Even as the city grows bereft of sparrows, urban fauna still retains a surprising variety to startle you, amuse you, and keep you company.
With a bang and a crash, the monkey jumped into the balcony. Crows came chasing; they cawed wildly, the monkey said ‘garrh’ and showed teeth. But before I could say “shoo” – which, in retrospect, is a very silly thing to say to a large monkey – it knocked down the clothes’ stand, and bounded up the mango tree. The crows flew after it; and in the silence that followed, I heard my heart beat in my ear.
That monkey was the biggest ever visitor to our balcony; but every morning at 6:30, for over a year now, we have a stream of smaller ones. The first to come are six squirrels. They come because they know there will be food waiting for them in empty flowerpots - few handfuls of puffed rice and a scattering of peanuts. They settle down and have breakfast, while we have our morning tea, watching their whiskers and stripes.
Next to visit are the pigeons. They live on top of the a/c compressor, and they’ve had very bad luck making babies.
“Paavam, puthira bhagyam illa,” the maid says, everytime she sees the broody mum. The trouble, partly, is that they build such ridiculous nests, and the eggs fall down through the gaps and break. But mostly, it’s the crows that wreck everything; they destroy nests and knock down eggs, and one time, a jungle crow stole their chick in a flash. We were so upset, we couldn’t eat all day, but it didn’t ruin the pigeons’ appetite. And the next day, they put down twigs for a brand-new nest…
A splash of colour and a steady tok-tok means the woodpeckers have arrived; we usually perk up when they come, as it’s amusing to watch them give randy squirrels (who chase each other, amorously, up the bark) a disapproving look, before getting back to the splintering. But the woodpeckers aren’t just good-looking, they’re extremely dainty; and when they eat – they like cooked rice – they always sit properly, with their feathers folded neatly, and bend their red-crowns 90degrees to one side and then the other. Sometimes, I almost expect them to whip out a napkin, and wipe their beak…
The days we leave out curd-rice, there’s a queue all the way down the gulmohar tree. Koels love it, and so do the squirrels. But the pigeons give everybody a hard time; they’re very dog-in-the-mangerish about food; and what they can’t eat, they scatter with their bum feathers. They even mess up the water bowl; a pity, because crows gargle with it, and squirrels stretch out their bodies fully and sip.
Watching our ‘manky lot’, as the daughter affectionately calls our menagerie, is, for me, one of the highpoints of city living. Who ever thought it would be possible to see so many critters from the living room sofa? It’s not even like we have a forest/ water-body abutting our neighbourhood; there are just two trees - a scrawny gulmohar, and an ancient mango-tree – and they throw so much shadow that nothing grows in our balcony. And yet, between them, the two sustain and nurture so many creatures on their branches. In the mornings, the trees are alive with squirrels; and we track their movement by the dip of the branch and dance of the leaf. Besides the common/garden varieties, the trees occasionally harbour the exotic; the day I saw a Paradise flycatcher (with its distinctive, long tail), I was ecstatic; and when the Shikra settled on a mango branch, a few weeks later, I sobbed.
Of course, when I saw them, I had no idea they were flycatcher/ Shikra, I had to trawl through dozens of pictures of ‘birds of Chennai’, till I found a match. Through this method, I learnt about sunbirds and sparrows; they’re both dapper and little and fly in pairs. From far, they’re chirpy blurs; up close, I figured that the smaller, darker sunbird flits, while sparrows hop. I’m waiting for the sparrows to discover the terracotta nesting pots in a corner of the balcony. But they won’t nest there, the daughter assures me. The crows, she says, stick their beaks into the holes in the mud-pot and rootle. Which bird – besides the ‘bright’ pigeon – will raise a brood with a predator snooping around?
But we’re not particularly bright ourselves - we hang out the clothes in the balcony, and then curse when we find ‘crappy’ messages on them. I always imagine the parrots pointing and laughing. They’re the one species I’m never able to see; sometimes, up in the mango tree, green streaks and lands elsewhere. But before I can spot them, they blend in, and all I hear is their cooing and scolding.
If parrots are cunning, the tree-pies are comical. They’re nice to look at – with brown and black feathers - and have the funniest, tummy-vibrating cackle. They’re also very loud - even if we’re sitting in the bedroom, we know when they’re come for food. But the mynahs have tricked us many times; they’re great impersonators. Once, we saw two walking on the railing, making tree-pie sounds. That’s when we realised – they were having us on!
But there’s a flipside to animals roaming three feet from our feet - they come into the house. The pigeons lead the pack; one pair tried to build a nest in the washbasin; three others sat on the ceiling-fan, one to a blade. I chased them out with a wet mop, and soon, it became my ‘weapon’ whenever we had an ‘invasion’. I don’t know if I look suitably ferocious - with a mop in one hand, and bucket in another - but the pigeons scamper.
Other rodents, however, don’t; they come around 7pm, climbing a drainpipe. They finish off whatever food there is in the pots, and if the windows are not shut properly, happily enter the house. The first time a bandicoot came; I mistook its tail for the rope of the bamboo window screen; and I screamed when the ‘rope’ slithered after a fat, brown body into the living room. It went out when it realised it wasn’t very welcome. But mice hide, and eat whatever they can reach – fruits, biscuits, wires. Late one night, when a switch crackled, and lights sizzled and blew, we got very angry. We said we were going to stop leaving food out on the balcony. But then, the next morning, six squirrels came for breakfast. And the husband and I scattered puffed rice and peanuts all over the place…