From the Whistling Boy’s perch

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Don’t have the money for a soothing music app or a failsafe alarm clock? No worries. Just find a cottage near a Malabar Whistling Thrush nest.

The omnivorous Malabar Whistling Thrush can be sighted (or heard) in dark undergrowth and dense riverine forest. | Wikipedia

 

Of some of the songbirds I have heard, the call of the Malabar Whistling Thrush is perhaps the most mellifluent. I often lie awake at dawn listening, entranced, as it soulfully warbles its heart out, heralding another day. Could there be a more enchanting or soothing avian wake-up call at daybreak, I wonder.

 

Resident in our semi-forested compound, I often see a pair hopping around or flitting among the branches of the guava trees. Their beady eyes regard me rather frostily as though I’m an intruder. Yet they frequent the puddles that form around our small lawn when it’s watered, sometimes imperiously driving away the bulbuls that tend to monopolise these during summer. From the window of my study, I watch the duo enjoy their ‘baths’ thoroughly, repeatedly dousing themselves and then fluffing out their feathers much like other birds do.

On one rare and unforgettable occasion I heard the pair engage in a duet. The sun was setting in a blaze of orange, silhouetting the silver oaks in the compound, when they burst into melodious song almost simultaneously. Straining my eyes, I finally located them perched high on a silver oak as they lustily serenaded each other for all they were worth. Indeed, I felt privileged to be a witness to this avian ‘concert’.

Often nicknamed the ‘Whistling Schoolboy’ because its warbling has an uncannily human quality about it, the Malabar Whistling Thrush (Myophonus Horsfieldii) appears blackish from a distance. On closer scrutiny, however, one finds its wings, head and tail tinged with patches of flashy blue. In sharp contrast to its mellifluous trilling at dawn and dusk, sometimes it emits a harsh-sounding screech (bordering on sheer annoyance) as it flies away when disturbed or alarmed. The species is fairly common in the Western Ghats, less so in the Eastern Ghats. The IUCN’s Red List categorises its status as being of “Least Concern.”

Perhaps we should consider going in for birdsong as ringtones for our mobile phones rather than film songs and ditties. Surely, the MWT’s dulcet melody is bound to have a calming and de-stressing effect on us in these fast-paced and hectic times

 

Found singly or in pairs, the MWT frequents all types of vegetation in search of an omnivorous diet — insects, small crabs and frogs, earthworms and berries. Once, as I relaxed on my verandah, one boldly hopped right up to my outstretched feet to snap up a large moth. It seemed to be in no hurry, incapacitating the insect with several pecks before slowly swallowing it bit by bit under my bemused gaze. It must have been really famished to have taken such a risk.

From my study I once noticed a catapult-armed teenager stalking an MWT in the next compound. Hopping away from him, the bird flew into a mango tree where it sat undecided whether to fly away or stay put — apparently, a morsel on the ground in the form of some insects had attracted it, making it reluctant to leave. Capitalising on this, the boy inched closer and let fly, flooring the bird in a flurry of feathers. I was speechless with anger and still regret having been a silent and passive spectator. Rank insensitivity had cost the bird its life.

Another MWT, I recall, was either too careless or trusting, resulting in its doom. It was dusk and from the second-floor window of the office where I used to work in Munnar, I could hear it regaling all who cared to listen, with its lusty whistling. Attracted by the sound, a stray cat crept up near it, unnoticed, froze stone-like for several seconds as only felines can, and then pounced — silencing the hapless bird for good.

However, for all its trustfulness, I find the MWT is pretty secretive about the location of its nest, even going to the extent of ‘luring’ one away from it if one gets too close. Reinforcing this observation is the wily bird that nests within a crevice in a high embankment near our well. I’ve not been able to locate the nest so far as the embankment is honeycombed with crevices and orifices. And when I’m watching or around, the bird shrewdly uses a different entry point each time to reach its nest. It’s an unmistakable demonstration of avian wisdom.

 

Yet, quite surprisingly, one evening a few years back I found an MWT nesting in a niche up in the porch roof of a planters’ club in Munnar. From its elevated perch, it seemed to look down quizzically on the suited-and-booted members conversing below. Assured of safety and accustomed to the proximity of people, the bird used to delight the club’s lodgers by giving them a tuneful and full-throated wake-up call in the morning. So much so that when a bearer asked a lodger when she would like to be woken up in the morning, the latter beamed, “Don’t bother — your resident ‘minstrel’ has been pleasantly singing me awake at six sharp for the last three days!”

In the 1970s I knew a British tea-planter in Munnar, a passionate bird-lover, who tape-recorded the lilting song of the MWT, which he used to replay, repeatedly and habitually, in the evenings as a means of unwinding. “I find it most relaxing,” he once told me when I called on him. In fact, he was quite amused that I’d thought he was rearing an MWT in the house.

Taking a cue from him, perhaps we should consider going in for birdsong as ringtones for our mobile phones rather than film songs and ditties. Surely, the MWT’s dulcet melody is bound to have a calming and de-stressing effect on us in these fast-paced and hectic times. It certainly does for me.

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