No, it isn’t Christmas, and that’s not a misprint. The koel is a common bird around these parts, and it has a very distinctive call. I used to think that it was a seasonal visitor, like the European cuckoo, which every year provokes a competition among writers to the national newspapers in England to determine who heard one first. However, this year I heard a koel on 16th February, which is seriously early for a mere visitor, even though we have had a surprisingly mild winter.
The reference to the cuckoo is not a coincidence, because the koel is sometimes referred to as the Asian cuckoo, although the two are not related. However, like the cuckoo it is a brood parasite (laying its eggs in the nests of other birds), and like the cuckoo its call is instantly recognizable. The similarity ends there: while the call of the cuckoo is gently evocative of the English summer, the koel’s call is extremely loud and insistent. Two years ago (Birdsong) I had no idea what I was hearing and described it as the ‘swanee whistler’, because its call resembles the sound made by a swanee whistle as the plunger is pulled out. However, I should point out that the swanee whistle hasn’t been made that can match the volume generated by a koel on full throttle.
Only a week after hearing the first koel, I heard a magpie robin singing. Although these birds are here all year round, they sing only in springtime. But they are the best singers around these parts, and each individual has its own song. It may sound odd to be saying so, but you need to see a magpie robin singing in order to appreciate its song, because the whistling sound by which this bird can be identified is only a part of its repertoire. The background of short chirps and throaty warbles that you hear is easily mistaken for the contribution of other birds, but watching confirms that it is all the output of a single individual.
The song of an individual magpie robin is often very complex (click to play):
Over the past few days, I have been out and about trying to record some of these sounds of springtime; yesterday, I heard a magpie robin singing its heart out at the top of the tree in front of our house, so I rushed up to the roof to record it. Behind the robin, an invisible koel was also sounding off. If you can imagine a piccolo soloist in the front row of a symphony orchestra, interrupted at the end of every bar by a brief glissando from a bass trombone, played fortissimo, in the back row, then you will have a good idea of the musical conflict involved.
The call of a koel drowns out a magpie robin’s song (click to play):
Having mentioned the mistaken association of the koel with the European cuckoo, I am reminded of other local birds that bear no resemblance to purported European relatives. The masked laughing thrush, which looks like a fat partridge wearing a Lone Ranger-style mask, possesses none of the musical talents of its European and North American namesakes. Its local name, ‘seven sisters’, is a reflection of two characteristics: it tends to appear in groups of six or seven; and they all ‘talk’ at once, producing the incessant chatter that is also reflected in the well-known Cantonese saying ‘three women make a market’.
The black-collared starling, like its European namesake, has some talent as a mimic, but it looks more like a parrot or a puffin, apart from the beak. Although these birds can occasionally be seen in large groups, they are more usually seen in pairs, which appear to be arguing constantly. They are the commonest victims of the koel’s egg-laying activities, which may account for their ill-tempered exchanges.
One common local bird that cannot be mistaken for a European lookalike is the red-whiskered bulbul, which has a prominent pointed black crest and red cheeks. Ever since I learned, a few years ago, that the local name for this bird is the ‘court official’, I’ve been unable to observe its fussy antics, constantly hopping from twig to twig, without being reminded of the silly hats that used to be worn by high-ranking civil servants in imperial China. Its song is easily recognized—always the same sequence of four notes—but I sometimes wonder why, if it is able to sing four different notes, it doesn’t sometimes sing them in a different order. After all, it has 4!(=24) permutations to choose from.
It was probably a mistake to equate the koel with the loudest instrument in a standard symphony orchestra, because the ‘telephone ringer’ has yet to make an appearance this year. I’ve no idea of the real identity of this bird, because I’ve yet to see one, but what I can say is that this one is not only loud; it is deafening if heard at close range. And, to make things even worse, it keeps going all night! The ‘fire alarm’, by comparison, has quite a modest call, although the only reason I don’t mistake it for the real thing is that we don’t have one installed.
What the hell was that? A ‘telephone ringer’ deafens the neighbourhood (click to play):
postscript, 7th april
I feel as if I’ve just guessed Rumpelstiltskin’s real name. After years of calling it a ‘telephone ringer’, I’ve discovered that it is a large hawk cuckoo, and like the koel it is a brood parasite.