The growl or snarl of a tiger, lion or leopard, or any angry carnivore, can have the same effect on you as running a mixie in your tummy — everything you’ve just eaten promptly liquidises and you have to run! Even when their roars are heard from a distance. It could be a lonely tiger wanting company or wolves raising their muzzles moonwards and howling.
And yet, there were dudes like Jim Corbett who went out into the jungles at night and made these self-same calls in order to draw the animals to them. Worse, in Corbett’s case, he was usually calling up or trying to seduce man-eaters! Imagine the rage of a man-eater drawn in by such calls, thinking some svelte young tigress was yearning for him just around the bend, only to find that it was this pale dude with a gun pointed at him. Fortunately for him, Corbett had nerves of steel and was a good shot — but it does seem to be a rather below-the-belt way to hunt — it’s entrapment. Hunters have, alas, used this for animals innocent of man-eating too. Forest-dwelling tribals do this and, in the old days, hunters prided themselves in their ability to make these “come hither” calls near-perfectly. The affliction has spread to wildlife tour operators who are under obligation to show their clients the promised big five or whatever. Of course, now technology has stepped in and you don’t even need to know how to howl like a wolf or roar like a tiger. You simply play back recordings and wait.
Birders and bird photographers have started doing this in order to tick off as many species as they can on their lists. They play recordings of bird calls and songs, and wait for the birds to turn up to check what the hell’s going on. Usually, a gentleman bird sings in order to attract a lady or claim territory. There he is, quietly minding his own business deep in the shade when this stranger begins a performance nearby — trying to seduce his dudette and take over his property. This he has to investigate before his dudette does. Of course, there is no “rival” — just an excited birder clicking away. If you are a purist (birder), you would agree that this “sighting” doesn’t really count. You haven’t spotted the bird in situ as it were, living its natural life, but deviously lured it out instead. Would you like it if you heard a dulcet voice (or deep baritone a la Barry White) begging you to join her or him (and leave your boring current), only to find some nincompoop with a camera clicking away at the fatuous expression on your face as you turned up wheezing and panting?
But then, two can play that game, for different reasons. One of the past masters at it is the black drongo aka kotwal (meaning policeman). He’s a mimic par excellence and uses his talents to good effect. In Africa, for example, he hangs around with meerkats. These community-living animals have to keep an eye out for eagles, which will dive down and make off with them or their young. So, while foraging, one meerkat is designated as watchman, while the others gather up scorpions, spiders and such delicious tidbits, which they bring to their hyper-excited young. The kotwal, who is also “keeping watch”, suddenly calls like an eagle: the meerkats (watchman included) drop everything and dive into their burrows, and the kotwal helps himself to the food left behind. Of course, the meerkats get wise and the next time this happens, they ignore the eagle call. So now the kotwal gives the meerkat’s own alarm call: “Beware, eagle!” This the meerkats cannot ignore. Score: Kotwal 2 Meerkats 0. But the meerkats see through this, too, and, eventually, the drongo is left with being a hustler, forcibly trying to drive the animals away. Or, it goes off to try the stunt elsewhere.
Lest you think our Indian drongos are not so smart — they go one better! Some years ago, on the Delhi Ridge, I heard the call of a shikra coming from quite close by — near the infamous Khooni Khan jheel. Now the shikra, a small fierce-looking hawk, is one of my favourite city birds and I was determined to check this guy out. I looked everywhere. All the other locals — babblers, mynas, and parakeets — were also getting agitated which indicated that yes, the raptor was indeed around. Then, I spotted this drongo (even though this was not its typical habitat) and thought nothing of it. But it opened its beak and called — the shrill hunting cry of the shikra! This guy was on to something and needed to take this just one step further: if he properly mixed up all the bird calls he knew — he could really send birders into meltdown!
Apart from successfully making the mickey out of me, I’m still figuring out why the drongo was imitating the shikra: to drive the other birds away from the feeding spots nearby? To attract an outraged resident shikra, and make it look like an idiot? With this sleek, devil-tailed scoundrel, anything’s possible!