It’s dawn in April, as a persistence of whistling prattle wakes you from a nimble sleep into which you were lulled last night by the haunting hoots of a scops owl. Wanting to put a face to the voice at this early hour, you step out of your room all ears, to go from bed to bedlam in one bleary step.
The ground, carpeted by the leaves of a teak tree, rustles to the stirrings of underlying sentience. The next second, a heap falls away to reveal a small black bird. In a streak it takes off and assumes a perch on a nearby branch.
He being mostly bluish black, you can barely see him even from his sparsely covered quarters, his white belly too grey in the twilight. But his aural footmarks are barely missable, for from there he emits a series of chattery whistles, akin to a human palaver played back at five times the speed – only, more musical. He seems to ‘speak’, and in full ‘sentences’, as though telling you a story, his intercourse observant of prosodic sensibilities.
Clearly, the oratory magpie-robin…er, – the oriental magpie-robin – is a bird that may struggle to tweet within 140 characters, for it has much to say, a vocabulary to match, a song for virtually every occasion, and the best party trick of all – the ability to imitate other birds’ calls, a dialectical talent it shares with its more charismatic compatriot, the racket-tailed drongo.
Very soon you realise that reticence is certainly not an affliction that has beset this blessed ventriloquist, whose appearance on Kabini’s Got Talent is more of a staple than that of Simon Cowell in Britain’s version.
Nor is he in the least hesitant to express himself. There’s a call for emergence, a call for roosting, a call to convey threat, one to declare submission, another to implore, and yet one more to broadcast distress! And then of course when it’s out in mob mode, there’s a tirade for that too – a harsh hiss – perhaps the only time you don’t swoon to his flute.
Flycatchers are wont to be acclaimed songsters, but this is an artiste who transcended his brief and became a stage actor, with an exceptional flair for uncommon parlance. Only, he seldom needs the spotlight to shine.
A short while later you find yourself on a safari through the tree-lined roads that snake through the forests of Kakanakote without hiss or rattle. The only sounds are from the vehicle itself, as the engine clatters and the springs hunch and heave as you cleave the air. But from amid this clamour of gurgle and squeaks, you hear a sound of Nature that you find at once hard to place. It’s not so much a song as a statement.
Your naturalist stops the car and kills the engine to let you hear it better. And you find that the sound is neither a melody nor a cacophony; only sheer music to the ears.
From the understory beneath a column of skyward trees, where the sun is hiding still before floating up to the sea of air, it comes in clearly articulated five-syllable utterances with considered interludes, as if egging on the sun to rise.
“Kuh-kaah-kuh-ruh-kow!” it asserts throatily, sometimes slipping into a six-syllable
‘Kuh-kaah-kuh-ruh-kaah-kow’, as if adding some information.
The tone is that of an adjutant issuing the stirring order in the barracks, demanding instant readiness for action from everyone within a mile’s radius. You get the sense that whoever’s making this sound is choosing their words carefully; only, you’re not wise enough to understand.
There is a lull, and for several seconds, a suspicious silence. Then the leaf litter chatters. A rustle is followed by a scratch, and then a sweep and a step. You wonder what is afoot, and what great mammal might break out of the thicket, until you see him.
A male grey junglefowl, less popularly Gallus sonneratii (after French explorer, Pierre Sonnerat) and more popularly an ancestor of the domestic chicken, walks out like a sovereign, his flamboyant tail-plumes in tow – a cocktail party of one.
Once hunted for sport, the pot, and feathers to be made into artificial flies, today, however, he wasn’t calling in alarm at a predator – human or otherwise – for that is an incontinent burst of low background clucks punctuated by sharp and nasal inhaled crows, which, like the handiwork of a virtuoso piano player, makes you wonder if the same player was making both the sounds concurrently.
Such a dexterous capacity for pantomime is not the only sterling quality of this thespian. He is colourful, light, and diminutive, but he couldn’t be more ‘down-to-earth’ despite being able to fly.
Make no mistake: this reluctance to flight has nothing to do with his fitness, though: he has none of the domestic chicken’s flab in either body or voice, giving up both the plump thighs and the drawling call of his unprotected cousin for a form that’s more befitting of the forest.
So befitting, that as your naturalist cranks the engine back to life and you move on, little do you know that a few more safaris later, the call would epitomise for you the pleasures of being in a southern Indian deciduous tiger forest, and remind you every time you’re in Kabini that two earsare too few and two years never enough.