By Dr. Suhas Kumar
He was a barn owl. A cute innocent barn owl. He slept all day in a hollow of the old banyan tree that stood like a huge jellyfish with a hundred tentacles dangling to the ground at the car park near 10 number stop, but as the sun settled in the west, Barny woke up – fully alert and ready – for his round. He knew the bandicoot rats- his favourite repast- will be out from their underground burrows soon and the insects would begin hovering around the lamppost. This was meal time and Barny would never miss it.
Barny has been discreet, he never devoured more than his tummy’s demand and he was careful to avoid the crows in the evening. But he didn’t know the ways of man. He helped the bipeds by eating rats and mice and though, the bipeds never bothered him even when he used to sleep in a recess of a decrepit building under a rotten roof, he was always wary of humans. Barny was a good owl, except for a few screeches and hoots to call his mate he never disturbed them.
But the ways of man are strange, for his own benefit he has erected electricity lines- open live wire – carrying 440 volts capable of killing an elephant instantly. Barny usually avoided these deadly wires, but last night he was lured by a swarm of insect circling under the powerful lamp of the streetlight. He had seen crows, babblers, mynas and bulbuls perched on these wires several times but as his mom always taught him to avoid the electric wires, he was hesitant. Hunger soon eclipsed his thoughts and from his perch on the tree he glided down to the lamppost and landed on the top most wire – nothing happened – he was unharmed. And then his ears picked up a rustle in the bushes below – food, he thought – and losing his guard spread his wings…
The night guard at the workshop around the corner, who had just dozed off, suddenly woke up to the hiss and sizzle and saw bright blue sparks flying off in all directions from the lamppost. It all ended in seconds and Barny became ‘was’ in an instant. His talons that clasped the topmost wire and his one wing that touched another wire had completed the circuit of his life. His owl days were over and he was recalled by the Almighty to rest in Arcadia- no more rats and mice for him.
Barny’s painful demise was discovered by several feathered bipeds early next morning. The place was abuzz, about 50 house crows, 8 jungle babblers, 3 mynas were present to pay tribute to the departed soul. The crows and the babblers were truly concerned, their constant wailing and crowing was really touching. Crows were restless, while some perched and wailed many others circled over Barny’s dead body and crowed non-stop. I waited to see what would be their next move. The show went on and on. I had to complete my morning walk so I decided to come back later with my camera.
I returned to Barny, 3 hours later. The crows and the other colleagues have already left. Barny’s body hung by its talons from the electric wire in the manner I had seen it in the morning -unharmed. I took some photographs and drove back home. Now, I had some photographs of a dead Barny and a few questions with me. Why the birds were restless and noisy – was it sympathy, or happiness and excitement after discovering a dead body (food). If the later was true why then the body remained untouched even after three hours?
Though the emotional man inside me went after the first thought the rational man rejected it completely. The crows and babblers were looking for food in Barny but their instinct warned them to stay away. Otherwise, I would have had to photograph a few electrocuted crows and babblers, too.
A sequel to the story
Not many days later, during one of my foot forays, I discovered – I was wrong. I was wrong about inferring the circumstances in which Barny got electrocuted. That morning, not very far from the electric pole on which Barny met his end, I witnessed a similar scene – several crows and mynas were creating a ruckus, some were flying and other were perched on electric wire but all seemed excited. And then I located the cause of their consternation – a myna was frantically struggling to extricate one of its toes trapped in a loop of electric wire. I have seen these wires on most of the electric lines, these are the wires that run perpendicular to the line and are placed at long intervals tied to the lower pair of two parallel wires to keep them apart. The knots of these wires are loose leaving holes which acts like a trap for the birds that accidentally perch on that particular point. So this myna was trapped in one of these loops and was struggling frantically to wriggle its toe out, this continued for about a minute and then in one flash it was free and flying again, The cacophony of birds waned and all was quite once again.
Now, coming back to Barny, I began reconstructing the scene of its struggle and got a clear picture of how the poor Barny was shocked to death. Here is what happened- As Barny flew from his perch on the tree and landed on the electric wire one of Barny’s toes got entangled in the loop and while he struggled desperately to extricate himself one of its wing touched the other wire completing the circuit and killing it instantly. Myna was lucky for its small size saved its life – while it struggled to get out of the trap its wings never came in contact with other live wires.