Volume 9 - Issue 09
September 2011
Other Articles

Posted on: Sept 11, 2011





The rains have begun in Puttaparthi and the mornings are cool, wet and beautiful. The morning walk now presents a new variety of birds. Today we shall visit the songsters of our hamlet - the cuckoos!

12. Pied Crested Cuckoo (Clamator jacobinus)

The environment has been washed by the rains and there are water drops glistening on the shrubs and bushes which seem greener than normal. And sitting amidst these green bushes in an almost meditative trance is a bird in black and white, looking up at the heavens above. And as you go closer, you too feel reverence for this bird.

When a few feet away from the bird, you realize that it is not looking up but the crest on its head looks so much like a beak that from far, people are bound to mistake it for a bird looking up at the heavens! Brothers and sisters, please welcome our feathered friend, the Pied Crested Cuckoo or the Jacobin Cuckoo which is famously known as the Chataka bird in the Bharatiya mythology.

Legend has it that this bird never drinks water off the ground, however thirsty it may be. It supposedly drinks only the rain water as it falls from the heavens. It is said to live many days without water and when it is really thirsty, it calls upon the clouds to shower rain. And so it has come to symbolise a true spiritual aspirant. Lalan Fakir says,

Can drops of wisdom from the clouds of eternity,
Be available just like that, until one has the nature of the Chatak?

The great Sanskrit poet, Kalidasa, refers to this bird in his epochal work, “Meghadootam” (which translates as 'the messenger of the clouds') as a metaphor for deep yearning. And this tradition continues in literary works in Hindi.

The Pied Crested Cuckoo or Chataka bird

Swami too refers to the Chataka bird in His discourse during the Shivarathri of 1991, when He says,

sathya sai baba with bird sathya sai baba with bird sathya sai baba with bird sathya sai baba with bird  

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“The Chataka bird endures many ordeals to secure unsullied raindrops from the clouds. The moment it espies a dark cloud in the sky, it embarks on its adventure. There is water aplenty on the earth in lakes, ponds and rivers, but the Chataka bird has no use for these polluted waters. It waits for the pure raindrops in the month of Karthika and does not seek any other water. It is undaunted by thunder and lightning. It seeks only the pure raindrops falling from the clouds, without fear or concern. It sings in joy as it drinks the raindrops. The Chataka bird is an example of pure love. The true devotee should perform a similar penance (to realise God). He must have the same determination. He must go through similar ordeals to experience the ultimate ecstasy. He must not succumb to the wiles and attractions of the world.The golden life of man should be tested on the touchstone of the Lord's name.”

There is so much man can learn from Nature. A true aspirant can find inspiration and spiritual lessons in every aspect of creation. The Chataka bird is one such example.

Pied Crested Cuckoo is actually a brood parasite! This means that, after mating, the bird lays its eggs in the nest of another and thus dumps the duties of rearing the young on to the host! The babblers and the red vented bulbul often are the hosts for the Jacobin Cuckoo.

The female moves near the nest of the birds when they are not around. She sits on the rim of the nests and quickly lays her eggs over the ones already in the nest. This may sometimes cause the original eggs to crack. The host birds, raise the cuckoo fledgelings in all patience, blissfully ignorant of the trick that has been played upon them.

In looks, the Pied Crested cuckoo is a real beauty. It is slim, medium sized, black and white with a distinctive crest. And as it sits, grooming and preening itself, it appears like some queen doing her make up in a palace. And once ready, the cuckoo calls out loudly, in a rather plaintive metallic piu-piu-pee-pee-piu or with just a tinkling piu-piu.

Pied Crested Cuckoo with a flower pod in its beak

They feed on hairy caterpillars and sometimes on fruits. They are found all over India and in most of Central and Southern Africa. So if you stay in a place that lies in this region, keep your eyes and ears open for this beautiful bird during the monsoons.

