Boom tarat tarat!
Of the many Facebook posts I scrolled through recently, one that sticks out is a photo of three migratory birds spotted somewhere on the University of the Philippines Diliman campus. From childhood I remember seeing these white birds from the NLEx viaduct that passes over Candaba Swamp, a wide expanse that has Amorsolo-style rice fields in the dry season but looks like the sea during the wet season. They don’t call this area the Central Luzon plain for nothing because the only thing that juts out of the earth for miles is an extinct volcano known as Mt. Arayat, whose last eruption was in prehistoric times, meaning before written or recorded history. Arayat is a serene sight that might surprise us one day with some fireworks. An egg enters the Bulacan side of the viaduct as an itlog and exits the Pampanga side as an ebun. “Itlog” is “egg” in Tagalog, “ibon” is “bird,” but “ebun” is “egg” in Kapampangan.
That migratory birds are spotted in some places in Cavite and in Diliman suggests that their traditional wintertime destinations have been changing; noise, urbanization, hunters, and lack of food and drink have driven them to seek shelter elsewhere. These birds remind me of the chapter on Filosofo Tasio in “Noli Me Tangere,” where Rizal describes him as an old man writing in code so that the ignorant would not destroy his manuscripts. Tasio wrote in Tagalog but not in the Roman alphabet; rather, he devised a system of writing by replacing letters with drawings of birds, fish and flowers resembling Egyptian hieroglyphics. All this scribbling kept Tasio busy when his visitors from China and Japan left. Ibarra asked about these guests and Tasio pointed to the swallows:
“Don’t you hear them? My guests are the swallows. This year one of them is missing—some bad boy in China or Japan must have caught it.”
“How do you know that they come from those countries?”
“Easily enough! Several years ago before they left, I tied to the foot of each one a slip of paper with the name ‘Philippines’ in English on it, supposing that they must not travel very far and because English is understood nearly everywhere. For years my slips brought no reply, so that at last I had these written in Chinese, and here in the following November they have returned with other notes which I have had deciphered. One is written in Chinese and is a greeting from the banks of the Hoang-Ho and the other, as the Chinaman whom I consulted supposes, must be in Japanese.”
Tasio, a fictional character in a late-19th-century Philippine novel, was already practicing bird banding a century before Filipino scientists placed bands on hundreds of birds, listing the type of bird as well as the date and the place where they were released in logbooks. The flight pattern charted from the data shows that birds start arriving from the north toward the end of August to October, and make their way home from February to April. Based on their feathers, the incoming birds are young, which is quite remarkable because they traveled thousands of miles from China, Japan, Siberia, Mongolia, or as far off as Alaska without the guidance of adult birds. Their destination is not influenced by tourism ads like “It’s more fun in the Philippines,” so they have the choice of other warm parts in Southeast Asia and even Australia. In the Philippines, they vacation in Candaba Swamp in Pampanga, Olango island in Cebu, and Agusan Marsh and Liguasan Marsh in Mindanao. Some lose their way; others explore, like those spotted in Diliman.
While we presume that the birds escape the winter in their countries by flying to the tropics, there may be other reasons for the annual migration, like instinct triggered by the drop in temperature or the change in daylight hours. Maybe they want to practice flying, or are in search of different food. It is fairly obvious that the white egrets from China and Japan that land in Candaba are not edible, or else the Kapampangan would have used them for one of their delicious seasonal dishes. These birds are very much left alone and return to their country of origin intact. Some birds that end up on tables in Pampanga are snipes caught in the rice fields where they rest and feed. I don’t quite remember what snipe looks and tastes like, but one of my uncles used to hunt the birds that were then cooked into “adobong dumara.”
Let’s go back to Filosofo Tasio’s feathered visitors from China and Japan that are rendered in English as “swallows” because the original Spanish identified them as “golondrinas.” Ah, memories of college Spanish where we memorized, aside from Rizal’s “Ultimo Adios,” a poem by Becquer that begins: “Volveran las oscuras golondrinas (The dark swallows will return).” I’m not an expert bird-watcher, but could Tasio’s swallow be the brown shrike that is often confused with the Philippine maya? Brown shrikes breed in Siberia, Korea and China, and traditionally arrive in the Philippines in mid-September when the cogon starts to bloom. Brown shrikes are better known in the Philippines as “tarat.” They are famous for the noise they make, resulting in the phrase we use to describe talkative people or naggers: “Taratitat na parang tarat!” And Tasio asked Ibarra to hear the sound of his visitors from China and Japan, the tarat that probably inspired the hit song “Boom tarat tarat.”
(Today’s column is dedicated to Randy David, sage and bird-watcher.)
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