The male Asian koel’s pleading koo-oo is the avian world’s answer to Cliff Richard’s Ocean Deep. With the lockdown cutting out the whir of engines, this courtship call is now clearly heard around human lodgings.
A brood parasite, the Asian koel (Eudynamys scolopaceus) targets the crow’s nest — and that includes the corvus splendens, the ubiquitous house crow. The corvid being man’s commensal, the koel is also somewhat of a regular sight. Particularly between March and August, when the male pleads with his significant other, promising domestic bliss probably by drawing her attention to a ‘marked’ crow’s-nest.
Now, the more challenging thing to do would be rubbing eyeballs with the koel’s cousin — the elusive blue-faced malkoha (Phaenicophaeus viridirostris), also a resident species in Chennai. Endemic to peninsular India and Sri Lanka, the blue-faced malkoha’s love story also unfolds between March and August, but usually away from the glare of human observation.
This member of the cuculidae family is largely found in an open scrub environment. When humans are a whiff away, the blue-faced malkoha claws its way through bushes, showing itself ten times more furtive than the Asian koel.
Birder Sathyakumar Shanmugasundaram recently made an observation about the bird that is as amusing as it is insightful. To see this bird, birders might have to do a collage, quipped Sathyakumar, tongue wedged in cheek.
Someone contributes a clicked image of the head, another of the tail and so on. The point is the bird is diligent at making itself scarce, more resolutely than the Asian koel, and routinely, very little of the bird is left unhidden for the camera.
“Just like the Asian koel, the blue-faced malkoha clambers through the branches in an awkward fashion. The blue-faced malkoha’s tail being long, it has to manipulate its body in a manner enabling it to maintain balance,” says V. Santharam, ornithologist and director, Institute of Bird Studies, Rishi Valley.
On his experience of sighting the blue-faced malkoha at Rishi Valley, Santharam remarks “it is generally more easily seen during the time when most of the trees shed their leaves.”
The ornithologist calls it a quiet bird, a believer in the economical use of calls, which only gels with what is understood about this bird.
The blue-faced malkoha errs on the side of caution, retreating deep into bushes and canopies at the slightest sign of an intrusive presence — which is clearly the best survival strategy for man in these times.
On a tangential note, last year, when the Coronavirus was beginning to assume terrifying proportions, former Australian cricketer from the 1970s Ian Chappel dervied inspiration from a 1998 Sachin Tendulkar innings to face its curveballs. Squaring off against the Aussies in Chennai, the master blaster had scored 155 to wrest the advantage from the opponents and set up a spectacular Indian win. Sachin was lauded for what he displayed during the course of the innings and before: application in the middle and preparation in the nets. How Sachin neutralised the mammoth threat posed by Shane Warne, with some help in the nets from Indian wrist-spinning legend L. Sivaramakrishan is part of cricketing folklore.
Taking a leaf out of Ian Chappel’s penchant for drawing parallels between the 22 yards and the more serious aspects of life, one might call the blue-faced malkoha an apt pin-up for the much-needed “stay-at-home and social distancing” campaign.
Its behaviour would certainly make a suitable fable for these times, but the blue-faced malkoha would merit a discussion any day (not just in the midst of a pandemic) for no better reason that that it is quite a striking creature.
The focal point of the blue-faced malkoha is what lies around its eye — the blue fleshy part ringing it. It could be easily mistaken for an extension of the eye — as did a student of Santharam, and the ornithologist corrected the assumption.
Unlike the Asian koel, the blue-faced malkoha is non-parasitic, and expends its energies on raising a family, not the least of which is assembling a nest inside a bush, usually one of the thistle variety.
In and around Chennai, known haunts of the blue-faced malkoha include the Vandulur belt, Nanmangallam forest tracts and Guindy National Park. Blue-faced malkoha sightings have also been reported from IIT-Madras.