Papa, can we have that?

I remember those days when I fell in love with bugs and insects. I do not know if it was because of my father, or whether I was destined to live my life discovering the amazing world of insects: ants, ladybugs, mantises, beetles, butterflies, dragonflies and many more.

They reveal their secrets

I would spend days looking for different kinds of insects. At first, it was difficult, but then I got the hang of it. I learned where to look for what, and most importantly, I learned to have patience.

I figured that Nature has interesting ways of revealing itself to you. At first glance, things look random: termites marching on the bark of a tree, a lone beetle looking lost in a pile of horse poop, the buzzing honeybees transfixed by flowers accompanied by butterflies. You watch and then look away, lost in your own thoughts. If you choose to observe these things closely, they reveal their secrets to you.

The systematic approach of termites is like an army with a mission-a colony built of soldiers and foragers, all with their own tasks to fulfill; beetles pushing the incredible weight of horse poop that’s significantly heavier than their own body weight; the honeybee skillfully navigating through surroundings of its hive, locating food sources (flowers), picking up directional clues and going back to tell its colleagues exactly where to go and find those same flowers. Ah, the joy of getting lost in that world.

The way I learned to make those observations is more interesting. My father is an ornithologist, and he loved to take his morning walks around our house with his old pair of binoculars. He started taking me along when I was six or seven.

To be honest, getting up early in the morning was annoying. I was not as big a fan of birds as he was-not to say that they were not interesting. I had as much interest in birds as any six- or seven-year-old would have in colourful flying objects. While I would gladly look at one if someone pointed it out to me, finding them in bushes and shrubs was a bit of a stretch. I always preferred ducks, because they moved less.

My father’s challenge

One day, when I was about 10, I asked my father to buy me a new bicycle. I had seen a new green bike in the store near our school. It had everything a kid would love: lights on its wheels, a flagpost in back, support wheels on both sides and built-in headlights.

My father sensed an opportunity and presented me with a challenge. He said if I would go out and come back with the names of 20 different species of animals, he would consider my request.

I knew where I had to go. I took the small handbook of birds from my father’s cabinet and dashed towards the lake nearby. I knew of many species from early morning walks, and quickly counted mallards, gadwalls, an Indian spotted duck, a teal, a cormorant, a moorhen, an egret, a grey heron and a pond heron.

I also saw a group of parrots, a house sparrow, a bulbul, a myna, a great tit, a babbler, a crow, a pigeon, a dove. I did not need my father’s field guide for these. However, I was still short of two.

I started flipping through the book’s pages and realized that the page of egrets had similar-looking birds. There was a great egret, a little egret, an intermediate egret and a cattle egret. It occurred to me that some of them looked very similar, but had little differences, like their size or colour.

I realized I was staring at three different kinds of egrets. I updated my list and added little, great and cattle egret. That day, I earned myself a green bike. Little did I know that I started a series of events that I could not stop. Every time I made a request, “Papa, can we have that _____ ?” a challenge was waiting for me.

No repetition

I soon realized I could not live off birds, because there are only so many in one area. I started looking for anything that was easy to pick out, so plants and mammals started appearing in my list. My father got more books to help me out. We had all sorts of collections of books now.

As I grew up to be 14, I realized that everything was becoming more difficult because I found it harder to differentiate. My father introduced a new rule of no repetition, as he had been collecting my notes from all my previous recordings in his computer. I started waiting for holidays to make new requests; my father, being a birder himself, took us to new areas and that meant new animals that made my job a bit easier.

One day, I asked for a computer and I got the biggest challenge of my life: 100 species. I had already recorded 200 birds, 150 plants, 40 reptiles and some 50 mammals in the last four years. By that time, I was finding a thrill in these tasks, and I needed that computer, so I took him up on this challenge.

Honestly, these challenges helped a bit in school, too. I went to the marshy area behind the school after the day was over. I looked at some lilies and moorhen. A pheasant-tailed jacana was jumping around on leaves floating above the water. A crow came and sat next to me.

I was lost in thought, and started throwing stones in the water. One of them landed in a puddle that dispersed a lot of flies. There! It occurred to me that I was staring at my best option to win that computer in the shortest possible time.

How did I miss insects, all these years? There were dragonflies in red, green and blue, and butterflies with lots of different patterns. I had seen enough animals to know that different patterns, colours and sizes, in most cases, meant different species.

A handbook of insects

I went home and asked Papa to come with me to the bookstore. He knew I was up to something, but he enjoyed surprises, so he came along without asking me any questions.

I went straight to the Nature section and picked up a handbook of insects. I casually walked towards him, whistling with an air of wisdom and superiority, like a displaying blue-footed booby. My father gave me a big smile and got me a pair of magnifying glasses. He knew binoculars were not going to be much help for me.

For two weeks, I went out looking for insects. My father had set up an open logbook, where I entered the names of insects that I found. I kept updating it, and by the end of two weeks, I reached a respectable tally of 95 species.

The next Saturday, I got up and left early, looking for some tiny bugs. I came back and the computer was already set up in my room. Later, my mother told me that my father had ordered the computer the very day I got the hand guide to insects.

After that challenge, I never stopped looking for them and they never stopped revealing their secrets to me.

My father’s legacy

It has been 20 years since I got my computer. I became an entomologist and now I am studying the effects of climate change on insects.

Today, I was walking with my father and my daughter. It is her birthday; she is 10 years old now. When we went to buy her an ice cream, we walked past a bike store and she looked at a red bicycle. Suddenly, she jumped up and asked me, “Papa, can we have that?” while pointing her finger at the bicycle.

I looked in the direction she was pointing, saw the bike and then looked at my father. He gave me a big smile. I stood there, just as I had stood outside the bicycle store when I was 10, staring at that green bike. I knew exactly what to tell her.

All drawings by Hemal Naik

I like to write stories about nature, animals, trees, birds and people. I am happy if people find a reason to connect with nature through my stories.

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