If you live in Bangalore, you have heard the White-cheeked Barbet, even if you have never seen it. Your morning walks (or a short skip to the corner shop) are accompanied by a shrill announcing call of kurrrrrr before your feet fall into the rhythm of the precise ko-turrr, ko-turrr, ko-turrr refrain that follows it — sounds that have blended into the city’s buzz like a formless voice. The cicada of the bird world.

Walking on the footpath of a busy street, I had once picked up a short green feather, a little more than an inch, that undoubtedly floated down from a barbet. The giant umbrella-like canopies of rain trees and the dense foliage of the African tulip that flank Bangalore’s avenues protect the barbets from harrowing crows and kites, but also from human eyes. Still, lucky to co-habit urban spaces with a bird that belongs exclusively to the Western Ghats.

barbet

White-cheeked Barbet – Photograph: Gowri Subramanya

 

It was a pleasant December morning with hints of mist and bluest of skies over a plantation in Kodagu. I had just checked in the previous evening; now, the view of the hills and a quiet cup of coffee on the garden seat beckoned. The orchard sloped down giving a strategic (for a birder) view of the top canopy of fruiting trees. What luck, I thought, even before I knew how lucky I was about to get. Minutes into my coffee, in flew a white-cheeked barbet, taking position on a bare branch of a Sapota tree in front of me, looking fiercely indignant. It had the look of someone who arrived on stage, grabbed the mic and was about to announce to the whole world that there was no stopping them anymore. When I recovered from the jolt of seeing a real barbet in full view, I began to wonder what had triggered this careful bird into reckless exposure? That it was jealously guarding its fruiting tree was apparent. But who from? It hopped side to side, staring down intensely and flitted out for a second, before reasserting itself on the same branch. Not a sound made, but everything conveyed – nobody was to mess with this barbet today. Shortly, a shrill cackle alerted me to the flight of a yellow bird, disappearing into the woods below. A woodpecker. The barbet did another flip-flop and a flit, flying back to the branch once more to peg its flag firmly on the tree.

 Barbet – 1 Woodpecker – 0

 

White-cheeked Barbet – Photograph: Gowri Subramanya

 

No woodpecker would be allowed to intrude in on the barbet’s nest, pecking at the entrance, making it bigger, exposing the young ones into the open! Or perhaps, take over the roosting nest, another hole in the tree, rudely lodging itself and snuggling in the barbet’s bed of sawdust and ruining a good night’s sleep. It was bad enough to deal with nosy crows and noisy mynas.

The scene was over in a minute but it felt like I had watched a movie. There was the cheery chorus of the songbirds, the floating mist on the hills in the background, a carefully set stage for the narration of an episode in the life of a bird I knew so well, but so little of. Back in the city, I had craned my neck so often to catch a glimpse of little more than a feather, while the bird called out to its partner over who will take turns to babysit. But here in the wild hills of the Western Ghats, the little barbet made birdwatching so much more fulfilling.