Monday, March 31, 2014

The Story of the Singing Trickster and the Shrewd Mobster

Though the title suggests that the forth coming paragraphs are a part of a story, it is quite real and happens in our daily lives. This real life story has been observed and written over the ages, some sung in songs, hymns and the like by our ancestors. It is a common story that usually people tend to neglect, but if seen and observed properly, we would all be in awe of the path evolution has taken with the main characters’ of the story. It is a battle of who evolves better and has the upper hand over the other first.
The story of the koel and the crow have been mentioned and described in detail in many books, songs and hymns before. I have the same story to tell, but with first hand observations of my own. I have experienced, first hand, about the deception of the koel, the strategies it makes, how the crows are fooled into bringing up a koel chick into the world and…. And a few more… things that no one would have imagined that a koel would do.
This story started off in March. A pair of crows brought sticks to build themselves a sturdy nest on the gulmohur tree. It was nice to watch a living being carefully plan and place sticks in a particular order to build a good sturdy home… and all this without any hands or fingers! Once the nest is almost finished, the female inspected it by squatting and settling in as if she had a clutch of eggs beneath her. I was amazed to see her judgment and precision while she arduously inspected the nest from every aspect and angle.
From here started the courting and breeding (which the crows kept private). I only saw them now and then at the nest during the evening times. The male crow used to get tidbits for the female now and then and they roosted at the nest in the evening, the male on a nearby branch while the female was in the nest. Well, till now everything was going on fine (or so we thought, the crows and I).  The crows went about their rituals throughout the day for almost a week while I observed them from my window (which was conveniently at the same height as the nest – 2nd floor). What we failed to notice was that a pair of koels were also observing the crows as well. I got to realize it at the last moment when the male koel made desperate attempts to get the crows to chase him.
After the first two attempts, I gave up on the crow activities and concentrated on the koels. The male was purposefully sitting at the edge of a branch, showing himself off by screaming. Now anyone who knows koels enough would say that they would NEVER do such a thing like showing themselves and drawing attention. At the first two attempts the crows refused to take notice of him. Then the male koel did something CRAZY. He took one bold hop at a time closing in on the crows nest. Then he flew right over the crows head (as if the crows were occupying his space and he was willing to fight for it). For a moment the crows did not know what to make of this rather ridiculous charge on their personal space.
For a few days, the crows defended their turf together. After a week, the female began to settle more and more into the nest, refusing to get up even to stretch her legs and wings. The koels, I guess, had been waiting for this very moment. For in the next 3 days, a clutch of 3 eggs were laid in the nest. All this while the male koel used to sit out in the open and make his “charge” at the crows now and then, screaming all the while. Till the eggs were laid the crows hardly took notice of the koel and his antics.
But once the eggs were laid in the nest, the variables in the equations seemed to change rapidly. The crows, on their part, changed strategy from “ignore” to “chase at sight”. The koel pair however, changed the whole plan all together. The thing is that till now, the female was hiding in the foliage while the male alone tried to distract the crows. Now, their game plan had changed. Both the male and female koels took turns in revealing themselves to the crows and took turns in tiring the crows till they gave up and went back to their nest. This was done with great planning and timely precision. At first the female koel would slowly creep up to the nest without being detected by the crows. Then with a shrill scream fly off right next to the nest.  As the crows gave her a chase, the male koel would fly perpendicularly to the female koel’s path and intercept the crows, thus dividing them. The female koel would fly helter scelter through thick foliage of nearby trees and bushes. This made the female crow to give up chase. The male however persisted and got both the crows to chase him. This drama continued for a few days, until one day, only the male was seen performing his act while the female sat in the foliage waiting patiently. After the second chase the female koel slowly made it to the nest picked up one of the three eggs and dropped it to the floor while laying her own egg in the nest. This act would have taken less than a minute. She was soon discovered by the female crow and was chased out of the vicinity.
The female crow had not seen the deeds of the female koel. Thus, for her, the nest was safe and life went back to normal. After a few days, the koel chick hatched. It looked like a mass of pink flesh with a hunch back and strong arms!! More like the hunchback of Notre dame crossed with Mohamed Ali of the bird world! It quietly moved about blindly for a few minutes and then targeted an egg.  The clever chick, using his back and those strong shoulders rolled one egg at a time to the edge of the nest and… well, as they say, the rest (of the egg) is history!
Over the next few months, the chick grew like he was given a daily dose of pharmaceutical growth enhancers. He became an adolescent in no time! This is where the real magic of the koels began!! Till now, im guessing, no one has seen this phenomenon – till date, the koel chicks voice evolved from mimicking crow chicks to slowly becoming true koel. This adolescent was in the inbetween stage of this vocal evolution. He had just begun to imitate the adult crows (at the same time he had this musical note to his voice) when the adult male koel was seen near the nest. For a few days the male koel kept his distance while still sitting on the same tree. But after a week and a half, he made his way closer and closer to the nest when the crows were away foraging. He used to sit on a perch close to the nest, in full view of the chick…. And slowly started to sing! He started with 2 short notes in the beginning and slowly went up to a full kuhoo – kuhoo and more soon after. He did this early in the morning (from around 8:00 AM to 12:30 PM) and in the evening (from around 3:30 PM to around 7:00 PM) every day!
The chick, in the absence of the crows, would imitate the koel and continue to sing when the crows were out of sight. When the crows arrived on the scene, it would give random croaks and half caws and beg for food. It would never ask the koel for food!  This went on till the chick was fully fledged. When it was time to learn to fly, the chick used to try to join the koel on the top branches and practice flying. Once the crows arrived, the chick used to go back to the nest and beg for food. It was so good at begging that the crows were occupied most of the time in foraging rather than teach the young one to fly. The chick learnt all the tricks and did all the practice only in the presence of the male koel and not the crows!
But this did not last for long. The koel got its jet black plumes and looked an adult now. Added to this, the voice had gone from crow to koel and the crows were mighty fed up of getting something to eat all the time. They coaxed the chick out of the nest, they prodded the chick out of the nest and finally they pecked the chick out of the nest!  After 3 days of pecking, the koel retaliated and opened his mouth... and how he sang! His melodious voice rang through the heads of the crows! For a moment the crows looked at each other and then at the chick, not understanding what to make of the voice that came out of their chick. Then like a lightening striking from a cloudless sky onto their heads they realized what they had been fostering all this while. They took a glance at the chick and pecked it so hard that it jumped off the nest and flew straight away across the river with full gusto! The crows were baffled again, I guess, at the sudden flight of the chick which never got out of the nest, for they did not chase it!
During all this time, the male koel sat nearby watching the drama unfold and oh ya!! The wrath of the crows was taken out on him. He managed to escape with his life between his beak, for the crows relentlessly chased him right across the river and beyond!
Well, this is just one story. The crows did manage to lay a few more eggs the next season. This time it turned out to be a female koel !! Here, the game was up much faster, for the female koel’s mottled grey feathers showed clearly and the crows ended up chasing her across the river, while the male koel life was spared!

So who do you think is evolved? Who do you think is clever? The singing trickster or the shrewd mobster?
Thus continues the arms race!!
*for those who think this is a story, its not! It is my observations over 2 years!
*for those who are having a hard time digesting the fact that koels are more than nest parasites, I would suggests you sit down and drink 2 glasses of water and calm down, as I did when I saw the drama unfold in front of my eyes!!