Samira Agnihotri’s Master’s degree in wildlife biology and conservation from the WCS-NCBS programme gave her the chance to step into the realm of birdsong, and her M.Sc. resulted in a bilingual CD with recordings of more than a hundred species of birds. These recordings were made in Karnataka’s BRT Tiger Reserve, where she spent seven years pursuing Greater Racket-tailed Drongos for her PhD from the Centre for Ecological Sciences, IISc, Bengaluru.

On an early morning walk in the BR Hills forest, a Soliga tribal, who would accompany Samira to the forest every day, suggested that she do her PhD on the Racket-tailed Drongo. He jokingly observed that this bird had done its PhD on all birds, and that she must do her PhD on it. That turned out to be quite the prophecy, as she ended up doing exactly that. Racket-tailed Drongos are renowned mimics, and regularly imitate the calls of other species of birds with great accuracy; by doing this, they communicate with other drongos and also interact with other bird species. Samira’s study attempted to understand the functions of this vocal mimicry. 

Samira is currently a post-doctoral fellow at the National Institute of Advanced Studies, and continues to explore vocal communication amongst drongos and other birds. She is also interested in conservation education, and in exploring different ways to popularise the ecological sciences as well as encourage and aid the preservation of traditional knowledge systems, especially those of the Soliga people of BR Hills.

1. What drew you to a life in the ecological sciences?

I was an outdoorsy child ever since I can remember. When I was three, a family friend would come over every day to observe an Ashy Prinia nest in our garden, for a B.Sc. project, and I would sit with him; I like to think that this was the beginning of it all. But also, my father took my brother and me on trips to national parks or sanctuaries every vacation, and he also gave me Salim Ali’s ‘Book of Indian Birds’. And I was hooked! After I finished my B.Sc. Zoology, and was wondering what to do next, my father saw an ad in The Hindu about a new M.Sc. course in Wildlife Biology and Conservation; I applied and got through.

2. Your PhD is about vocalisations of the Greater Racket-tailed Drongo. That’s a very unique subject. Why did you choose to study this? 

I did my M.Sc. project on bird vocalisations from the WCS-India programme at the National Centre for Biological Sciences, and by then I was quite sure I wanted to study birds and their song for my PhD as well. There has been very little research in India on birds, let alone their song. The Greater Racket-tailed Drongo, being renowned for its loud calls and vocal mimicry, seemed like an ideal subject for asking interesting questions about bird behaviour and the evolution of birdsong.

Greater Racket-tailed Drongos

3. What are the applications of this research and data? 

Not too many direct applications. But I’m a bit old school, and believe that all good research is based on great natural history observations. So it is the first study focusing entirely on this species in India; probably elsewhere as well, as far as I know. A large part of my PhD was spent in collecting baseline data about the species – about their habitat ecology and breeding biology, for instance. Trying to understand how this mimicry is used, and speculating on why it might have evolved, gives us clues about the cognitive abilities of birds in general. Studies on vocal mimicry in other species have provided insights into migratory routes, loss of biodiversity, and on the effects of climate change on the breeding behaviour of mimetic species.

A Racket-tailed Drongo’s call, recorded by Samira.

4. Can we draw parallels between human and bird sounds and communication?

In recent times, there has been a lot of interest on this subject, and there is now even a book that has consolidated the latest research: ‘Birdsong, Speech and Language’. This is because both birdsong and human speech are now known to be comparable in several ways. Both are complex vocal behaviours that are learnt, and are used for communication. Birds and humans produce sound through somewhat similar mechanisms, and we also hear sound at similar frequency ranges as birds. Certain developmental and neural aspects in vocal learning, perception and production are also shared. So “bird brain” should be a compliment rather than an insult, if you ask me!

 A Banded Bay Cuckoo’s call, recorded by Samira.

A flameback’s (woodpecker) call, recorded by Samira.

5. What does your typical day at work / in the field look like?  

A typical day in the field begins very early, as I have to be out in the forest by 6 or 6:30 am. I drive to areas where I know I am likely to find Racket-tailed Drongos, and then start looking for them. Once I find an individual drongo, I try and follow it for as long as I can. I am always equipped with a pair of binoculars and a microphone and recorder. I record any calls it makes, as well as speak into the mike to record observations about its behaviour. I use a Sennheiser microphone and a Marantz recorder – these are standard for birdsong research. I am always accompanied by a field assistant who keeps an eye and an ear out for elephants, Sloth Bears and other animals that one would prefer to avoid! We are usually back by lunch time, after which I transfer my recordings to my laptop, and use the RAVEN software to look at the data and note down anything of interest for that day. Washing clothes takes up quite some time too, every day! I have been lucky to have worked from the ATREE field station in BR Hills, where they have a permanent cook, and we get to eat hot meals three times a day.

Early morning sunshine at BRT Tiger Reserve.

Scouting for a Racket-tailed Drongo.

6. Very few would dare to do what you do – roaming on foot in elephant country. What gives you the courage? 

If you’re careful and have learnt to read the tracks and signs left by animals, and have a good ear and eye, you can avoid being in a sticky situation with elephants most of the time. And also, like I mentioned, I am always accompanied by a field assistant, a Soliga tribesman who knows the forest like the back of his hand; I would never venture out alone. And frankly, Bangalore’s traffic scares me much more than elephants! Statistically, the chances of something untoward happening are much higher in urban areas than in any forest.

