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Uncle Ken Goes Bird-Watching


Ruskin Bond


'Where have all the birds gone?’ asked Uncle Ken, on a sunny December morning. At first I thought he was on the subject of a local beauty contest, and I answered: ‘To Holly- wood, of course, to see Gregory Peck.’   Not being a movie-goer, Uncle Ken missed out on the fun, but he corrected himself and said, ‘No, I mean the sparrows. Where have all the sparrows gone?’   This had me baffled, I knew nothing about the sparrows going anywhere, but then, I had never paid much attention to their comings and goings. One is inclined to take sparrows for granted.   ‘Why do you ask?’ I asked. ‘Because I have heard they are disappearing. How can we have a world without sparrows?’ ‘You are thinking of the mountain quail,’ I said, ‘sparrows are not going extinct’. ‘Well, I have not seen any for a long time. And they used to be all over the place. On the verandah steps, at the kitchen window, in the back yard . . . once, they even made a nest in one of my old hats.’   Uncle Ken had a collection of hats—felt hats, bowler hats, straw hats, floppy hats, pith helmets—and they would lie about in different places and occasionally be forgotten. Three baby mice were discovered in an old bowler hat. A squirrel stored nuts in an old sun helmet. And a small bat made its home in a felt hat that had been hanging too long on the verandah wall.   Uncle Ken seldom went out without a hat of sorts. He did not have much hair on his head and he was afraid of getting sunstroke. On this particular morning he was wearing a peaked hunting-cap, rather like the one used by Sherlock Holmes. It seemed to go with his new-found interest in birds.   ‘Sparrows’, he repeated. ‘What would life be like without sparrows?’ I gave it some thought and said, ‘Not very different, I suppose. There would still be other birds.’ ‘Ah, but would there? If the sparrows go, will the rest be far behind?’ Uncle Ken had a point. ‘I would hate to see all the chickens fly away’, I said. ‘Why so?’ ‘Because I like chicken curry.’ ‘You are just a hedonist, Rusty. Have you no soul? Imagine a world without beautiful peacocks, swans, nightingales, parakeets, geese, ducks…’ ‘Granny makes a good duck curry’, I interjected. ‘Kingfishers, cranes, seagulls’, ...


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