Live Sounds: The Beatboxing Birds Of The Western Ghats

What do you get when you put a bird ecologist, a music producer/beatboxer, and a wildlife filmmaker in the same room? One hell of a conservation awareness plan.

Through the Sky Island Beatbox project, musician Ben Mirin, photographer Prasenjeet Yadav and bird expert VV Robin of the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS), put a contemporary spin on common and not-so-common birdsong. Ben created a mash-up of bird calls, while Prasenjeet wove accompanying videos from his gorgeous pictures.

The birds in question here are special – they roost in mythical-sounding “sky islands”, the term for the isolated pieces of land perched atop the hills of the Western Ghats and separated by large valleys. The Ghats are a biodiversity hotspot and home to many flora and fauna not found anywhere else on the planet. The Sky Island Beatbox team spent a lot of their time in the shola forests that fill the valleys, and the shola grasslands that cover the hills. These areas are threatened by deforestation.

The Sky Island Beatbox team: (L-R) Ben Mirrin, V. V Robin and Prasenjeet Yadav.
The Sky Island Beatbox team: (L-R) Ben Mirrin, V. V Robin and Prasenjeet Yadav.

“These birds are restricted to the mountaintops,” Yadav said. “They came here before humans, about seven million years ago, and adapted to their landscape.” That adaptation included their one-of-a-kind birdsong. When birds are isolated, Yadav explained, their songs can change due to slight alterations – just like human DNA can change with one tiny mutation. “Suppose in a group of birds, one bird changes its call by one or two notes, gradually that will be picked up by all the birds in that group,” he said, adding that the new tune would not transmit to the birds living across the valley. These birds can spend their whole lives living in a tiny patch of forest, intensifying an isolation that is already brought about by their habitat and location. This cocooned existence can lead to the local extinction of the species.

The isolation of sky islands allows for unique flora and fauna to populate the areas.
The isolation of sky islands allows for unique flora and fauna to populate the areas.

Mirin, Robin and Yadav have been working on their project for the last three months, and recently held a series of workshops across cities to introduce people to the sounds of the sky islands. “We honestly didn’t know whether our work would be accepted,” Yadav said, “But we’re still getting emails from people telling us that they are now realising how special these birds are.”

Robin said that the reception to their workshops has been nothing short of overwhelming. In Cochin, girls hooted and cheered Mirin through his live performance; in Trivandrum, forest officials didn’t know how to deal with the crowds thronging the auditorium; and in Ooty, students and teachers all shook a leg to Mirin’s beats.

The Sky Island Beatbox project shared a teaser recording of the sounds of the Travancore scimitar babbler. Listen below:

Published on National Geographic Traveller India – October 2015

Cover Photo: The Travancore scimitar babbler is found in the dense jungles of the Western Ghats.

Photos: Prasenjeet Yadav.