Setting off early in the morning, with a Soliga field assistant.

Encountering elephants in the forest.

7. From all the years you have spent in the field, are there any special memories or anecdotes you could share? 

This is very difficult to answer, as there are too many! Every day brings something new and interesting: the different occasions on which we saw tigers (once even with cubs); or the time I almost stepped on a very, very large python; or the time when two Sambar walked towards us (we were very still and silent); or the time when we crossed paths with a pack of Wild Dogs with pups. But also, every single time I see the Racket-tailed Drongos mimicking, it still gives me such a thrill! Eating breakfast off Butea leaves next to a forest stream, chewing on waxy combs to get that last drop of wild honey…actually, there are too many memories to put in here.

Sambar walking towards Samira and her guide, as the sun rises.

8. You have a bilingual CD (English and Kannada) of recordings of over 100 birds to your credit. How did that come about?

My M.Sc. project looked at differences in the acoustic properties of the songs and calls of birds singing in open scrub forests and dense deciduous forests. This involved making recordings of several species across the BR Hills, and my PhD supervisor, Dr. Rohini Balakrishnan, encouraged me to put the recordings together to make the CD. We thought it could be used as a tool for conservation education and awareness; since we wanted to reach out school kids in rural areas as well, it has information in both Kannada and English. Of course, now with websites like eBird, xeno-canto and the advent of smart-phones, CDs are a bit outdated. The recordings from the CD are also available on the India Biodiversity Portal.

9. You have voiced your belief in traditional knowledge systems. Can you shed some light on how the modern-day society can incorporate this wisdom in their lives? 

Traditional knowledge systems were at best ignored, or at worst, extinguished, by western science (which is also what we are taught in our schools and colleges). They are of tremendous value to “modern society” because they contain so much information about our natural world and its non-human inhabitants. Our grandparents also had their own versions, but our increasing disconnect with natural spaces has led to us having lost touch with those as well. For instance, my grandmother would predict rains based on the sudden appearances of ant colonies carrying their eggs. Now we spray so much pesticide and insecticide, and think of ants as vermin to be exterminated, so we hardly see such ant movements in cities.

Most of these knowledge systems are a part of the folklore or oral history traditions of indigenous peoples or local communities. Did you know that the world’s biodiversity hotspots are also the world’s language diversity hotspots? One hears so much about the former, and barely anything about the latter, in current discourse about conservation. In fact, the Soliga (Solega, to be linguistically accurate) language is also endangered, and contains such a comprehensive body of information, a veritable treasure! Dr. Aung Si pioneered the documentation and preservation of their language and traditional ecological knowledge, and we continue to collaborate towards this goal. Globally, however, there are movements to document and incorporate such knowledge systems into formal education as well as in policy making, especially in understanding and attempting to mitigate the effects of climate change, and in developing ways to make communities resilient to erratic weather patterns.

With Dr. Aung Si (in orange), documenting Soliga traditional knowledge.

10. You have spent almost a decade living in BRT, closely interacting with members of the Soliga community. Has this affected your perception of ecology and conservation? 

Absolutely! I no longer subscribe to a top-down, protectionist approach to conservation, where the accepted dogma is that people and wildlife should always exist in separate geographical spaces. The Soliga have lived in the BR Hills since centuries, if not more, and they have the right to demand a stake in the future of these forests. Their views on the ecology of the forest and conservation are rarely given any importance. They were subsistence hunter-gatherers and, traditionally, they never hunted tigers or elephants. It was first the British, and then the trophy hunting (shikaar) system that they left behind, that had decimated our wildlife, not our indigenous communities.

Moreover, all the research that has come out of BR Hills would not have been possible without the invaluable assistance of the Soliga people, and at the very least, we need to acknowledge that.

A view of the Biligirirangana betta, with the Biligiriranganatha Swamy Temple, after which the sanctuary has been named.

Samira with Soliga children.

11. How have you been pursuing your interest in conservation education? 

I have given several talks about my work and about BR Hills in schools and colleges, and at NGOs. Some of the most interesting insights into my work have come from non-academicians, during such interactions. I also participated in a couple of workshops for promoting nature education and awareness. Since I study birdsong, I often use activities focused around bioacoustics to introduce concepts of nature awareness and conservation. For the past three years, I have been associated with Punarchith, an NGO working with rural youth in the foothills of BR Hills. With other members of their organisation, I conduct modules on local ecology, or ‘kaadu-naadu’ in Kannada.

Playing the web of life game with Punarchith learners.

Interacting with students from the Parikrama School.

12. Any advice to those following your footsteps?

A life in ecological research is not for everyone, so please walk this way only if you are very confident that this is what you want. It is best to take a year off after college (after B.Sc. /M.Sc.) to get some hands-on experience in the field, before you decide; there are lots of internship and volunteering opportunities these days. Try to learn the local language if you are based in one place for a while. Read as much as you can: not just scientific papers from your own field, but about ecology in general. Read about other fields of research and other places. And remove those headphones, put away your smart-phones, and listen to the real world instead.