13. Asian Koel (Eudynamys scolopaceus)

Our walk now meanders towards a little hillock that is dense with sub tropical trees. Strolling on the road beside this hillock, the ears are treated to one of the most melodious voices on the planet. This is unmistakably, the Asian Koel. Like the Pied crested Cuckoo, this bird too has a rich cultural history behind it. And unlike the former, the Asian Koel male is not black and white but a complete black in colour.

This bird is revered in India, Sri Lanka and many other parts of the world where its call is believed to herald goodness and newness. It is mentioned in the foremost of the Bharatiya Scriptures - Dharmashastras - in the Manusmriti ( also called the Laws of Manu) where there is a decree protecting it from harm! The Vedas have called the bird as Anya Vapa meaning “one that has been raised by others”. This probably might be the first recorded instance of brood parasitism.

The male distracts the host bird - the jungle crow, the house crow, the common myna or even the drongo (these birds will soon be introduced) - while the female goes to the nest and lays her eggs into it. From recorded literature, we hear a sad story. The Koel chick hatches 2-3 days before the chicks of the host. If the population in the nest is high, it may even evict a few eggs! The young are raised by foster parents who adopt them as their own.

The female Koel in wait

The Koel is a very shy bird to photograph. It is almost as if it feels guilty of what it is doing! And so it is with great difficulty that we managed to photograph this elusive but otherwise common bird. It is omnivorous and feeds on caterpillars, insects and fruits. They fiercely defend their fruit trees from other fruit eating birds. In India, these birds are responsible for the spread of the sandalwood trees as they disperse its seeds.

Sounds of the male koel -

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The male makes a pleasant “koo-ooo” call while the female makes a shrill “kik-kik-kik”.

Sounds of the female koel -

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Leaving that hillock behind, we proceed on the walk and the golden rays of the sun are now filtering through the branches and leaves of the coconut trees. Like Swami gliding in for darshan, we see a glint of orange! Before we realize it, the orange has disappeared!

“Oh! Just like Swami!” we say. And then again it appears! This is another shy bird of the Cuckoo family, the Crow Pheasant or the Greater Coucal. But this is different from the rest of the cuckoos in the fact that it is not a parasitic bird!

14. Greater Coucal (Centropus sinensis)

Greater coucal foraging for food

This bird is associated with many superstitions and beliefs. It has a deep call that is often associated with spirits and omens. But in a family of shrill-call cuckoos, the crow pheasant provides bass relief if we may say so!

Sounds of the Greater Coucal -

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This is a large black bird, the size of a crow, that has copper coloured wings. Like the Asian Koel, it has ruby red eyes that adds to its mysterious quality. Folklore exists galore about this bird ranging from its flesh having curative properties against tuberculosis and lung ailments to its nest having a special life giving grass. It is believed that when the nest is cast in a river the special grass in it would separate out by flowing against the stream! No wonder it has a host of local names!

Some of the local names include:

Kalli kaka, Chembakam
Kamadi kukkar
Hokko, Ghoyaro, Ghumkiyo
Jemudu kaki, Chemara, Mahoka kaki, Samba kaki
Uppan, Chemboth
Kukoo sorai,
Kukuha sorai,
Dabahi kukuha
Kumbhar kaola,
Kukkudkumbha, Sonkawla
Dao di dai
Atti kukkula, Bu kukkula


The Crow Pheasant sunbathing during the sunrise

The bird is a weak flier and is often spotted on the ground, clambering shrubs and bushes and foraging for insects, nestlings of other birds and eggs. It is also known to hunt down snakes and consume snails too. The best time to spot this bird is in the early morning when it sunbathes. The rest of the time, it seems to hide.

Unlike the other cuckoo species, it builds its own nest as a deep, domed cup inside the tangles of creepers, vines and bamboo shoots.

With that, we complete another fulfilling walk. We have made three new friends today and more await us soon from the holy hamlet of Puttaparthi! Sairam.

 - Radio Sai team

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