Of Books and Birdsong

Birds on a branch

The patio of our cottage at Navilu Kaadu is spacious, nearly the same size as the little cottage itself. An awning held in place by a lattice of hollow metal pipes shelters the patio.

A drumstick tree and a pair of young neem trees flank the house on either side. We have a Mysore clock vine spreading over a bamboo trellis beyond the awning, and a violet allamanda creeping up the metal pole on one side of the patio.

Whenever I get a breather from the hectic farm schedule, I sit at the patio with a book, my binoculars and camera stationed by my side. Guess which ones get used more!

Winged faunae pose a serious impediment to my reading pursuits on the farm. I barely get through a paragraph when I am distracted by the trill of a bee-eater, the wispy melody of a lark or the soft tsee-tseeing of a sunbird, and compulsively pick up one of my two optical gizmos.

A purple-rumped sunbird on a banana flower

Purple-rumped sunbirds (Leptocoma zeylonica) nectar among the sparse blooms of our young Mysore trumpet vine. They dip their long, downward-curved beaks into the tubular red-yellow blossoms to suck nectar. These birds display sexual dimorphism, which means the males and the females of the same species are as different as chalk and cheese. The males are dazzling and wear a metallic green crown, shoulder patch purple throat, a deep rust mantle with a purple rump with custard-yellow underparts. They glisten like jewels in the sunlight. The females are plain by comparison, with dull grey-brown bodies and pale-yellow underparts.

In December 2019, a pair of scaley-breasted munias (Lonchura punctulata) made a nest under the eaves of the cottage, right over our main door. These sparrow-sized birds have chocolate-brown upperparts with black speckles on a white chest, akin to scales, hence the name. Their stout conical beaks are designed for a diet rich in grass seeds. Munias relish insects too, making them granivorous and insectivorous birds.

Scaley-breasted munias rest on the drumstick tree

The charming couple flitted between the drumstick tree and the awning as they gave finishing touches to their brand-new nest. The male is usually a shade darker than the female. The pair may have laid a clutch of 4 to 8 eggs. Munia parents are known to split incubation duty evenly for about 2 weeks.

In July 2020, another cute finch species, a pair of Indian silverbills (Euodice malabarica), occupied the same nest. It was the season of rose natal grass, and the male bird wooing his lady love with a gift of a single blade of delicate pink-hued grass clasped in his pale, grey bill, made for an ethereal sight. They also go by the name, white-throated munias.

Like all finches, these little birds too are equipped with short, stout beaks and feed on seeds and insects. Silverbills are monomorphic, meaning both genders of the species look alike. They are known to be communal nesters, and there is a likelihood that the eggs in a nest could belong to more than one silverbill mom.

A love-sick male Indian silverbill with an offering of a blade of rosenatal grass to his lady love

In early April this year, as I sat at the patio making a valiant attempt to read, yet another feathered diversion flitted about. This time, a cinereous tit (Parus cinereus) busily explored one end of the hollow metal pipe holding-up the awning. The bird plucked dried grass from the ground, flew to the neem tree and sat on a slender branch for a couple of seconds. It then made the short dash to the metal pipe by the tree, balancing on deft wings as it stuffed the grass into the hollow of the pipe.

The little grey, black and white bird kept up the nest-building drill for a while. The mate soon joined in the toil and the two continued to pluck grass from the ground, carrying it to the neem tree and then stuffing the grass into the hollow of the pipe. These birds are insectivorous and have finer beaks than finches. The females have a narrower ventral line running down their chests and are a tad duller than the males overall. Like the finches, the tits too lay between 4 and 6 eggs.

Just as our cottage houses us, its nooks and crannies hold many an avian ménage. And before I head-off to supervise crop mulching, I linger a tad longer in the patio to savour my luck at having such lovely, lively housemates.

With absorbing natural history moments such as these being enacted all day at Navilu Kaadu, am I to be blamed for abandoning my book for the camera?