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Thursday, July 19, 2018

Down in the jungleland: The tail of a showstopper

The paradise flycatcher, found nearly all over India, has delighted birders whenever they see it.

Written by Ranjit Lal | Updated: May 15, 2016 1:01:01 am
Heaven sent: The paradise flycatcher Heaven sent: The paradise flycatcher

This fellow is a razzmatazz showstopper; a bird that will leave you gobsmacked the first (and nearly every) time you see it. The mature gentleman (over four years old) is silvery white, wings rimmed with black, with an inky blue-black head and gelled crest and neon blue rings around its eyes. It sports two 30-cm-long white satin tail feathers which it flaunts with all the skill of an Olympics rhythmics dancer. The Asian paradise flycatcher, fortunately found nearly all over India, has delighted birders whenever they see it. Younger males are russet brown instead of silvery white as are the ladies, who don’t sport the tail ribbons either.

With a tail like that, the bird can’t help be a show-off every time it flies, but if you want to take it down a peg or two, you can always snort and remark (as terse, cynical birders might), “Bah, nothing but an upmarket bulbul!”

The first time I think I saw the birds was when they were flaunting themselves over a brown waterhole in the Corbett National Park. Later, I had two fairly long trysts with them. The first was a 10-day dalliance in a tea garden in Palampur, which nearly drove me nuts. We’d barely reached, when I heard the birds whistle at me from the sloping garden outside; flying enticingly past the window.

All those 10 days, I traipsed up and down the garden through knee-deep wet grass, trying to photograph them. For such inveterate show-offs, they were extraordinarily camera-shy and coy — and typically the only birds willing to pose were immature males who lacked the glamour of their elders. They were nesting somewhere at the bottom of the garden, near a stream. After 10 days (and a few transparencies in the bag), I have to say the thrill sort of died away.

And then, years later, it revived at Naukuchiatal, where I spent four days standing alongside the resort’s garbage dump (feeling like I had a bit-part in Fraggle Rock) waiting for a couple of magnificent males to strut their stuff. Which, happily they did. (But photographing these flickering birds with slow film in dim cloud-light was another matter!) It seemed a bit weird, watching a bird called a paradise flycatcher sally over a simmering garbage heap, but the logic was irrefutable: garbage attracts flies, and that’s what this pristine white bird finds delicious. The two silver males here were extremely confident, one even dived down virtually to my feet to pick up a worm I had missed.

Just in case these fellows think they are the “rarest of the rare”, I have to say I’ve seen them several times, just five minutes away from home, on the Northern Ridge. But this was years and years ago. In March, you could spot the gents in full coat-tails dally over the serpentine pond. They’d disappear for a while, and then return around July, minus the tail (breeding was over and ladies no longer had to be impressed), and “chrring” irritably amidst the foliage.

I haven’t spotted or heard them for several years now, and they are yet another species that seems to have gone AWOL from the neighborhood. Perhaps, they got intimidated by the burgeoning population of monkeys, who, no doubt, would go berserk if confronted with those long, tempting tail-feathers dangling in front of them. They have been reported from various gardens and parks in and around Delhi and, hopefully, would be gracing large gardens and parklands in most parts of the country. They are resident in some areas, migratory in others.

Paradise flycatchers nest between March and August; their little conical nests stuck in a fork are firmly bound by cobweb, with the female doing most of the work. The male does help, even in incubating, but with his tail ribbons hanging out of the nest, he would be a dead giveaway to a predator.

So how did the bird come to look the way it does? Apparently, in its original state, he was a dull-brown bird with a black head, which one day landed up at the gates of Eden. Inside, he saw a host of beautiful white birds with long tails, and longed to be like them. He asked the guardian angel (the gatekeeper) how he could and the angel told him to go back to earth and do good deeds for three years, until he “was pure inside and out”. So that’s what our flycatcher did, and to his delight, slowly turned pure white — and grew a long and lovely tail. Back he landed at heaven’s gate and asked for permission to enter.

“Wait here. Let me check with the Boss,” the guardian angel told him and went off. The beautiful flycatcher began showing off to all the ordinary birds around, about how good and pure and beautiful he was. God heard him and frowned. He turned the bird’s head black and removed all but two of the tail feathers and said: “Let this be a lesson! Go back to earth and teach the world about the virtues of being humble” Alas, we are not told what terrible thing the Japanese paradise flycatcher did: this fellow is black from its crest to tail-tip. Or why God (who should know better really), like so many of us, also thinks that fair (and white) is lovely.

Ranjit Lal is an author, environmentalist and birdwatcher

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