In the corner of the garden in front of the old house, among the tangled bushes, the tiny Sunbirds came flying in. It was a bright spring morning. The cold of the winter had gone, but the sun was still soft and warm. The Sunbirds, a male and a female, looked different from each other. The male was brightly coloured. When the sunlight fell on his feathers in the correct angles, he looked blue, green or purple. He was dazzling. The female was not as bright. She was dark grey black and whitish. They were tiny, only as small as my thumb, but they could fly very fast.
They flitted around the untidy, overgrown garden. The house was broken down. No one lived in it except pigeons and bats, a dog and perhaps a few snakes. No one cared for the garden, but the trees were in bloom. The Sunbirds drank nectar from the flowers, then sat on the topmost branches and sang loudly in shrill voices. They flew down nearer the ground. In the depths of the bushes they saw the place to build their nest.
The old garden was perfect for nesting. No one cleared the ground of fallen leaves, so there were enough dry leaves and twigs to build it. The house and the bushes were full of cobwebs which the birds brought in their beaks and cemented the leaves together to complete their work.
It was a tiny, purse shaped nest. The mother Sunbird snuggled inside on a bed of dry leaves and feathers of pigeons that they had collected from inside the house. In there, she laid 3 tiny eggs. Then she sat on them to keep them warm, so that the tiny lives inside would grow into tiny chicks.
From the window of the house next door, a small boy excitedly watched the process. With him was his uncle, with a camera. The camera had a very long lens. So long that it looked like a gun! They were taking photographs of the Sunbird and the uncle, an expert, was teaching his small nephew about sunbirds.
“Look,” he said, showing him a book with pictures of many birds. “This is a Purple Sunbird. Have you seen the colour of the male bird? It is purple, but he looks black some time and at other times, he looks even blue. Both have short tails and long curved bills.”
The Sunbirds were also being watched by the Koel couple in the trees. They were much bigger birds, as big as crows. The male was a dark black. The female was brown with white speckles.
Koels are good singers. The males sing beautifully during the spring. People listen to them in awe. Even other birds listen to the Koel carefully. But that is for a different reason.
Inside the house, the uncle had also seen the Koel. “Look, that is a Koel,” he told the boy. “They are a kind of cuckoo. They don’t build nests. They lay eggs in nests of other birds. Those birds incubate their eggs and bring up their babies. Usually they select nests of crows and similar birds. Crows do not like the Koel at all. They chase them as soon as they hear their call.”
“How mean,” said the boy. “Why don’t they build their own nests?”
“That is how Nature has made them,” explained his uncle. “Every animal and plant has their special ability.”
“But it is wrong…” said the boy.
“Think about it,” said his uncle. “We human beings also cut down trees , destroy forests and fill up marshes to build our homes. Thousands of birds and animals have to die or leave so that we can live.”
The boy kept quiet.
The Koel also lay eggs in Sunbirds’ nests if they get a chance. Our Sunbirds did not know this, though. They had lived in a tiny garden till now where no Koel could reach their nest. So they did not know that the Koel was watching them carefully and why.
As soon as the nest was ready and the eggs were laid, the female Sunbird was incubating them, the male Koel started singing. Usually when this happened, birds flew out of their nests to chase the male Koel away and while they chased him, the female Koel hopped inside their nests and laid her own eggs.
But the Sunbirds had never heard of this before, so they did not fly out to chase the Koel. The female kept sitting on its seat in the nest, the male flew around the flowers. The female Koel had to wait till the next morning, when the female Sunbird left her nest to feed on the nectar of the red flowers of the Gulmohur tree. She quickly hopped into the tiny nest, picked up the Sunbird’s eggs with her beak and threw them out one by one. This is what Koels do, indeed most cuckoos do this to make place for their own egg. The Koel was not able to throw out all the three eggs, however, because she saw the female Sunbird finish her meal and worried that she might come back. She quickly laid one egg and flew off.
The female Sunbird was surprised to find a new, big egg in place of two tiny ones. She called the male Sunbird.
“That does not look like one of our eggs,” said she.
The male bird frowned. “Whose egg do you think it is?” he asked. “It is in our nest, so it must be ours.”
“If you say so,” said the female Sunbird, “but I never could have laid so big an egg.”
“Well, it is inside the nest, so better sit on it,” said the male Sunbird and he flew off.
With great difficulty the female Sunbird sat on the eggs. The Koel egg was bigger than even her — much bigger! There was hardly any space left in the nest. She found it difficult to incubate her own tiny egg, so she kept hopping off the big egg to incubate the small one too, every now and then.
On the ground below the nest lay two broken eggs. Ants feasted on the yolks.
The boy looked through the binoculars. His uncle finished taking pictures and explained that birds usually could not understand that the eggs were not theirs — even tiny birds sat on the big eggs and fed the large Koel chicks thinking they were their own babies.
Very soon the two eggs hatched and the chicks came out. The Sunbird chick was as tiny as the Koel chick was huge. Soon after they came out, the Koel chick tried to push the Sunbird chick out of the nest. Just like their mothers, Koel chicks push other eggs and chicks out of the nests, so that they can get all the food that the mother and father birds can bring.
But the mother Sunbird saw what the Koel chick was doing. She scolded her, thinking it was her own baby. “What are you doing to Ranichari, your sister!”
