In Our Backyard Environment

The bird that keeps our spirits up

A male Oriental Magpie Robin   | Photo Credit: Selvaganesh. K /Wikimedia Commons

In testing times where a naturalist like me is stuck at home, I find solace in the theatrics of two Oriental Magpie-Robins in my backyard, ready to pair up for the breeding season. The males sit on conspicuous perches, raising their beaks and singing incessantly.

They puff up their feathers, fan their tails and swoop down, over the females, who will also do a little dance in the air. Not that the Magpie-Robin (Copsychus saularis) is quiet the rest of the year.

The most common call is a whistle, mostly at dawn and the typical harsh hissing krrshhhhh. You might even see that the tail movement is often synchronised with its call. The species is generally distributed across the Indian subcontinent and it typically avoids dense forest and open plains. It avoids both extremes and likes the in-between of an urban garden, with sunshine and shade.

Here, it sings from the topmost boughs of garden trees in the early morning and the late evening. The Magpie Robin is one of the best songsters in the city, where singing birds are scarce.

The bird dislikes thick undergrowth and is mostly seen hopping along branches or foraging in leaf-litter on the ground for insects such as grasshoppers, crickets, ants, beetles, and insect-larvae, but may sometimes take a fancy to an occasional earthworm or gecko. In the opportunism that comes from city living, it may seize insects under street lamps at night.

The Oriental Magpie-Robin is a medium-sized robin (19-20 cm) with a broad white wing-bar running from the shoulder to the tip of the wing, and a long tail with white outer-tail feathers. Males exhibit an overall black plumage whereas females are greyish-brown with the white wing-bar being a common feature. Both sexes have brown iris, a black bill (beak), and dark legs.

A female Oriental Magpie-Robin ; (left) a male Oriental-Magpie Robin

A female Oriental Magpie-Robin ; (left) a male Oriental-Magpie Robin   | Photo Credit: Dr. Raju Kasambe/Wikimedia Commons

One way of spotting this bird is its tail movement: It carries its tail very high over the back, will frequently lower and expand it into a fan, then close and jerk it up again over the back.

The Oriental Magpie-Robin’s breeding season lasts from the end of March to the end of July and the nest is neatly placed in holes in tree trunks, in gaps in walls and sometimes on the roofs of houses.

It is cup-shaped and is built with grasses, fibre and feathers, with a definitive lining. The depth and compactness of the nest often depends on the size of the hole.

Once the eggs hatch, the females spend their time and effort feeding the young, while the males are usually on nest watch. Their aggressive behaviour during breeding season helps them defend their territory and safeguard the area against marauders.

These birds were once kept in cages because of their singing, and were also used for fighting matches. Both are now illegal in India, and so a rare occurrence, but the avian pet trade is still prevalent in parts of Southeast Asia. The Oriental Magpie-Robin is the national bird of Bangladesh, where it is known as doyel/doel and appears on their currency notes as well.

The writer is the founder of NINOX - Owl About Nature, a nature-awareness initiative. He is the Delhi-NCR reviewer for Ebird, a Cornell University initiative, monitoring rare sightings of birds. He formerly led a programme of WWF India.

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Printable version | Jun 13, 2021 8:49:39 AM |

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