Down in Jungleland: Turmoil in the Treetops

Nature’s comedy of errors, starring koels, crows and their chicks.

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For at least koels and crows, this is a time for turmoil in the treetops. Gentlemen koels with their pinched, twiggy waistlines and black satin plumage, pour forth their songs, through night and day in dulcet notes that rise to a crescendo and make most of us believe they’re talented lady singers. A singer begins, “kuoo-kuoo- kuoooo!” and immediately another answers, louder and more insistent. You go out to the balcony and there they are on a nearby tree: two gentlemen in black, glaring at each other out of blood-globule eyes, yelling their heads off, telling each other to get lost, so they can focus on the object of their affection. The lady in question, alas, looks like an anorexic jungle special services commando — stippled and barred in brown and white so that it’s almost impossible to winkle her out of the dappled foliage.

The happy couple romances recklessly, chasing each other wantonly through the trees and then, sure enough they have a problem at hand. Imagine the ensuing conversation:

“See what you’ve done! I’m going to have to lay! And I told you I don’t want to have anything to do with hairless little squabs yelling their heads off and demanding to be fed 200 times a day and peeing and pooping all over me! Don’t just stand there, do something!”

“Have no fear, my sweet, I have the perfect solution: you see those black guys with the grey collars and hoarse voices and beady eyes? They’re savvy, they’re smart, they’re the most intelligent birds in the world — and most of all they’re devoted to parenting (ugh!). We give up our eggs for adoption. They’ll raise the brats with all the TLC you want”

“But won’t they see through the subterfuge? You said they’re intelligent.”

“Yes, but not that intelligent. And our young ones have tricks up their sleeves, don’t worry!”

“You seem to have done this sort of thing before! May I ask with whom?”

“My sweet. I read a lot: Salim Ali et al — maybe you should too! Now this is what we have to do.”

And now, there’s turmoil in the crow’s nest. The gentleman crow espies an effeminate looking bounder clad in black silk lurking around. Is he making eyes at his gentle wife? His wife has spotted him too — and, alas, we shall never know if there’s a slight flutter in her heart as she looks into those intense ruby eyes or if she has yearned to have a voice like his. Maybe she would like to see more of this swashbuckling stranger — even if her husband wants to drive him off. They both take off — and the stranger leads them a merry, slithering dance through the tree-tops.

And now, the lady commando slips into the crow’s unguarded residence. Some say, she ejects an already-laid egg  and replaces it with one of her own. Some say, her chick will hatch and do the needful, and kick out the legitimate heirs. At any rate, the deed is done and she gives her man the all clear.

The little imposter hatches first. If the koel couple has had a daughter — she will actually be dark, like her dad — and so resemble her doting foster parents. (If she resembled her mom, the crows would know at once that they’d been hoodwinked). Little girl or little boy, the imposter chick will monopolise proceedings in the nursery: either kicking out its legal siblings, or simply shoving them out of the way at mealtimes — and making them starve to death. Its voice too, is harsh and guttural — like its foster parents, who have no clue that anything is amiss and feed it 24×7.

But, now the commando koel mom is, perhaps, being pricked by the first pangs of guilt for what she has done. She hangs around the crows’ residence, checking if her baby is being well cared for (not that she can go anywhere to complain). Once the baby fledges, and leaves its parental home, she may even bring it treats — but, unlike what happens in most Bollywood films, probably never reveals her true identity to it. (Imagine the psychological anaphylactic shock such a declaration would cause: ‘Mai tumhari maa hoon!’)
Her baby now, girl or boy, will discover strange things happening to its voice! It’s changing – not cracking, but becoming more dulcet, melodious and girlish! Imagine now, the consternation in the crow’s nest:

“Did you hear Baby just now? There’s something wrong with her voice!”

“Maybe she needs a lozenge dear, or a gargle with salt-water and haldi!”

“No! She’s sounding just like that damned black bounder we chased away before she was born, who was making eyes at you!”

“She does? He was?”

“Yes. And she hasn’t got that from me or my side of the family!”

“Are you saying that my side of the family is responsible?”

“Yes, it’s either that or you’ve been fooling around with that effeminate silky wimp behind my back!”

“Well, You never make eyes at me anymore!”

“I want a DNA test! I want to know who her father really is!”

And now imagine the shock when the DNA test results come in.

“I told you! I’m not her father. Just what the heck have you been up to?”

“Dear, have a look at this! I’m not her mother either!”

“What? Baby! Where the heck are you?”

“Never mind, dear! Now make eyes at me again as you used to, we can begin another family!”

And, up there in the tree-tops, another lady koel is angrily confronting her partner: “See what you’ve gone and done! I’m going to have to lay!”
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