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Knowing birds in the close vicinity:

By Rajshekhar Pant

Alas, that Spring should vanish with the Rose! That Youth’s sweet-scented Manuscript should close!

The Nightingale that in the Branches sang, Ah, whence, and whither flown again, who knows!
(Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám)

Kept in my father’s collection, I first tried reading ‘Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám’ -a beautifully illustrated book -when in Class 11 or 12. I could understand at least this much, then, that in Persian classical literature the bulbul or nightingale, as it is generally called, has an important place. A number of romantic themes have been woven round the semiotics of the nightingale and rose since the time of King Solomon. Obviously, bulbuls must have a special bonding with humans from ancient times. In the 19th century they were taken to Fiji by the indentured labourers and established themselves there. They have successfully been introduced into so many other countries since then. The British have mentioned in their memoirs the tradition of taming and training bulbuls for fights.

Quite unlike the bulbuls of Omar Khayyám, these song-birds in my home town, Bhimtal, do not disappear with the fleeting spring. They are sighted almost the year-round here.

It is common to spot at least two types of bulbuls here in all seasons – the yellow vented Himalayan bulbul (Pycnonotus leucogeneys) also called at times the white cheeked bulbul; the other one is red vented bulbul (Pycnonotus cafer.) These days the yellow vented ones are having an edge over the latter. The landmark feature of both the Himalayan bulbuls is their crest which looks like a Roman Helmet.

It is basically a bird of dry scrub, open forest and cultivated land, with a tremendous adaptability and ability to alter her niche characteristics if need be. Counted among the hundred top most invasive species of flora and fauna in the world, they devour fruits, seeds, shoots of green veggies, nascent seedlings of peas, cabbage and all other greens in addition to insects, house-geckos and flies. They easily learn to avoid repellents and poisonous chemicals and are instrumental in dispersing the seeds of invasive plants like Lantana camara or ‘kuri’ as we call this bush in the hills. I have noticed these birds eating the young leaves and buds of almost everything cultivated- right from stevia to geraniums and even rose-buds. Like humans, they also do not have the ability to synthesise vitamin ‘C’ – a probable reason of their being extra fond of citrus fruits punchers dropped by Rufus, Barbets and other strong billed Aves.

For the marginal farmers in the hills, their ever increasing number and becoming a resident breeder has assumed the level of a natural hazard. Growing green peas, cabbage or broccolis has become virtually impossible here unless one has enough provision to buy bird-nets or leisure to guard the fields for 5-6 hours following the crack of the dawn.

These days, when the election fever has touched the zenith, these otherwise romanticised birds often remind me of shrewish politicians and their equally smart cronies. Arriving at the bird feeder, these bulbuls ward off the small sparrows and streaked thrushes. However, with the more aggressive and quarrelsome Rufus and Tree pies, their behaviour is very friendly and gentle – nuisance value does pay at times…