Of drongos and cuckoos

The shrinking forest cover is pushing the commonly found bird species to the brink of extinction, writes Lt Gen Baljit Singh (retd)

The pied-crested cuckoo.
The pied-crested cuckoo

The black drongo
The black drongo

Among the two avian species often encountered in India are the drongos and the cuckoo classified into two distinctly separate families: dicruridae and cuculidae, respectively. They are unmistakably set apart from each other as much by their plumage colours, body size and shape as by their clearly delineated auditory attributes.

We have nine species of the drongo and all of them come in wholly glistening black plumage except for two whose names are suggestive of the slight difference, that is, the white-bellied drongo and the ashy-drongo. In body size, they are all comparable to the dove but with a much longer tail, ending in a deep, wide fork. Perhaps the most frequently sighted is the black drongo. A dark red iris and a white beauty spot, the size of an aspirin tablet, between the eyes and the beak distinguish it from others of his species.

The black drongo is also called the king crow, not essentially because he is "as black as a crow". More than that it is this birdís courage to put crows and even kites to flight should they venture to plunder bird nests of eggs and hatchlings. So peace-loving birds such as doves and mynahs prefer to build their nests directly below those of the drongo. They are sure of the black drongoís policing instincts which provides the clue to his vernacular name the kotwal?

The largest of the family and endemic to India alone is the Andaman drongo. Sadly, overexploitation of forests in the Andamans has pushed this bird to the brink of extinction.

But the species which leaves a lasting visual and auditory imprint is the greater racket-tailed drongo. Besides a thick and ruffled crest atop the crown, the two outer feathers of the tail produce two filament thin shafts about four to six inch long, ending in two symmetrical feather-webs, shaped like the oblong rackets in vogue during the first decades of the 20th century. When in flight, the tail streamers and the attached rackets create the illusion as though this drongo is being chased by two tiny birds? Astonishingly, the tail rackets also produce a pleasant effect of tinkling bells during flight.

The racket-tailed drongo is adept at confusing the observer by superb mimicry of other birdcalls (the king crow also does so but to a lesser degree). There is an episode from the life of the late Salim Ali illustrating this trait. During the survey of the birds of the north-eastern states, one morning Salim Ali noticed one of his young staff rushing out of the bed in haste, drawn to the call of the bird which they had searched for days but had failed to spot. The old man who had been awake in bed and listening to the pre-dawn bird song, called out to the young scientist, "I will take a wager that it is the racket-tailed drongo mimicking the bird you believe it is". And indeed that is how it was? I cannot fathom why in the vernacular we call him Bhim Raja?

However, cuckoos tend to steal a march over the drongos. They come in a variety of plumage colours and patterns and also outnumber the drongo species 15 to nine. Each of the 15 cuckoo species is gifted with an exclusive call and bird song.

For the sheer exuberance in plumage colours, there are several in the family. Take the male Asian emerald cuckoo which has ruby red eyes, chrome yellow beak, black breast, white belly barred horizontally with green-brown strokes which combine to create a contrast with its overall metallic emerald green body. The female is no less conspicuous with an orange brown upper body, emerald green wings and tail, red eyes, orange beak with a black tip and the lower body barred pale-brown over white. Unfortunately, its meagre number is confined to southern Sikkim and Bhutan though vagrants have been seen in Uttarakhand and photographed in the Western Ghats. During migration, a few are spotted in Mizoram and Meghalaya too.

The largest of them all, the chestnut-winged cuckoo is beautiful beyond imagination. At one glance, it is like a pennant with three stripes, black above, chestnut-bronzed wings in the middle and the snow-white lower body. If you are lucky to encounter him from close, you will notice a white neck collar and a brownish-yellow patch covering the cheeks and throat to complete a pleasant colour-cocktail. He also has a sharply tipped crest like an over-hang above the nape.

Just as each species of this family of 15 has a distinct colour identity, the same is true of bird song of each. Admittedly their songs are mostly rasping than melodious but that is what helps both in detecting their presence among foliage and of species identity.

The cuckoo that has acquired notoriety for its shrill song is our resident common hawk cuckoo. It just cannot tolerate the scalding summer heat of May-July and gives vent to his discomfort through the monosyllabic song "Pee-aah" repeated five to eight times, each repetition louder than the previous, ending in almost a scream. And when two or more join in, the chorus is truly earsplitting.

It is for this reason perhaps that the British in India empathised with the bird as they too feared the summer heat. They associated him with heat stroke leading to delirium and so called him the brain fever bird. And they went on to allude a meaning to his song as "Oh, Lord! It is getting hot. We feel it" (repeated four to six times) ending with a sharply drawn, emphatic and loud "W-E-E F-E-E-L IT!", just in case the good Lord doubted his pleas.

Then a day before the first monsoon showers arrive at your locality, you can be hundred per cent sure that the pied-crested cuckoo will bring good cheer through his song, "Paa-ooce Aala. Paa-ooce Aala". Now any Marathi-speaking child will tell you that the bird is singing, "Rejoice! The rains are coming." And it shall pour within the next twelve hours.

Finally, in the comfort of the monsoon cool, you can sit back to enjoy the truly sonorous song of the male Eurasian cuckoo, "cuck-koo, cuck-koo" as it filters through the monsoon mists.