Playing cuckoo mom

Oriole nestling: A refugee from the storm Photo: Janaki Lenin   | Photo Credit: Oriole nestling: a refugee from

Early morning light filtered through the green canopy as we sipped coffee in the garden. The night’s rainstorm had tossed leaves and branches everywhere; a big clean-up job awaited us. But for the moment, all was quiet, and even the birds seemed to be having a late start. The dogs lay at our feet.

Rom broke the quiet. “The oriole nest has fallen down.”

We walked over for a look. The nest lay amidst a jumble of foliage. Rom picked up the branch and announced, “There’s a chick.”

Handing me the branch to hold out of reach of the dogs, he went to get a rope to tie the branch up. The chick’s posterior was sticking up. Was it still alive? When Rom returned, I asked him to set the chick upright.

“If I touch it, the chick will smell of me and the parents may reject it,” he cautioned.

“That’s all nonsense. There’s a hungry chick to be fed. How can they abandon it now?”

Rom managed to turn the ugly, half-feathered chick right side up, even though its tiny talons gripped the edge of the nest tightly. We tied the branch to the tree and retreated to the house to wait and watch. The nest was slightly askew, and the branch was not in its original place.

I was beset with doubts. What if the parents don’t return? What if they reject the chick?

Reading my mind, Rom said, “If the parents don’t start feeding the baby, you know who has to.”

Refusing to even countenance the looming possibility, I asked defiantly, “Who?”


I groaned. When we lived at the Madras Crocodile Bank years ago, I had taken in an Indian cuckoo chick after a similar storm.

The first lesson I learnt: chicks are gluttons. I fed it mashed fruit and insects. It was hard work being the sole provider for a hungry chick. I spent more and more time each day hunting insects, which became hard to find overnight.

Once the chick began to flap its wings, we cleaned up a store room as an enclosure. When I went to feed it that afternoon, it was perched on a blade of the ceiling fan. I pleaded with it to come down. In response, it demanded in an even louder voice to be fed.

The ladder was somewhere on the campus, and I didn’t have the energy to go looking for it. So I took a cobweb duster and unceremoniously knocked the cuckoo out of its perch. This became an every-meal routine.

By the time it developed the plumage of an adult female cuckoo, it was flying around and landing on the branches we had wired across the room. When the neem trees were heavily laden with fruit, it seemed a good time to let the bird go. Besides, I wanted my freedom back.

Instead of following its nose to the nearest bunch of berries, the chick squawked and flapped from the crown of one tree to the next, following me around. Anyone who needed to find me in the Croc Bank just had to listen for that loud, raucous voice. I even dreamt of it in my sleep.

While I was inside a building, it perched outside and called. I couldn’t climb up the tree to feed it, and neither was it going to come down. Its calls made me feel alternately guilty and exasperated.

Over the course of a week, its demands grew fainter and stopped altogether. I don’t know if it became independent. My only consolation is the grounds maintenance team never found a cuckoo carcass.

While I was recalling that ordeal, the mother oriole arrived and, much to my relief, fed its chick.

Later that evening Rom said, “The leaves are already drying and soon the branch will be bare. The parents may still abandon it.”

“That’s too bad. I’m not playing mom anymore.”

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Printable version | Jun 20, 2021 9:53:55 PM |

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