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When small is dangerous

Gnnn, gnnn. It could be the sound of a tiny one making a huge effort through clenched teeth or the metallic twang of small objects clashing at a distance. Only, it’s not. It’s the melancholy whine of a female mosquito, as she comes to get you in the April heat. And mosquitoes seem to get us absolutely effortlessly—reminding us that in Nature, it’s the small critters who can be the most dangerous. When walking in the Indian forest, there are many things to be mindful of. Usually, these aren’t what you’d expect. The bulkiest of Indian snakes—the Indian rock python—constricts its prey but is harmless to humans. To get one to bite you, you have to open its mouth and put your hand in (which I’m confident you will not try). King cobras are big and venomous, large enough to be eating other snakes, but are also known to completely avoid people. The Indian cobra is venomous too, but most people who have encountered cobras in the wild, yours truly included, know that the cobra will usually warn you before biting. The legendary hood of the Indian cobra deserves the iconography it enjoys. The snake will draw itself up, open its hood wide, and then face you: warning you fair and square, that you must back off.

A small, inconspicuous snake—no more than 30 inches long—is what you need to watch out for. This is the saw-scaled viper. Like all vipers, it is quick to bite without much warning. Like this viper, and like the omnipresent mosquito, I have much more trouble with smaller creatures than the large, obvious ones.

When walking in the forest, you will be warned of “junglee janwar” or large wild animals. But if you keep a safe distance, it is very unlikely that a junglee janwar—like a leopard, a tiger, an elephant or a wild buffalo—will harm you. What you can’t see, or can barely see, are the dangerous ones. Leeches will latch onto you and though they cause no harm, the sight of bloodied toes and limbs can cause a psychological frenzy. There are ticks in the forests you can’t even see, but they can be on you for months, causing rashes and suppurations; some ticks can give you deadly fevers. And of course, there is the malaria-chikungunya-dengue carrying humble mosquito.

When walking in the forest, you will be warned of “Junglee Janwar” or large wild animals. But it’s what you can’t see, or can barely see, that is really dangerous.

Why are so many tiny things so dangerous? I think it’s Nature’s ways of compensating for size. On the flip side, the smallest of creatures can also be enchanting. The purple sunbird has an iridescent peacock blue-turquoise green colour; it’s so minuscule it balances neatly on the slender stalks of a hibiscus flower. The oriental white-eye bird—only about eight cm long, less than the length of your palm—is a captivating velvety yellow-green colour. We marvel at these birds because they reach unreachable places and because of their deft abilities.

It’s clear that size does not always mean might. In Nature, small is definitely mighty. It can be dangerous; it can also be awe-inspiring. This is the time of the year when the skies in India are full of murmurations of rosy starlings. The rosy starling is slightly smaller than the common myna and much smaller than the common crow. Yet, this bird makes a migration that is anything but small—coming to India each year from Europe and Asia. Finding energy too, to make synchronised flight formations in the sky, and full of vigour and interaction when they descend on trees. Watching a flock of rosy starlings one April morning in Delhi, I thought, rosy is my new favourite colour, and size definitely has nothing to do with it.

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