I must have seen them hundreds of times, yet every time I encounter them, I try and sneak up close and take a picture. Little green bee-eaters are like that: there’s an elfin attractiveness about these birds, right from their musical trilling calls to their pixie looks (they are slim, around 21 cm long) — green birds with snazzy black masks across the eye, a shimmer of copper on the tops of their heads, and sky-blue on their cheeks and throats. Their slim beaks are slightly curved and a pair of “pin” feathers stick out from the middle of their tails.
Happily, these charismatic little birds are common across India. They hang around in parties of 10 to 20 (or more), and if you hear a faint xylophone-like tinkling tumbling down from the heavens, they’ll be there, fluttering in the sky in short bursts and then gliding on outstretched pinions. They are local migrants, and, here, in Delhi, at least, they always seem to make a special appearance in March and September (though they can be seen at other times, too). When out in the countryside, make sure to check out electric wires and pylons where they like to perch one beside another like notes of music.
Bee-eaters take down flying insects. Bees and wasps are favourites, but dragonflies, termites, beetles, flies, some butterflies and moths, will do, too. None of these insects fly in a very predictable manner — a dragonfly can change course in half a blink, and fly sideways and backwards as well. From its perch, which may be 100 m away, the bird homes in on its target. It takes off swiftly, anticipates where the victim will be by the time it reaches it and snaps it up in that tweezer-like bill. We talk about good hand-eye coordination, this is beak-eye-wing coordination taken to another level, computed and processed with laser-sharp accuracy in micro-seconds by a brain probably the size of a peanut! A bee or wasp, or any insect armed with a nasty venomous sting, is brought back to a branch and bashed up against it. Not out of any vindictiveness — but simply to squeeze out the venom from its glands and extract the stinger. It’s said that bee-eaters sensibly close their eyes during this pulping operation.
They are said to be especially fond of honey bees, and, therefore, not very popular with apiarists, who accuse them of making serious dents in the population of worker bees. But there is a counter-view that suggests that they don’t do as much damage as they are accused of.
Bee-eaters excavate tunnels for nests in sandy cliff-faces, on the sides of bundhs, the steep banks of rivers and even on slightly sloping bare ground. They have to be done with nesting by the monsoon to prevent their homes from being flooded (As it is, rats, other rodents and snakes take a toll on their eggs). Usually, five eggs are laid at the end of the unfurnished tunnel (which, according to one estimate can take 20 days to excavate and shorten the birds’ beaks in the process!) and incubation lasts around three weeks. Bee-eaters are colony nesters and while most are faithful to their partners for the season, there are a couple of firangi species (the red-throated and white-fronted) which get up to scandalous hanky-panky — while the dudes fiercely protect their chicks from other dudes, they also make out with neighbouring chicks. The chicks try and sneak their (illegitimate?) eggs in the nests of their neighbours. But, by and large, they love their own company and will gather in tightly-bunched rows on branches and wires, to roost. As ground nesters, they are prone to collecting a heap of parasites and so love sand and water-bathing. Sand-bathing is done communally, reminding you of a yoga class in a city park! They’ll take quick dips in a pond or pool to clean off.
There are about 27 species of bee-eaters in the world, of which six are found in India. Africa and Asia are the strongholds of the species, though a few species are also to be found in southern Europe and Australia and Indonesia. The blue-cheeked and blue-tailed are rather similar in appearance: one has a sky-blue and white cheek, the other with a bright blue tail very visible in flight. Their voices are deeper contraltos and they have been called “stately” fliers by none other than Salim Ali! The blue-tailed is partly resident and partly a summer migrant who flies in from neighbouring countries to breed. The chestnut-headed is another snazzy looker, with a shiny russet head, upper back and bright-yellow chin.
So, if you hear what sounds like a collection of lovely musical boxes tinkling in the skies, look up. You’ll see them there, skating in blithe circles, having the time of their lives and uplifting yours.
This article appeared in print with the headline ‘Down in Jungleland: The Time of Their Lives’.