Country diary: a shrieking cry summons me back to the Himalayas

A voice out of India beckoned from somewhere close to the foot of the wooded hills, a good half a mile away. That sustained, summoning shriek sounded like the shout-out of a child who has discovered that they are in a place with an echo. And, having felt the power of its reverberating, far-reaching properties, they try to repeat it over and over. In their excitement, each high-pitched yell becomes a slight variation on the original “eee-ow”.

The first time I heard this sound this early in the morning, I was approaching on the back of an elephant. A tiger safari at dawn in the forested foothills of the Himalayas taught me that peacocks roost overnight in trees, for they cried loud and long above the elephant’s ears.

There were no tigers on the track to Biggleswade, but these semi-tame birds had retained the habits of their wild ancestors. An early start might catch them napping, for they tend to hold their sleepovers close to the path on the lower slopes of the RSPB reserve. If I came too late, I would find them strutting and posing on the turf below.

Reaching the base of the hill, I faced a phalanx of young sycamores, an unbroken shield of leaves. However, the next cry appeared to issue from further along, among a group of well-spaced oaks. My eyebrows rose and fell as I scanned each tree in turn, squinting into the rising sun, the silhouettes of branches. In the crown of the third oak, a short descending bough resembled the raggedy brush of a tired broom. What little breeze there was ruffled and raised the limp filaments.

The top of the broom revealed itself, a silly knob with a beak. Cock of the tree, a pea-head. I saw its throat pulse, “eee-ow”.

The peacock flexed its shoulders once, twice, before springing up to the next rung, swivelling as it leapt. Its tail fanned, but only a little, like a cautious card player showing his hand.

A clatter from the track announced a man with an outdoors face riding his bike. I stepped well back to let him through: “Waa-ag, eee-ow!” As he passed, he grinned a nod of acknowledgment. “Noisy buggers, aren’t they?”


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