With the onset of spring, the hearts of birds (like those of other creatures) turn to love. And what better way to woo fair — or dowdy — lady, than to sing your heart out to her? Sadly, a little less than half of all species have the talent and are known as, you guessed it, songbirds. It’s not only love they sing for; more belligerently, they also are songs of warning, to serve a notice to other gentlemen birds to keep their distance, and definitely to not make eyes at the lady being serenaded. Yes, and it’s only the gentlemen that sing, the ladies listen and criticise, making or breaking hearts, as always.
So who are the maestros, and who are the balladeers and who are the frenetic rock stars loaded up on crack cocaine? Of course, I have my favourites… but. For city folks, certainly, the most formal classicalist has to be the magpie-robin. This gentleman turns out in a shiny tuxedo first thing in the morning and will get up on to the highest available perch and produce a flute sonata that Mozart might have envied. And different maestros perform different compositions.
In fact, a single bird too may produce a repertoire of songs simply to pretend he’s more than one so that he frightens off rivals and is able to control an area much larger than he otherwise could — or probably needs. The bluff usually works and girls fall for it too, for who doesn’t like a tycoon who owns, perhaps, three blocks of apartments, a swimming pool and a large garden? Of course, all this classical formality falls apart, if a rival decides to challenge — and a high-speed, high-decibel chase usually ensues, dignity be damned and coat-tails flying every which way.
I have attended many a magpie-robin recital, but my all-time favourite performance, till now, has to be that of the brahminy mynah I saw performing at the Delhi zoo many years ago. Dishevelled, head thrown back, crest erect, he sang his heart out, rolling his eyes madly, hopelessly besotted — and hopefully not with the rosy pelicans flapping about nearby. Now I know where all the Hindi film heroes of yore took their serenading inspiration from.
For eliciting sheer awe, however — with not so much emotional baggage attached — the small skylark is hard to beat. Wander out onto a field in spring or summer and you’ll hear musical notes tinkling down from the sky. High up in the blue, you might spot a little brown speck fluttering around in circles. The performance will continue for maybe 10 minutes, as the little bird up there continues with its remarkable performance. It’s like running up 25 flights of stairs and singing (in tune) at the same time. Suddenly, it’ll fall silent (just as you’re thinking it must vanish in a puff of feathers) and dive down and then within minutes, take off again for an encore.
True romance, however, dwells in the mountains during the monsoons. As the rain thunders down on slate or tin roofs, the world is ghost grey, the privacy cosy. Then the rain roar hushes and soon there’s silence, save for the plink-plonk of water dripping off leaves. And suddenly, the clear notes of a blue whistling thrush, or the plaintive whistle of the streaked laughing thrush comes through, sounding like they were the only birds left in the world, and homing straight for your heart.
As for the pretenders — well my favourites here have to be the little warblers — the plain prinia, the tailorbird and the ashy prinia, for example, what I call the “Bose speaker” birds. They probably weigh 5 grams, and produce 105 decibels of shouting and sloganeering, all saying, “See how loud I am, love me, love me, love me!” Another little fellow with irrepressible joie-de-vivre is the purple sunbird, who blurs about like a giddy pop star, clad in purple sequins and scarlet and yellow armpits, which he loves to show off. Not much musical talent here, just an enormous optimism that all is well with the world — even as he encourages his love to build their jhuggi-jhopri nest and does nothing practical to help!
But help, many of these balladeers and songsters will soon have to. For once hearts have been won, the inevitable follows. And suddenly there’s no time to sing. There are instead six open-mouthed bottomless pits in the nest, squalling their heads off, “more, more, more!”
It’s maggots they want, not Mozart.
Ranjit Lal is an author, environmentalist and bird watcher. In this column, he reflects on the eccentricities and absurdities of nature.