“Is the tiny one called Ranichari?” asked the father Sunbird.
“Yes,” said the mother Sunbird proudly. “She is my queen bird.”
“And what is the name of the big one?” asked the father Sunbird.
“Shhh,” scolded the mother Sunbird. “You will hurt her feelings.”
Even though she scolded father Sunbird, it was evident that she had not thought of a name for the big chick herself.
“Call it Kalichari,” said the father Sunbird. “It is black like the midnight!”
The name stuck.
It was soon clear that Kalichari was a very selfish bird indeed! He used to raise his larger body and tried to take away the food that the Sunbird parents would bring to feed them. The father Sunbird would be fooled, and would end up feeding only the bigger baby. Mother Sunbird was smarter, though.
“Kali,” she would shriek. “Get down, get down now. I have given you enough and I saw Papa feed you everything he brought. Let Rani get some, too!”
Father Sunbird, sitting on a high branch, shifted his feet uncomfortably. He never could scold his children. Mother Crow, whose nest was lower in the same tree, peeped over the edge of her nest and looked at the Sunbirds’nest.
“Oh, you have a Koel chick there,” she said.
“What?” asked Father Sunbird sharply. “What do you mean?”
“That is a Koel chick,” said the Father Crow, flying in. “Can’t you understand? See how much bigger it is than your chick or even you!”
The Sunbirds looked at the chicks carefully.
“You know,” said Father Sunbird. “I think he may be right.”
“Yes,” said Mother Sunbird, thoughtfully.
“In fact,” said Mother Crow, “I am worried that one of mine is a Koel egg too, you know, but I don’t know which one. Their eggs and chicks are so much like ours, that I cannot make out which one is the Koel’s. So I have to bring them up together.”
“And very often the Koel chick pushes all our chicks out of the nest when we are not looking and we end up bringing up that only one Koel chick, blast it,” said the Father Crow, angrily.
The Sunbirds looked at each other and then at the large baby bird beside their own Ranichari — who was so tiny and helpless.
“There is only one way to do,” said the Father Crow. “Throw it away, the Koel baby. I would have done it with our one, if we could have made sure it was not ours.”
“True,” said the Mother Crow, worried. “But we can never be sure…”
“But you can tell the difference,” said the Father Crow angrily to the Sunbirds. “You can see how much bigger it is than you. So you clearly know who your baby is. Just throw it out!”
“Oh, it is too big to be thrown out by them, see how tiny even they are compared with the chick,” said the Mother Crow angrily. “But you can stop feeding it. If you stop feeding it, it will die.”
The sun set, night came. The day birds settled down to sleep. Bats and owls silently flew out into the sunset to look for food.
The Sunbirds sat discussing the problem for a long time into the night.
“We cannot throw it out,” said the Father Sunbird finally. “It is too big for you or me, or even both of us together. What do you think of the Crows’ suggestion?”
“No,” said the Mother Sunbird, shocked. “You are not thinking of starving the poor chick? It is not the chick’s fault that it is in our nest!”
“True,” sighed the Father Sunbird. “We must guard Ranichari very very carefully from now on.”
“Yes,” agreed Mother Sunbird. “And make sure we give her enough food to eat, too.”
Days went by. Baby birds grow up faster than children do and very soon, a dark black bird sang out coo-ooo from the crows’ nest. Before long, the Koel chick flew off leaving the angry Crows behind.
Ranichari was also getting ready to leave the nest. She was already looking like her mother — dark back and whitish belly. She often sat on the edge of the nest and flapped her wings, but they were still too weak to lift her off into the air.
It was Kalichari who did it, actually. One day Ranichari was on the edge of her nest, trying to hop off to the branch next to it. She had practised hopping off the previous day. Father and Mother Sunbirds were flying around excitedly, encouraging her.
Suddenly, from inside the nest, Kalichari came out in a hurry. By now she was a large bird, dark brown, almost black in colour, with spots of white, showing the world that she was indeed a female Koel. She wanted to be away. She was too big for the nest anyway. She jumped on to the edge of the nest and flapped her wings before taking off.
Ranichari got pushed off from her perch. She fell, hitting the leaves and branches as she went down, desperately trying to fly, but she could not spread her wings because there was no space among the leaves of the trees.
Father and Mother Sunbirds flew around worried, shouting their heads off for Ranichari.
“I told them to kill that Koel chick,” said the Father Crow to Mother Crow.
Ranichari kept falling. She fell below the lowest branches and then there was nothing to stop her from opening her wings before she reached the ground. She flapped her wings as hard as she could and then, to her great happiness, she realised she was not falling any more. She was going up! And up she went. Higher and higher, finding space so that her wings did not hit branches and leaves. She cleared the trees. She came out into the open air above the tree and there were her parents, still flying round and round, calling her name.
“Here I am,” she called. They came flying to her, happy. They turned to scold Kalichari for being so clumsy — but she was nowhere to be seen. Like all Koel babies, she had flown away forever. Soon, she would be laying eggs in other birds’ nests and flying away, just like her mother did.
“Whew!” said the Father Crow. “What a drama!”
The boy and his uncle watched the Sunbirds fly away into the blue sky.
“Done,” said the uncle. Taking his camera to the computer to see how today’s pictures had turned out. “They are gone. They will come back again next year.”