Nightingale heaven

Updated: May 12, 2019, 08:21 IST | Meenakshi Shedde |

I've had a long relationship with birds, mostly crows. Sparrows are sweet but terrified; grateful for a few grains, and delightful when they bathe furrr in a bowl of water

Illustration/Uday Mohite
Illustration/Uday Mohite


I have many memories of the Berlin Film Festival that I can live off forever. Yet, one of the moments that made my heart sing happened in Berlin around this time, in summer (the festival is in February, when it's freezing). One day, my Berlinale colleague and friend Dorothee Wenner, said, "Come with me… it's a surprise," and took me to the thickly wooded banks of the Teltow Canal in Treptow, Berlin. It was twilight, and as we sat silently on a bench, a nightingale began to sing softly. Soon, we were treated to a nightingales' concert in full splendour. There were a number of them, boy nightingales singing to girl nightingales, imploring them for a date. Their songs were so sweet, persuasive, haunting and just heart-breaking. After I'd been listening for a while in the fading light, with my eyes closed, I found my cheeks wet with tears.

According to birdwallahs, nightingales have an extraordinary repertoire of about 300 love songs. Sometimes it can be exquisitely melodious; at other times, it's more a John Cage-y polyphony of chirps, trills, clicks and whistles — phee phee, trr trr trr-tweak, chew chew, or sounds like a car engine starting. With so many birds singing simultaneously — and invisibly — I wonder if a girl nightingale might discover she's with the wrong singer in the morning? Anyway, they have company: philosopher-musician David Rothenberg accompanies their concerts live on his clarinet, and has written a book, Nightingales in Berlin. Searching for the Perfect Sound.

I've had a long relationship with birds, mostly crows. Sparrows are sweet but terrified; grateful for a few grains, and delightful when they bathe furrr in a bowl of water. Pigeons are absolute pests, even though one, Poskaw, had adopted my dad years ago, and would nestle on his head or shoulders. For most of my school years, I had crow friends. I adore them, mostly because they are nutcases, and rather intelligent ones. There was one who raucously demanded early lunch from mum, every day, on the kitchen windowsill. I would climb the rusty, rickety metal ladder that led to the top of the water tank on the terrace in the evening, and chuck breadcrumbs at the crows. At one time, over a 100 crows would flock regularly, and I was able to recognise quite a few. One had a dash of white paint on his tail, another had a bit of a feathery moustache, a third would sit at my feet like a loyal pet.

I love it when crows koochie koo. The boy crow comes tittuping, two steps at a time, tu-tuk, tu-tuk, to a shy girl crow. She blushes and looks down coyly, small feathers rising on the back of her neck in embarrassment. The boy gently strokes her neck with his beak, as she secretly enjoys all the PDA.

At one point, a neighbour complained that whenever she dried clothes on her balcony, the hangers kept vanishing. Soon the culprits were found: a couple of newlywed crows had built a nest from a dozen clothes hangers, high in an Ashoka tree. The groom crow must have thought, twigs, bah, I'm
gonna make her a Nest 2.0. And so he did!

Meenakshi Shedde is South Asia Consultant to the Berlin Film Festival, award-winning critic, curator to festivals worldwide and journalist. Reach her at

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