It is perhaps the optimistic brown-headed barbets and coppersmiths who – even before winter has properly receded – signal that spring is just around the corner. The barbets’ kutroo-kutroo-kutroo calls occasionally accompanied by the coppersmith’s metallic hiccups remind you straightaway of blazing summer afternoons. Then suddenly, one morning you realize that the change has happened, that winter has been banished and that its ouster is being heralded by all the resident avian population. In parks and gardens and wilderness areas, the barbets and the coppersmiths are now joined by a host of other birds and it’s time to reacquaint ourselves with them and their songs and calls which lift our spirits even on grim Monday mornings.
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For the birds themselves, it means the beginning of yet another frantic season of wooing a partner, and finding a place to raise a family – and they get about it with apparent cheerful optimism. All birds (usually the gents) sing in order to inform their community that they’ve made it through the winter and are strong, healthy and damn handsome, are looking out for pretty young partners and are laying claim to the locality from where they are performing. Barbets, coppersmiths, hornbills, magpie-robins, et al. will find the highest perches in the canopy and broadcast this message to all and sundry.
Competition within and between species can be fierce—and sly tricks may be played. A magpie-robin I met in Goa pretended to be three different males in order to claim a territory much larger than what he could have otherwise occupied (and which included a swimming pool) by singing three different songs from the same area, thus discouraging others hopefuls scouting the area. As I type this, the brown-headed barbets are hammering away at one another, each trying to out-shout the other.
As several of our residents are cavity nesters, the competition for hollows in tree-trunks and boughs – and even holes in walls – can be cutthroat. I’ve watched a hard-working little coppersmith being rudely evicted from its hole by a brown-headed barbet, which in turn was turfed out by a black-rumped flameback (golden-backed woodpecker)—who, within a week had to depart hastily when a swarm of bees came looking for a site for a new hive.
There’s an exuberance about bird calls and songs that is infectious and that makes you feel optimistic and upbeat despite the current state of distress in the world. The calls of the gray hornbill (a big shabby bird, dressed in gray with an enormous curving beak but with eyelashes to kill for) sound like a rusty gate being opened and closed, and yet when you see a pair of flaps and dip in tandem, calling out to each other and then perching side-by-side, with the gentleman offering neem berries to his girl (like offering an emerald with a pair of giant tweezers), you can’t help but feel all will be well. Those two have a tough road ahead: the lady will barricade herself inside her hollow while incubating and her partner will assiduously feed her – and her babies – through a narrow slit until she sees fit to emerge and help him with their growing family.
At the smaller end of the scale, the ‘gentleman’ purple sunbird, resplendent in sequined purple and blue-black will blur dizzily around his mate, singing lustily and do nothing to help as she constructs her little hanging jhuggi-jhompri out of rubbish and spider-web where she will bring up her family. Another tiny loudspeaker is the tailor-bird – (towit-towit-towit) – maybe 5 or 10 gm in weight but all of 100+ decibels in volume.
Among the more dulcet-voiced are the bulbuls – especially the red-whiskered, that looks like a tall slim palace guardsman; last year one did duty as my morning alarm all summer and I’m waiting for him to report for duty this year too. As March will give way to April the flamboyant white-throated kingfisher will give tongue too with its shrill ‘kill-lill-lill’ call ringing over the trees and rooftops.
In our city parks and gardens, the magpie-robins are quite the maestros – though don’t be taken in by the tuxedo! When a lady (or property) is to be won, they can behave like proper hoodlums, chasing each other fiercely through the trees, screeching imprecations, no quarter given or asked for. If you give them a bad review they’ll skulk in the bushes and emit harsh threatening ‘churrs!’ at you. But when they get up on the top of the canopy and sing, you’ll listen raptly.
It’s well worth going out to a field at this time of the year to listen out for skylarks. The small skylark is a clod-coloured little fellow, streaked in biscuit-brown that will spring up from the earth itself, spiral into the sky and then fly in tight blurring circles, pouring his heart out in a lovely non-stop trilling melody for as many as ten minutes at a stretch. Just as you begin to think it is going to explode in a puff of feathers, it’ll fall silently and dive earthwards, only to rise again in a few minutes for an encore. A large field may have half a dozen or so of these blithe spirits performing at the same time. It really is a feat of some incredible stamina: try singing and running up several flights of stairs at the same time, without getting out of breath or dropping a note and you’ll know what I mean.
The burst of spring birdsong will end soon enough: once a partner has been wooed, and a home established, the babies follow tout de suite squalling their heads off. Now who has the time to sing?