Field Notes Environment

Limp in the leg, not in the spirit

A greater coucal without tail feathers on the bund of the Selaiyur lake, on August 25. Photo: Prince Frederick    

A greater coucal without its elongated tail is as easy to process as Rapunzel without her flowing tress. It is the species’ greatest quiddity; and a significant “navigational” aid. As it hurries to safety on the ground, a greater coucal walks with a waddle — not as pronounced as in ducks, but striking nevertheless — that is accentuated by the obtrusively long tail. When it “walks” in the trees, its tail is the equivalent of a handstaff held by a 90-year-old with an unsteady gait. Birds in the cuculidae family develop an additional left foot when they clamber through tree branches. Just like a majority of its cousins, the greater coucal uses its tail as a balancing prop in this situation.

Imagine a greater coucal without a tail. Also imagine its quality of life.

On August 25, this writer did not have to muster his powers of imagination. On a bund of the Selaiyur lake, a greater coucal showed up without a tail. Gaped at, the bird would not take to wing, but trust its feet and bushes to keep itself scarce.

A greater coucal with its tail partially grown back, after what appears to have been some form of damage to it, on September 15. The bird had earlier been sighted on the bund of Selaiyur lake on August 25. Photo: Prince Frederick

A greater coucal with its tail partially grown back, after what appears to have been some form of damage to it, on September 15. The bird had earlier been sighted on the bund of Selaiyur lake on August 25. Photo: Prince Frederick  

Though a tail has its part in a bird’s aerial movements, its absence does not make it totally earth-bound. Beside the missing tail, the greater coucal had no visible sign of injury to the rest of its body. But this bird just would not tear itself from terra firma.

Birds are soap opera-unfriendly. They do not crib about their misfortune, and when it is invisible, one can only speculate about it. When attacked by a predator, birds sometimes come unscathed, except for the tail feathers being ripped away. Tail feathers usually come off easily. Why this bird would be land-bound however remained a mystery. If it stubbornly persisted in this behaviour, it could fall prey to any of the felines. There is a habitation not too far from the lake, and one of them might get the bird.

When this writer visited the lake again on September 15, he did not expect to see the bird. But there is was, as earth-bound as ever, and its tail grown to the length of a golf tee. In all likelihood, it was longer than that. With the bird offering just glimpses of itself, through gaps in the foliage, it was difficult to have a proper measure of its return to normality.

A point of interest was that the bird was crossing over from the side of civilisation to one of wilderness, crossing a kutcha road that hugs the lake bund. A resident revealed that this bird was being seen around the place for three to four weeks, and had likely been attacked by a cat. It would show up in the dense thickets around houses. During this encounter, one noticed that when the bird hurried its steps, it could not keep a limp from getting noticed.

By frequenting spaces where it can run into felines, the bird was sailing close to the wind. Surely, the next time around, there may not be a howdy with the greater coucal.

However, the greater coucal made the writer eat his words as he found it swishing through the bushes, during a visit on September 28, its tail grown noticeably long, and the limp still intact. The bird would however still be earth-bound. From the look of it, it has worked out its own adaptation, making the most of what it could do, rising above the limitations of what is probably a permanently injured leg, and may be, other damage that is not seen.

(Field Notes is a column that records the behaviour of resident and migratory birds of Chennai)


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