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Saturday, June 06, 2020

The many joys that songbirds bring

Birders and nature-lovers will wake up at unearthly hours to listen to the famous morning “chorus” of birds.

Written by Ranjit Lal | New Delhi | Published: March 13, 2020 5:42:05 pm
One of the main purposes of birdsong is to let the world know that the songster is alive and well and is laying claim to a territory. (Photo: Ranjit Lal)

Songbirds around the world are renowned for their famous morning “chorus”, something for which birders and nature-lovers will awake at unearthly hours. Performances are given in parks, woodland areas, gardens, jungles and in fields — any location where birds live. Technically birdsong has two purposes: one, to let the world know that the songster is alive and well and is laying claim to a territory, and secondly that he (as is usually the case) is singing his heart out to impress a girl.

But, of late, especially on these glorious sunny days post-winter, I’ve noticed something more. I usually sit out in my balcony after lunch, in the sun, reading. The balcony overlooks the wooded Nicholson Cemetery and, right in front of me, I have a crooked bottlebrush growing. On blowsy afternoons, the roar of traffic from the adjoining Kashmere Gate is quite considerable. You’d imagine that birds would at this time, remain quiet, with only perhaps the soft, drowsy crooning of a collared dove giving you a blissful slumberous feeling. Not a bit of it!

A platoon of jungle babblers enters the tiny garden below, muttering harshly under their breath and searching the undergrowth for contraband. Suddenly, they all erupt in a cacophony of angry shrieks, so loud that the traffic roar is completely drowned out and you can’t hear yourself think. Not to be outdone, the Indian mynas join in — a flurrying fracas breaks out — harsh notes intermingled with dulcet ones and you spot a tangle of brown-and-white feathers tumbling into the cemetery beyond as wrestling bouts begin. Suddenly, they’re back on the cemetery wall again, talking mellifluously before the civilised debate disintegrates into unmannerly screeching if they disagree. In the background, the ever-present rose-ringed parakeets keep up their raucous, brassy squawking. Hidden in the trees, they’re virtually invisible.

Bulbuls join in, whistling cheerfully. The pugnacious red-vented bulbuls can’t seem to stand the sight of their more graceful red-whiskered cousins and harry them off their perches. This is the month (along with September) for the green bee-eaters and you can hear them trilling like bells, high in the sky. You crane your neck and catch sight of them: green, with sharp triangular wings, as they skate in circles, snapping up dragonflies, calling blithely to one another. They’ll land on a branch, bash the insect to pulp, swallow it and take-off again.

You’re well-tuned in now, picking up notes and cadences everywhere among the general hubbub. A high-pitched, excited squealing announces the arrival of a pair of grey hornbills. They alight clumsily on the tamarind tree, just beyond the wall and then make off for the big neem, where you know they’ve nested before. Sometimes, they perch high up on exposed branches, calling to each other: they look like (rather shabby) romantics, fluttering their eyelashes at one another. A sudden, urgent “kee-kee” announces the presence of a shikra, that small hunting hawk that keeps so many other birds on their toes and whose electric presence excites you.

Will it suddenly dive out of cover, twist and turn as it speeds after a myna or parakeet, eyes blazing, causing the jazz concert to go into red-alert? For a beat, the jazz concert pauses before starting up again, but now the notes are urgent — “Watch it, there’s a predator on the loose!” A pair of rufous tree pies infuses the same degree of panic. Though there are no nests around just yet, the birds are well aware that these are ruthless baby-bird hunters. Cats, too, are heckled and mobbed, mainly by babblers and mynas, but occasionally by bulbuls, too. A sunbird pair arrives, squeaking excitedly, checking the status of the bottlebrush (in bud), and now you hear the soft trilling of the white-eyes as they go from branch to branch, picking off insects. A tailorbird shouts excitedly, “towit-towit-towit”, so loudly sometimes he makes you wince!

Then, from somewhere in the cemetery, a ringing, mocking laugh rings out. With its bullion back and bottlebrush crest, the black-rumped flame back (nee golden-backed woodpecker) is always a delight to behold, though surprisingly difficult to spot. From high up in the canopy, the oafish brown-faced barbet has been at it all afternoon, “kutroo-kutroo-kutroo”, welcoming summer. Mercifully, the brain-fever bird hasn’t, as yet, joined the band with its infuriating, incessant calls; nor have the koels, with their hysterical babbling. Occasionally, the peacocks mewl hysterically and you grin as you murmur, “Have you listened to yourself? Be not too proud!”

Then, to cap the afternoon’s recital, the magpie robin contributes a few long, melodious, whistling notes, but briefly. (His primetime is early morning). Though he’s a classicist, he doesn’t sound out of tune alongside the discordant jazz band.

Finally, the performers’ pause: it’s quiet, and, if there is no wind, even the traffic roar drops. A drowsy crooning “kuroo-kuroo-kuroo” wafts down, and, suddenly, your eyelids are heavy, and your head and chin drop.

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