Throughout Africa, the Middle East and Asia, the Bulbul has a reputation in folklore and culture that is rivalled only by the nightingale in Europe and the Koel in India. At an esoteric level, the Bulbul has inspired poetry, spiritual metaphors in literature and featured largely in musical renditions of romantic lyrics in many languages across the continents. In more profane forms of admiration, the Bulbul has ended up in cages in the streets of South East Asia, in song bird competitions — rated and rewarded per its range of melodies, voice clarity and duration of singing. 

So pervasive is the garden variety Bulbul in poetry and literature, that even though it shows up every morning in large urban gardens and farms, trilling away on obvious perches without a care, most city folks are more familiar with the metaphor than the real bird itself.

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Red-whiskered Bulbul – Photograph: Gowri Subramanya

 

I remember one winter morning guiding a tourist on a boat ride into a cove of bamboo thickets. As we were surrounded by towering clusters on all sides, the boatman switched the engine off for a couple of minutes. As soft rays of the sun streamed in, it brought down the liquid trills of the Bulbul from the bamboo branches down to us, with echoes magnifying the sweetness of the calls. The man closed his eyes soaking in the tranquility and asked me, “What bird is that? I have never heard anything so sweet before”. He was taken by surprise when I pointed to a low bamboo branch where the Red-whiskered bulbul was proudly showing off his crest and his musical prowess. “So, that’s a bulbul?”

This is not an uncommon reaction. Hearing eulogies all your life and to realise that the legendary creature is an ordinary little bird in drab colours (with only a crest and a red splash across the cheek forming somewhat of a saving grace), is somewhat like catching your favourite celebrity at a run-down café in your neighbourhood. You never quite get over the feeling of how ‘ordinary’ they looked.

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Yellow-browed Bulbul – Photograph: Gowri Subramanya

 

Most bulbul species in India are plain brown or olive birds, with not much colour to bring attention to themselves. Mostly the songs do it for them. Except those species that hide and lurk in dense forests – like in the Western Ghats. The Yellow-browed Bulbul is not a garden variety bird, by any means. It is an elusive creature that chooses to use the evergreen forest thickets to shield it from every gaze – predatory or otherwise, even using mixed bird flocks as cover when it needs to come out in the open for a dip in water or a refreshing drink. You’d think for a skulking bird it would be duller than its more urban cousin. But nature likes a little irony and painted it all over the Yellow-browed Bulbul. Now, with a stunning yellow underside (it’s not just the brow), the crest had to go. It would have been way over the top.

In the early days of birdwatching, I remember wondering, as I traced my finger on the illustration of the Yellow-browed Bulbul in the bird guide, how this striking bird managed to camouflage itself. I know better now. While walking in coffee plantations and forest patches in the Western Ghats, there were several instances where I turned suddenly as I caught a flash of yellow amidst the greenery, wondering if I had spotted it by accident, only to realise it was the sun’s sharp rays sparkling through the moist foliage. You see, camouflage in nature is a concerted effort, not the creature’s intelligence alone.