“There are few more restful places, if one wishes to think, than the upper balconies of Lord’s pavilion,” Wodehouse wrote in a book full of the English notions of spring and cricket. I found an equally restful place under a tree some days ago. It is hard to believe that a year has gone by at the pace of war, long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of terror. But within those periods of boredom I found times like this, when I could just sit and soak in the season. In spring the bad air of winter clears out, and you get the luminous days which are perfect for lying under a tree looking up at the sky.
I woke before dawn and listened to the first birds. Almost a year ago I had posted about the bird calls I was beginning to recognize. I realized today that in spring I should begin to hear the song of the koel. I haven’t heard one yet. So let me make this my crowd sourced effort to spot the first call of the Asian koel (Eudynamys scolopaceus) in 2021. It would be great if you leave a comment with the place and date when you hear a koel for the first time this year. If you manage to get a good photo this spring, post it, and leave a link. If you are elsewhere in the world, it would be wonderful to hear about the bird that means spring to you., or other interpretations that you have for this season. Let me take the season, vasant ritu, to last until the full moon of April 26, although this is just an arbitrary convention.
With the physical distancing of people in full swing, it seems that we are all beginning to find new connections to the world around us. I get up in the morning and hear a wonderful natural concert put up by the birds around us. There are familiar calls, as well as new ones I’m learning to recognize. You make a lot of new friends when you give them some time. The sun comes over the nearby rooftops as I put away the drying and make a tea. The concert in raga Lalit gives way to the long Bhairavi of the morning as I sit down with my tea. This is the new soundtrack of my mornings.
Among the most distinctive voices in the earliest raga are Coppersmith Barbets (Psilopogon haemacephalus, recorded by Tushar Bhagwat). They hang around the garden all the year round. Their monotonous call is a constant background to every morning’s concert. Even in ordinary times I hear them more often than I see them.
A pair of Indian Grey Hornbills (Ocyceros birostris, recorded by Tushar Bhagwat) visit the garden every year to nest, and bring up a new brood. Their arrival is a sure sign of the end of winter. I took the photo here a couple of years ago, in October, some time before they left the garden.
The call of the Asian Koel (Eudynamys scolopaceus, recorded by Paul Bourdin) is another sure sign of spring. The call of the koel has been part of the cultural landscape across India for centuries. There is even a 15th century poem by Uddanda Shastri about a koel who carries a message from a lost man to his lover, modelled after Kalidasa’s Meghdoot.
In the past I paid more attention to the spectacular colours of the Indian Golden Oriole (Oriolus kundoo, recordings by Frank Lambert and Peter Boesman) than to its call. Now, as I try to tease apart the content of the mornings’ symphony, I am beginning to recognize it by its voice. How does the same bird have such a harsh call, and a beautiful singing voice?
The Green Bee-eater (Merops orientalis recorded by Conrad Pinto) is such a beautiful bird that I’ve spent a lot of time photographing them, and I know its call fairly well too. But disentangling its voice from the morning’s background score is still a little difficult for me.
The lively chirping of House Sparrows (Passer domesticus, recorded by Peter Boesman) starts later in the morning. I wonder whether they wake up late, or whether they are too busy foraging in the morning to vocalize much. Does anyone know? In any case, the sparrows’ chirps are a transitional point. After that the Lalit raga, the raga of dawn, dies down and there is a transition to the Bhairavi raga of the day.
This is the time of the Rose-ringed Parakeet (Psittacula krameri, recorded by Rajagopal Patil). These gaudily coloured and combative birds have free reign of the airspace around trees during the day, and fly about with their constant screeches. Portunately they are gregarious, and when they congregate on a far spot, other birds can still be heard in my neighbourhood.
I have a suspicion that there is a Purple Sunbird (Cinnyris asiaticus, recording by Peter Boesman) somewhere in the garden. In the middle of the morning I think I’ve heard the chirping of this bird. During normal days we wouldn’t be paying attention to birds at that time, so neither The Family nor I am sure whether we have seen one. After we can move freely, we will keep a watch for it.
The Red-vented Bulbul (Pycnonotus cafer, recording by Conrad Pinto) is a common bird, whose call I know from childhood. There are a few of them in the neighbourhood. I hear them intermittently during the day, and late in the afternoon, when I go for a walk, I pass a tree which seems to be a favourite hang out for a bunch of these loudmouths.
