Years ago, a reviewer dissed my first book, The Crow Chronicles, and that’s like someone slapping your first baby across the face, so I threw a hissy fit. The book was full of bird characters; among them a lady tailorbird, which the reviewer had called a “tailoress bird”. I sharpened my knives. Tailorbirds, I explained smugly, male or female, were always tailorbirds. There was no such thing as a tailoress bird. Just as the waterhen was always a waterhen, whether male or female, simply because the watercock (which is what you might think a male waterhen would be called) was an entirely different species altogether. The only bird I could think of which was privileged in this department was the peafowl, where the male was the peacock and the female the peahen.
To which, we will now turn our attention. There’s a clan or two living in the Nicholson Cemetery in Delhi, which my bedroom overlooks, and yes, I have been spying on them. And this (the “moansoon”) is perhaps the best time: The gentlemen are at their most flamboyant and occasionally challenge each other to duels amidst the tombstones. Throats palpitating, they face each other and with trumpet-blast war cries fly at each other. Care is taken that no actual harm is done. They land, swivel around, their trains swirling like bejeweled cloaks and repeat the process. Eventually, one gives up and is chased ignominiously away. The victor assumes the podium — the top of an old covered-up well — and from this vantage point will dance all day. One incredible guy started at dawn and continued tirelessly till dusk. His shawl-coloured harem as usual feigned indifference, but wait a minute: they have their own hierarchy and the seniormost wife will chase away any upstart hussy who tries to get close to her lord. The upstart hussy in turn gets after the next lesser upstart hussy. The actual mating is quite graceful, with the male straddling the female, his train mantling her as she kneels down.
Peafowl in Delhi are pretty city-savvy and will nest on porches, terraces and verandahs. One peahen deposited an egg right outside the canteen of the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library (What was she thinking, omlette for breakfast?) Eventually, three or four chicks hatch and will trundle behind their mother as she trips into your garden as if showing them around a sweet shop with a carte-blanche. (“Help yourselves to whatever you want babies!”) She has a special call which keeps them close and yet another — laced with anxiety — when one goes adrift. Gents, when flying up or down from their roosts (to some high-up perch), sound like lorries hurtling downhill without brakes, hooting frantically, and they have yet another call when they’re dancing.
And boy, are they egotists: they can’t stand even their own reflections and will peck viciously at them, believing themselves to be so much more handsome. One angry gent pecked dents into the side of a Mercedes all morning, he was so incensed.
But then I guess they’re still regarded as the Taj Mahal among birds and when they unfurl that train with a sizzling, electric shudder as the rain comes down…
‘May-yew, may-yew, may-yew!’
What a voice!
Ranjit Lal is an author, environmentalist and bird watcher
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