At home with the tailorbird

Lesley D Biswas | Updated on August 24, 2018 Published on August 24, 2018

Special twitterati: Nondescript it may be, but the tailorbird’s familiar call is soul-stirring   -  ISTOCK.COM

A luxuriant tree outside the bedroom window becomes a lifeline for someone who longs for the company of birds

I come from McCluskiegunj in Jharkhand, where our house sits amidst a miniature jungle of sal, mahua and semal trees. Homecoming always meant a comforting meal of roast meat and jungle pulao, served in the garden amid serenading bird calls. So when I shifted to Kolkata 17 years ago, I sought out parks and open spaces. Three years ago, despite being in the metropolis, I was lucky to move to a place where a mango tree grew outside my bedroom window.

My soul clung to the birds it hosted. Birds make me feel at home. Even when out of sight, familiar bird calls strike a chord. Being an introvert, I shy away from people and long for the company of birds.

The rhythmic tong-tong of the coppersmith barbet on a gulmohar tree nearby teleported me to my childhood, when we’d sit out on the chabutra (a concrete platform) during power cuts. It’s thrilling to be able to identify a bird from its song, and I learnt that early in life from “Guess which bird” — a game we siblings enjoyed playing.

Outside my Kolkata bedroom window, I found birds I’d never dreamed of sighting in a metro city. Such as the black-hooded oriole that flashed in and out of the green canopy on grey rainy days. One bright April morning I spotted a black-rumped flameback, my first in Kolkata. Its yellow back glistened in the sun as it romped about the mango tree trunk, poking and prodding for insects. I watched it pick out something from a hole and, as it gobbled it up, I hoped the flameback would consider the tree as permanent abode.

We live in an era when the loss of biodiversity is at its worst and the need for protected areas profound. How difficult must it be for wildlife to survive in unfamiliar territory? Don’t they also hanker for that one familiar tree where they can build their nest? A small patch of green where they feel safe?

Whenever stressed with work, I’d take my cup of coffee and perch by the window and feel the tightness in my neck muscles release. Even the noisiest of birds, the jungle babblers, or seven sisters as they’re commonly known, were a welcome respite. I’d heard an owl hoot afar, and seen a spotted owlet in the vicinity, but it hadn’t yet obliged me with a photo opportunity to mark its presence on my mango tree. When my daughter was away at school and her father at work, the mango tree and its birds kept me company. I’d rush to the window upon hearing a bird call and wouldn’t rest until I’d traced the bird.

With the common tailorbird, however, it was different.

I knew it from McCluskiegunj. Nothing striking like the vibrant coppersmith barbet, woodpecker or oriole, it could easily go unnoticed with its green upper parts and dull, creamy underparts. Yet the day I didn’t hear its exhilarating chirp, I’d be anxious. So when we shifted to our own flat in New Town some six months ago, an urban locale where trees are sparse, I was morose.

A few chhatims (devil tree) in the distance momentarily aroused my hope. Trees meant birds! But when I zoomed in through my DSLR, I could barely tell the chhatim leaf from its flower, forget birdwatching from my window.

Below, some scraggy bushes hardly suffice for the shelter the sturdy mango tree offered its residents. Heavy-hearted, I relegated myself to the prospect of spending my days with sparrows (also critically endangered), mynahs, bulbuls, and other non-fussy, accommodating city birds that nest in buildings.

Then one morning, while walking along a tar road flanked by small scraps of grass and waterbodies smothered by weeds, I spotted a brown shrike. I told myself, “All right, this isn’t as bad as you think!” Enthusiasm piqued, I waited as if expecting an old friend to part the grass curtain and wave back at me, only to sight my first scaly-breasted munia.

The next morning I took my camera along. From being highly tentative at the outset, my photo sessions with birds generally end serendipitously. By the time I have the perfect shot, the bird no longer appears threatened by my presence. I’d read years ago, in an article that Science Daily had published, that some birds have the ability to discern friends from enemies. I take inexplicable pleasure in the moment a bird makes eye contact with me and doesn’t fly away. It’s a heady feeling to be wanted by nature.

A few days later, seated by my bedroom window, I heard the soul-stirring towit-towit-towit of the common tailorbird. The familiar call felt like a voice from memory lane. I glanced outside and there it was, nondescript, flitting about the shrubs. I don’t know for how long I followed it. Perhaps it’s true, wildlife senses friendliness like it senses hostility. That moment on, this new apartment started to feel like home.

Lesley D Biswas is a freelance writer based in Kolkata

Published on August 24, 2018
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