Perhaps the most annoying bird is the common myna (Acridotheres tristis, recorded by Peter Boesman). Their call is sweet enough, if heard from far. But one of them has decided that my shower is its day room. It sits on the window sill and lets off a full throated taan. This would also be wonderful, but due to some peculiarity, the space around the window acts as an amplifier which sends an incredibly loud version of the song through the aparment. I would give him a wonderful reference if he is seeking a position elsewhere; I really want to get rid of him.
There is little to be said for the Blue Rock Pigeon (Columba livia, recorded by Mike Nelson) except that it brings a certain gravitas to the daytime ragas. The cooing is often interrupted by the noisy beating of wings that you hear in the recording, as it takes flight from the slightest perceived danger.
No description of the sounds of an Indian city can be complete without including the House Crow (Corvus splendens, recorded by Peter Boesman), whose social behaviour, aggression, and intelligence are keys to their survival against much larger raptors. The typical raucous call that you hear in this recording is by far the most common vocalization of the crow. It has many others, including a throaty croak that sounds a little like it is trying to say nevermore while clearing its throat.
I suppose if I’m stuck at home for much longer I can produce a blog post with the birds that I hear less often. For now a dozen is enough.
On a sunny winter morning by lake Lakhota in the middle of Jamnagar, I tore myself away from the many ducks swimming in the lake to look at where The Family was pointing. A female Asian koel (Eudynamys scolopaceus) was hopping about the branches of a young banyan tree. This is always something of a sight; the bird, especially the female, is hard to spot. The male’s storied plaintive mating call is a staple of the late spring, redolent of ripe mangoes and burning hot days. Sometimes I’m woken up on such hot mornings by a duet of two males each trying to outdo the other. I can’t imagine a better way of waking up.
I watched the female hopping about in the lower branches of the tree, not paying us much attention. The male is slaty black with the same red iris. Sexual dimorphism in birds always says that the involvement of the two parents in breeding and brooding is very different. The koel is a brood parasite, laying its eggs in the nests of a variety of species: crows, common myna, black drongos, and the Eurasian magpie. The male is seldom involved in distracting the nesting pair while the female lays eggs. The female occasionally feeds the young, but most of the feeding and rearing is left to the parasitized pair.
I look a shot of the fruits of the banyan tree (Ficus benghalensis). As a boy I’ve tried eating them. They are sweet, and did not cause me any obvious harm, but I’ve never seen them being sold in any market. Later, when I moved to a part of the country where figs are common, I realized that the odd interior is typical of fruits of the genus Ficus. I was sure that the bird was here to eat the fruits. They looked pretty ripe to me.
As I saw the bird eating the fruits, I began to wonder whether it is an entirely fruit eating bird (obligate fructivore) or whether it eats grubs and insects also. If it lays eggs in the nests of crows and drongos, then the chick is definitely fed a large variety of insects and scavenged meat. In agreement with this I found a rare report of courtship feeding in which a male koel was observed to offer a caterpillar to a female. Even a single koel is so hard to spot, seeing a courtship feeding is quite unusual. I wouldn’t mind being lucky enough to see this one day. Must keep my eyes peeled in spring.
A city as crowded as Mumbai has barely enough space for people. When houses are needed, swamps and mangroves are easily filled in. When parking space is in short supply, green spaces will be even harder to come by. It is natural that human institutions, when unchecked, will satisfy human needs above all. As a result, birds are pushed to the periphery of the city. These are the spaces that no one likes to go to.
Flamingos over the city
Eurasian wryneck (Jynx torquilla) in urban waste
An Eurasian marsh harrier (Circus aeruginosus) seen against high-tension power lines
Waders and water birds in the backwaters of Mumbai
Asian Koel (Eudynamys scolopaceus) in a wasteland
A long-tailed shrike (Lanius schach) against the apartments of Mumbai
An Indian pond heron (Ardeola grayii) in water with detergent
Flamingos in the backwaters of Mumbai
If you are not going out of the city on a weekend, you might join other enthusiasts for a boat ride in the backwaters of Mumbai. The city has turned its back to these waters long ago. They are shallow tidal creeks which are not of much use to ships and trade, and the hunger for apartment blocks has not grown so acute that they need to be filled in. The refuse of the city washes in here: plastic and other garbage, chemical pollutants. The sea breeze does not disperse the smog, so the backwaters are perpetually hazy. In spite of this, life finds a toe hold. I drifted through these parts of Mumbai yesterday with The Family and friends and came back with photos which show that birds still survive just outside human spaces.