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Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Down in jungleland: Courting capers

If monsoon is nearly here, can romance be far behind?

Written by Ranjit Lal | Updated: June 5, 2016 1:00:07 am


It’s that time of the year again, when many species of birds fall headlong in love, and when the gents must assiduously court the ladies. Some species will have already done so in spring, while others (like the raptors) will wait till after the rains.

Some courting gentlemen are content to simply change into spiffing new togs, perhaps, with fancy head-gear, others will dress up and dance. Some just stick their chests out and strut around like mini-Mafia dons. Some build extravagant residences for their loved ones, others pour their hearts out in song, some bring gifts, and some impress the girls by indulging in hair-raising aerobatics. At any rate, it’s worth being a voyeur at this time, provided you remember that we usually behave in an equally if not more ludicrous manner when we are similarly smitten.

The khaki and brown-striped paddy-bird, or pond heron, changes into a classy deep maroon outfit, complete with a couple of swept-back “antennae” feathers on its head, while his cousins, the egrets, deck up in angelic white, sport lacy satin and delicate filamentous headgear. It’s not exactly macho, but it impresses the ladies no doubt — and also, (till recently) those of our species too. We snatched off their “aigrettes” to use in ladies’ hats, endangering the future of the birds — certainly not a chivalrous thing to do to a bird in love!

Those long-legged cranes, worldwide, are known for their exuberant song-and-dance performances. Our resident sarus, revered for its lifelong fidelity, picks up its skirts, leaps high in the air, throws back its head and trumpets its love — an exultation that carries for miles across the fields and always makes you want to do the same. Both partners take part in this lunatic duet, though the gentleman usually leads. Watch or listen in on a full moon night and you’ll be writing poetry before you know it.

Drakes of many species, alas, are not quite the most romantic of dudes while courting. A ducky couple (often with hopeful Romeos hanging around) will approach each other, rapidly nodding their heads at one another. And just as you think they’ve happily accepted each other’s proposal, what follows is usually nothing less than an attempt to outrage the modesty of the poor bride and drown it. The Romeos pile on in a frenzy of quacking and flapping and splashing — not an edifying sight at all.

The ubiquitous rock dove pirouettes and gurgles shamelessly at anything and everything, making an astounding fool of himself every time. In spite of that, he gets the ladies because the population of these birds has exploded exponentially. His (rather dumb) cousin, the collared dove, simply flies up steeply from a perch and glides down in a wide circle, calling gutturally as it descends.

A really wily son-of-a-gun is the baya-weaver. An exceptional architect, he will build and make ready for possession a fabulous hanging vase like nest out of grass. He’ll flutter his wings and broadcast from the rooftops its luxury features, and unlike many developers, will deliver on all these promises. A visiting lady who is impressed, is cosily settled down after the honeymoon. (If she’s snooty and disparaging, the poor gent may take apart his edifice and suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.) Then our successful gent begins work on another nest, for another lady friend, and goes on till his stamina lasts.

Sparrow gentlemen have to be careful about this kind of thing. It’s said that three or four gentlemen will present themselves before the lady and strut around, with puffed up chests, pulled-down wings and cocked tail, while she feints and darts towards one or the other and makes her choice. But all hell can break loose if two ladies choose the same gent. I’ve seen this happen and believe me, it can get ugly.

The gentleman grey hornbill with his soft eyes and romantic eyelashes will present his ladylove with berries and drupes as if they were the most precious jewels, holding them delicately at the tip of his enormous bill as he proffers them to her. Skylarks climb high into the sky and flutter around in blurry circles singing non-stop, impressing the ladies and showing off their stamina; it is the equivalent of running up 20 flights of stairs, while simultaneously singing (in tune). The raptors — the eagles, falcons, kites and hawks — put on astounding aerobatic displays. The peacock’s dance is always a show-stopper, what with its classical footwork and “zizzing” frenzy. The ladies, of course, prefer to show that they’re not impressed, “That voice!”

My favourite has to be the parakeets. The gentleman sidles up to his ladylove, first from one side, then the other, holding up one claw as if offering her a bouquet he forgot to bring (or ate), keeping his head well back (in case she smacks him) and then, before you can say “hey tota”, both of them torridly French kissing in a manner that must give the Ministry of Moral Policing terrible prickly heat and many sleepless nights.

Ranjit Lal is an author, environmentalist and birdwatcher

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