to Sri Aurobindo, represents victory for the divine, he has not kept one for a pet. Perhaps the sweeping size could have been a problem. But he does have a special pet. a parrot named Arturo. The first time I met Arturo was when I heard him talking to himself in what sounded like guttural Tamil. He was pacing his perch in a large cage close to the shed from where I picked up my half-litre of milk everyday. On asking the milking assistant what the bird was talking about, I was told that the bird liked to swear in street Tamil, having lived for many years in a house just above a rickshaw-puller stand in Pondicherry.

Arturo is thirty-three years old, presumably male (since he has never laid an egg), and loves peanuts, noodles, and tortillas. An Amazon Blue parrot, there is nothing blue about him. In fact he is a flattering mix of green and yellow. Originally from Guatemala, he was brought to Pondicherry and later to Auroville by Dietra, Thomas's friend, who recently returned to the States. In course of time his Spanish-Mayan dialect gave way to fluent rickshaw Tamil. Arturo is very sociable, his usual, (printable) cheery conversation openers being: "Start the motor" (water pump); "Want to come down?"; "Dirty rat"; and "Thief!"

Two weeks ago Arturo moved in with Thomas. No longer confined to his cage, the parrot has free range of the house and a captive audience for the most part of the day. The move, Thomas reflects, has favourably affected Arturo's powers of expression. To villagers and their children across the canyon, Arturo is known as the "Watchman" of Gratitude. And Thomas's farm as "Kili Tottam" (Parrot Garden).


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