It might have stiff competition from such classical artistes as the grey-winged blackbird (Salim Ali’s favourite), the shama and even the Himalayan whistling thrush, but in the metros, the magpie robin is matchless. First off, aficionados of Western classical music will appreciate the fact that this bird has got its dress code spot on, even for early morning performances in the park, when any audience it might have looks decidedly scruffy and disheveled in rumpled tracksuits and the just-got-out-of-bed look. But, the magpie robin is out there, immaculate in coat and tails, every feather glossy blue-black or satin-white and perfect. And, instead of stomping heavily along those damn jogging tracks, panting and puffing and pouring with sweat, surely it’s better to start the day by gathering around the stage the bird has selected for itself and to listen.
The magpie-robin is a maestro. About the size of a myna, the gentlemen are glossy blue-black and shiny white, the ladies slate-grey. They’re perky birds with cheeky long white-edged tails often cocked straight-up behind their backs, with wings slightly drooping. The black wings have a white streak or patch running through them. The eyes are bright, the posture confident and the song like a flute concerto for the gods. The clear, sweet, complex whistle is broken into phrases which are repeated over and over again, but yes, the maestro will tire of this repetition every now and then and introduce new notes and phrases, sometimes, plagiarising short stanzas from the songs of other birds, if not mimicking them outright. One magpie robin I recently encountered gave a pretty good imitation of the shrill “kee-kee” call of the shikra (a hawk that will eat it, if possible), making me wonder if it was doing so to warn off other shikras (by pretending to be one) or to scare away other rival robins.
For yes, be warned, the maestro is fiercely territorial and like any self-respecting highly-strung artiste, has a mercurial temper. During the breeding season (usually from February to August), the gentlemen will guard their territory zealously. They’ll pick a prominent perch — the top of a pole, or a tree, and will broadcast their claim with their long dulcet notes, warning other gentlemen to keep their distance and any soft-eyed lady that she is most welcome. A rival gent that does not heed the warning will be swiftly swooped on at an angle, the wings held open in a V, the feathers fluffed out aggressively and be roundly cursed. It invariably reminds one of distinguished orchestra conductors chasing each other helter-skelter around the stage, batons flailing, coattails and expletives flying! On the ground, two rivals will puff out their chests, bills skywards, flare open their tails and hop belligerently towards each other: I once watched a pair of Indian robins — their cousins — do this, exactly like doubles’ tennis-players bumping their chests after scoring points. Give the maestro a bad review and he will (usually in the evenings) emit a harsh “chrrrr-chrrr!” from deep within the undergrowth, furious that you’ve been so petty and churlish.
Another ustad I met in Goa had a remarkable con game up his sleeve, to enable him to take control of a territory far larger than, perhaps, he was really entitled to, and, which in this case, included three buildings, several flower beds and hedges teeming with high-protein insects and a swimming pool: luxuries no lady magpie-robin could possibly turn up her nose at. On the first morning, he began a concert at around 5 am from outside my bedroom window; on the second morning, he started off again around the same time and then seemed to shut up after 10 or 15 minutes, wherein a second magpie robin began singing a different song from a perch nearby. I thought the fellow has competition — we have a jugalbandhi now. On the third morning, there was yet another addition to the team. And yet, out there in the garden, there seemed to be only a single pair of happily married magpie-robins. Months later, I uncovered the scam. Apparently, some gentlemen songsters deliberately sing different songs from slightly different perches within the same territory pretending to be two or three different males — in order to ensure that no other hopeful males ventured near the area (for he’d have to fight three guys not one). The scammer could, thus, become a big dada zamindar and really impress the ladies.
As for home and hearth, magpie robins stuff holes — in trees, walls or other suitable locations — with grass, twigs and lives in a rather higgledy-piggledy way. The lady does the major share of housekeeping, the gentleman ensures security. Usually, four-five pale green, profusely-splotched eggs are laid and two broods brought up.
One such residence on Delhi’s Ridge had me puzzled. While I repeatedly saw the lady leave her residence (in which, presumably there were young children) I never saw her enter it! The explanation, of course, was that there were two doors: a front door and a backdoor. Returning home from her shopping trips, perhaps, the lady had seen me hanging around and decided to use the backdoor. Once she had fed and cleaned her brood and was set for another grocery run, she emerged from the front door — presumably having forgotten about the paparazzi watcher outside.
Talented, tempestuous and out there in gardens and parks all over the country, the magpie robins are performing these days, every morning. Instead of shouting, chanting and laughing, or thumping sweatily all over the place, just go out there, stand and stare. And, for once, listen…