We woke up early this morning. With the temperatures gradually rising in our part of the world, the winter chill is on its way out and so one thought it was time to shake off the quilt-induced-early-morning-lethargy that keeps you wanting to snuggle in and stay in bed a little longer. It’s a routine one has settled into for some years now. Thanks to the city’s rising levels of pollution and smog, every winter the city-doctors issue an advisory asking the elderly and those prone to cough and cold to avoid venturing out for an early morning walk during the cold months. The medical alert is dutifully carried by all the newspapers and even more dutifully followed by a person like me!
As i sprang out of the still-inviting bed (not very enthusiastically though, i confess!!), the first sound that came in through the window from the cluster of trees growing in the compound of our apartment block was a distinctive cry ~ the Koo-ooo of that bird with its onomatopoeic name, the ‘Koel’. The mellifluous cadence is unmistakeable…it begins as a cry in a low key, rises to a crescendo and then ends abruptly. Count the seconds while it takes a break, and then the bird-song pipes up again. It’s a sound i have been familiar with since childhood, flora and fauna being so much a part of those sprawling cantonment houses we grew up in. So many memories and stories are associated with it. In my mother’s storehouse of interesting nature trivia, that she often shared with us, hearing the koel’s cry meant it was time for the little blossoms to sprout on the mango trees for summer was round the bend. For my maternal grandmother, the koel was like the ‘rascal’ among the birds for it never made it’s own nest! With a tiny hint of disapproval, she would tell us how that lazy good-for-nothing bird abdicates it’s entire responsibility of building a nest, hatching the eggs and nurturing the hatched fledgelings to the crow, while it merrily flies around from branch to branch. Apparently the devious male koel lures the crow away from the nest with its cries. The crow launches an attack on the male koel who leads it on a fruitless chase through the trees so that the female koel can lay her eggs in the unguarded crow’s nest. (with what childlike glee we loved to hear that story as kids!!) Even later the unsuspecting crow has no idea that it is hatching those extra eggs along with its own for the eggs of the two birds look very similar. We were told that was the reason why in the old Vedic texts, the Sanskrit word for the bird is ‘anya-vapa’ or that ‘which has been brought up by others’. A more scientific name for that in today’s terms would be ‘brood-parasitism’ ~ it’s a trait shared by all the “cuckoo-cousins” (all birds belonging to the avian order of Cuculiformes), including the ‘papeehara’ (or the common-hawk cuckoo). At school we learnt in our science class that the sound is made by the male bird and that they usually sing in the spring which is their mating season. And then in literature there was that famous reference in Wordsworth’s poem, ‘The Solitary Reaper’ where the melancholy strain being sung by the young lass is said to even surpass that of the cuckoo ~
A voice so thrilling ne’er was heard
In spring-time from the Cuckoo bird,
Breaking the silence of the seas
Among the farthest Hebrides…
There was an amusing incident where a classmate (with a genuinely peeved tone) wanted to know why the poet had chosen to praise such an irritating sound! Apparently one of these birds would sit on the tree next to her bedroom window and start its warbling from five in the morning and disturb her sleep so she had no love lost for the koel’s melody!
Meanwhile the koo-ooing outside stopped. It struck me that the sound was a little early this season for you normally hear it in the later half of the month of March. Perhaps the little bird too realised that it had jumped the gun and begun its season-change-call early this year and so it had stopped and flown away. Tomorrow i shall await that call again and if it does come we know ~ Summer is coming…
(image sourced from the web ~ a photo of the male Asian Koel shot in Kerala by Challiyan)