If birds were to have Facebook pages of their own, where, like us, they would toot their own horn and change their profile pictures every hour on the hour, I can well imagine sparrows, babblers, crows, mynas, pigeons et al having the time of their lives. Sparrows would shrilly lament about their persecution in cities around the world, and their ouster from nesting sites over ceiling fans everywhere; babblers would shout about all the windows they’d hammered on and gardens they’ve searched and raided — and all the undeclared goodies (spiders, cockroaches, fair and lovely maggots and beetle larvae etc) they have recovered and eaten; mynahs would strut about shouting like intellectuals on the Big Fight, crows would boast about being the most superior species of all, and, of course, pigeons would shock everyone by posting clips of the XXX-rated stuff they get up to all the time in public places. One little bird that, I think, would, with a polite shudder, decline to join Facebook would be the Oriental white-eye. If you saw this little bird, you’d understand why straightaway.
It’s smaller than a sparrow, yellow-olive above and off-white below and wears a white monocle over each eye, which gives it a studious, goggle-eyed appearance. It’s a solemn, serious, quirky little bird, not given to larking around and frivolous pastimes; you can well imagine a pair reading The Origin of the Species aloud to their chicks at bedtime every night.
But, in their own quiet way, white-eyes seem to have done extremely well. I see and hear them nearly every day in the garden, on the bougainvillea outside the bedroom. Certainly, in numbers, they’ve outstripped sparrows and maybe even pigeons. Even up in the hills they’re pretty much ubiquitous. They seem to keep a low profile and are always on the move. You can make out that they’re around if you hear a soft background jingling call, or a slightly plaintive if musical “chee-chee-chee”, which, they utter as they move around in the trees. They like staying up in the foliage and rarely come down, except maybe for the odd bath or so. They flit around in groups — of up to maybe 50 strong, experts say, and split up in pairs for breeding, between February and September. And yes, they’re found all over the country, in parks, gardens, wooded areas, forests, hill stations, orchards and even in mangrove forests.
They’re restless little birds and it can be challenging to get a fix on them as they flit around, probing blooms for nectar (they’re important cross-pollinators) with their specially adapted beaks and tongues, or as they snap up small creepy-crawlies for their protein requirements. Often, they comically hang upside down on a twig or stem, solemnly cocking their heads this way and that as they examine, say, a bunch of madhumalti blooms with curious interest. And just as you’ve got a fix on one little bird, a whole lot of them (including this one) will suddenly take off in undulating flight, jingling happily as they vanish into the sky.
They build — experts say only the female does the hard work — delicate little cup-like nests made of lichen and cobweb and plant fibre, slung like little hammocks in the fork of branches and lay two or three pale blue eggs in it. The chicks fledge in 10 days flat and both parents look after the brood. While nesting, they mob off palm squirrels and have to be wary of predators such as bats and other nasty birds. Just this morning, I heard them calling frantically in the garden, kept company by the alarmed shouts of tailor-birds and the heckling of babblers. I thought a cat must be prowling around, but the catcalling went on and on. I stepped out into the garden, and sure enough, there was agitation in the foliage at the far end of the garden as the little birds flitted around frantically. A movement to my left caught my eye and I turned just in time to see a shikra flap off from a low branch on the golden bottlebrush not five feet away. It disappeared into the neighbouring garden and then must have flown off because the catcalling stopped suddenly like someone had pulled a switch.
It’s not too easy to photograph these little fellows; you need to be very quiet and unobtrusive and have a lot of patience. Some years ago, I stationed myself under the kumquat tree in the garden (since deceased, alas) where a small party of them were disporting themselves and availing themselves of the flowers’ nectar. The trouble was that they didn’t keep still, but were jumpy and restless like kids on a sugar high (which, they probably had too!) On another occasion, I caught a pair contemplating their life together on a branch, and sweetly preening each other and managed to reel off a few shots.
These small birds may not be glamour princes or princesses, like the sunbirds or some snazzy, jazzy flycatchers, but they seem to have earnest and charming personalities, and their solemn goggle-eyed expressions can never fail to winkle a smile out of you. Which these days, is more than enough.
Ranjit Lal is an author, environmentalist and birdwatcher.