In the process, we turned our gaze away from a flock of birds that have been flying above those nimbus clouds, every year without fail, for eons!
The Bar Headed Goose is a pale grey goose, easily distinguished from other species of geese by the characteristic black bars on its head that gives the species its name. They hardly look like super-athletes although they are one of the most amazing birds on earth. They come down to India all the way from Central Asia, 6000 km away. They are the only birds known to fly at an altitude of 35,000 feet. That’s the cruising altitude of a Rafale jet! On the way to India, these geese fly right over the Himalayas, and have been sighted flying over Mount Everest. Covering 1000 km per day, bar-headed geese spend their winters in North India and visit us down South, before flying back 6000 km to breed in Central Asia. Bar-headed Geese tagged with GPS transmitters had completed migration journeys of up to 8000 kilometers in approximately two months, which involved crossing the world’s tallest mountain ranges, the Himalayas, twice! Although the birds made frequent stops during their journey, they seemed to be crossing the Himalayas in one continuous stretch of approximately eight hours of flight. A similar physical exertion with no time for acclimatization would simply kill a human!
At those altitudes, the oxygen in the atmosphere is about a third of what is available at sea level, and temperatures are well below freezing. Most mammals would have trouble breathing, while these birds manage to fly for several hours nonstop. They have been reported to climb from sea level to 4,500 m in under eight hours, achieving speeds of up to 150 kmph.
How do they do it? We now know that bar-headed geese have several physiological adaptations, which enable them to survive these extreme conditions. Some of them include a very large heart with a high density of capillaries which deliver oxygen to the muscles, and haemoglobin that has a high affinity to oxygen. This enables them to meet the oxygen demands of the flight, which is ten to fifteen times more than the oxygen needed at rest. This enables them to function at high altitudes without the need to acclimatize. They also fly at night, when the air is colder and denser as it allows the geese to generate greater lift. Cooler air also helps to regulate body heat and contains more oxygen, enabling geese to fly even as the air thins at higher levels. Flying in such oxygen-limited conditions, the geese slow their metabolism and the temperature of their blood also comes down. As the temperature in the veins near their lungs drops, they can circulate more oxygen to the chest muscles to enable them to endure the arduous flight. Improving the understanding of how tissues in bar-headed geese are so adept at handling oxygen might elucidate human respiration as well, especially in these Covid times!
These birds are truly amazing. They are capable of achievements that we humans can only dream about. They crossed continents and explored the higher reaches of the sky even before us!
The bar headed goose has caught the attention and inspired artists and poets alike!
The earliest art in India does not depict swans, but rather birds that resemble the bar-headed goose. For example, the birds painted at the Ajanta Caves are much like the bar-headed geese rather than the swans. Among the many animals portrayed in the majestic Arjuna’s Penance or the Descent of Ganga at Mahabalipuram are a couple of geese by the side of Bhageeratha. Perhaps the most stunning depiction of the bar headed geese is in the door frame of the Da Parbatia Temple near Tezpur, built in the 6th century. On either side of the door frame are beautifully sculpted images of Ganga and Yamuna and there are a couple of geese depicted in rich detail besides them.
Dūtakāvya or sandeśakāvya, messenger-poetry, constitutes one of the finest literary genre in Indian literature, especially in poetry. These poems usually posit a pair of separated lovers, one of whom sends a messenger in the form of a cloud, the wind or a bird, with a message to beloved who is far away. Barheaded goose was quite popular in dūtakāvya was because it is said to fly the highest of all the birds making it an ideal choice of messenger since it was sure to reach any destination with no trouble at all. This also benefitted the poet since it offered scope for a detailed bird’s-eye-view description of the lands it soared over.
Perhaps the most beautiful description is in Kalidasa’s Meghaduta..
Regal birds longing for Manasa-lake,
Gathering tender lotus shoots for the way
Will be your companions in the sky
Even up to Mount Kailasa’s peak
Vedanta Deśika, born in 1268 at Tūppul near the great city of Kāncī, was not only an outstanding philosopher-theologian but also a talented poet. In the short Sanskrit kāvya, Hamsasandeśa or ‘The Mission of the Goose’, Vedanta Deśika draws inspiration from this long-established genre of Dutakavyato to describe Rama’s feelings for Sita, held captive by Ravana. Rāmā despatches a goose with this message for Sita.
Our bodies touch
in the southern wind.
Our eyes meet
in the moon.
We live together in a single home –
the world, and the earth
is the one bed we share.
The sky scattered with stars
is a canopy stretched above us.
Think of this, my lean beauty:
however far away
fate has taken you from me,
I still find my way
One of the most beautiful legends in the Buddhist tradition comes from the 12th chapter of the Abhiniùkramaõa Såtra and concerns the goose. Once, while walking through the palace garden Prince Siddhartha saw a goose fall from the sky with an arrow lodged in its wing. He nestled the bird in his lap, gently extracted the arrow and anointed the wound with oil and honey. Soon afterwards, Devadatta sent a message to the palace saying that he had shot the bird and demanding that it be returned to him. Siddhartha replied to the message saying: `If the goose was dead I would return it forthwith but as it is still alive you have no right to it.' Devadatta sent a second message arguing that it was his skill that had downed the goose and as such it belonged to him. Again Siddhartha refused to give his cousin the bird and asked that an assembly of wise men be called to settle the dispute. This was done and after discussing the matter for some time the most senior of the wise men gave his opinion, saying: `The living belongs to he who cherishes and preserves life, not to he who tries to destroy life.'
Flying through a swirling mixture of wind, temperature and precipitation is not an easy task. Much like aircrafts that have to negotiate adverse weather conditions with unforeseen consequences (like the recent crash at Kozhikode) the bar headed gees are also in mortal danger especially when they land on the shorelines. It is not the hunter’s arrow that proves a threat to them anymore but shrinking wetlands and indiscriminate use of pesticides in their natural habitats.
So, the next time you spot an unassuming grey and white goose with distinctive black bars on its head, just pause for a while, admire and reflect on their wondrous journey through years…
On borderless skies
Among dispersed clouds
Through mountainous slopes
Between rocky peaks
On still waters
In distant plains…
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