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Thursday, June 04, 2020

Down in Jungleland: Flying Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Have you been made a cuckoo of recently? The common hawk-cuckoo impersonates a shikra found in lightly wooded countryside, gardens and groves. The pied cuckoo, aka the Jacobin cuckoo, is a maverick.

Written by Ranjit Lal | Updated: July 8, 2018 12:01:01 am
cuckoo, cuckoo bird, cuckoo how much do you know, cuckoo forest, cuckoo habitat, cuckoo stories, cuckoo food, indian express, indian express news On the watch: The koel/cuckoo waiting to lay her eggs in vacant nests.

This badass tribe of birds give a damn about traditional family values and all the moral lessons our leaders spout ad nauseam and sanctimoniously on social media. Pairs have a rollicking good time chasing each other, singing lustily (and, bawdily), getting up to all kinds of hanky-panky. When the fruits of their dalliances arrive, they jettison their responsibilities into the homes of the gullibles, which, believe it or not, includes crows. The little inheritors of these dastardly genes are no less: They hatch and get rid of their “siblings” so that they can be raised as the spoilt, only child, hogging the limelight and all the juicy worms. They will mimic their foster parents until the time comes to leave home, when, sometimes, their voices change causes their parents great consternation.

Just yesterday, there was a slim slinky koel calling coyly from the bougainvillea outside my drawing room. He was possibly looking for a lady. He’ll find one, no doubt, and then the two will get on with their con game. The slinky, black satin gentleman will flutter around a crow’s nest driving the crows nuts, impelling them to chase him. (I still haven’t made up my mind if Mrs Crow chases him for his dulcet notes — as happens in Bollywood films — which are so much more mellifluous than her husband’s harsh croaking or whether she knows he’s up to no good.) In the meanwhile, Mrs Koel cryptically clad as a Special Forces commando will slip into the vacant nest, and the rest, as they say, is history. She’ll give the “mission accomplished” all-clear call sign to her husband and off they will go. At times, Mrs Koel hangs around the crow residence to ensure that her baby is being well-looked after.

Then, there is the common hawk-cuckoo that impersonates a shikra (my favourite small hawk). Found everywhere, in lightly wooded countryside, gardens and groves, these birds are rarely seen especially if you go looking out for them. It will announce its presence with persistent calls, rising in pitch till you want to strangle it into silence. For there you are tramping about light-headedly in the blazing May heat (its favourite time of the year to shout), peering up into the trees and bushes in vain. From somewhere deep within, comes the mocking call: “brain-fever! Brain-fever!” This one lays its eggs in the nest of babblers. The teenage louts harass their parents into becoming almost bipolar. They are huge and will fly after their parents demanding still more McCaterpillars. Now they resemble the shikra and cause the parents and all the aunties (babblers live in “sisterhoods”) to panic and give the “ware hawk” warning. For some reason, the common-hawk cuckoo, aka the “brain-fever bird” appears to get rather depressed in winter and keeps very quiet — and if you can winkle one out now — will let you come pretty close, staring at you out of somewhat wild-looking orange-ringed eyes.

The pied cuckoo, aka the Jacobin cuckoo, is a maverick, even by cuckoo standards! It is one handsome dude (and dudette, they are alike) in black and white, with a long, graduated tail and a crest like an upmarket bulbul. These summer migrants, that breed in India, fly over from Africa and Saudi Arabia in the pre-monsoon winds. If you hear them at the end of May or beginning June, it means the rains are on their way. And they are punctual. I would hear their wanton “piu-piu-pee-pee-piu!” calls ringing out in Delhi’s Nicholson Cemetery and on the Ridge. Four-five of these birds would race and chase each other through the trees, courting and driving competitors away. There’s a rakish, swashbuckling attitude they have which is quite infectious (but, they’re cuckoos, remember, and you hopefully are not). They all have their dalliances and let the jungle babblers get on with all the child-raising nonsense that follows. This year, alas, I didn’t hear them at all — at the cemetery or on the Ridge.

Last but not the least, the plain old Indian cuckoo. I met one in Dehradun, many years ago, perched on a telephone wire: he had an upright posture, was greyish, with a paler breast and a longish tail. These fellows are known to call the most in the hours before dawn till around 9 am and then again at and after sundown. I’m astonished they have not been banned from entering states like Gujarat and Bihar. I mean, imagine you are the chief minister of Bihar, and, early one morning, just outside your bedroom window, you are awoken by this bird blasphemously demanding, “One-more-bottle! One-more-bottle!” And lest you got up frothing and foaming with righteous rage, they sweetly would make that sound: ‘What’s your problem? What’s your-problem?’ Cuckoos will be cuckoos.

Ranjit Lal is an author, environmentalist and bird watcher.

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