Incredible guests bring unexpected joy
Experience the amazing journey of discovery from nesting, through the entire stages of egg-laying, incubation, hatching, to flying the coop, as seen first-hand by the author.
It was March 2nd, 2018 – the day of Holi. While talking over the phone in my balcony, I discovered a beautifully woven bird nest among the potted plants. I had seen these birds quite a few times in the preceding days, carrying threads, feathers etc but had no clue about their purpose. I have been living in this apartment for 16 years, never had a bird nested in here. Suddenly, a tailor bird couple had made my balcony their ‘home sweet home’.
As I admired the structure of the nest I wondered how could they have literally sewn the edges of three leaves with small twigs and threads while supporting it from below by another leaf. The leaves were chosen with care. Leaves on top were so placed that they blocked the scorching rays of the setting sun. Thankfully, the mouth of the nest was conveniently placed, such that I could see the inside from my room.
For the next two days, I could not determine the presence of eggs in the nest. While trying to quench my curiosity during the birds’ absence, I found that the interior was beautifully lined by soft feathers and cotton wool to make it smooth. On March 5, after a couple of days of vigil, I discovered that there were four eggs! The eggs were about half an inch in length, oval in shape, bluish-white in colour with brown speckles on the surface. I started waiting for the would-be guests with baited breath.
In this early phase, I couldn’t tell the parents apart. Later I realised that only the mother incubated the eggs. Throughout the day, she gathered food and kept an occasional vigil on the eggs. After sunset, she sat quietly on the eggs. We stopped switching on lights in our balcony, lest we disturb this new avian family.
As the days passed, the duration of incubation increased, the mom sat on the eggs almost through the day. Then on March 18, I noticed that the bird had not entered the nest since morning. It struck to me that the eggs might have been hatched. I again peeped to discover that the chicks were out. It took 13 days to hatch since I found the eggs.
The first look of the chicks was terrible – only pink flesh with a small head and big eyes covered with black skin were visible. Almost an inch each in length, the chicks could not hold up their neck at all, yet they were reflexively opening their mouths for food and made a faint squeaky noise. I named them Laxmi, Saraswati, Kartik and Ganesh but of course without sex determination.
Documenting their lives through my camera lens became my new passion. Every day I would spend hours with the camera to get a perfect shot of feeding. I stole snapshots of the newborns when the parents were away. They would not give me even a minute, as both the parents took turns to keep watch over their babies. One day, the father caught me very close to the nest with my camera and screeched for minutes- like a fire alarm. Gradually, I think he got accustomed to me, he still screamed when I got close, but the intensity decreased. By that time, I could identify the father and mother from their features and from their calls.
On the second day, a black line appeared on the chicks’ back and on the third day, their beaks reached the level of the rim. On the fourth day, rudimentary wings appeared and chicks started stretching their necks out for food. Their eyes started to open since then and on the fifth day, a white beak-line became clear. Till the fourth day, the mom rested on her chicks at night. A mother myself, I found solace in the fact that the babies were protected from predators. On the sixth day, the chicks started spreading their small wings.
The chicks were on a fully non-vegetarian diet – spiders, caterpillars, damsel fly to name a few. The whole insect was shoved all the way to the stomach. The mom brought medium-sized insects but the father would bring bigger ones and then call for the mom to feed. If the mom did not respond, he would feed the babies himself. While feeding, the mom sat on the rim of the nest, but the dad would circle the nest for a while, then perch on a leaf, bend his body and feed them in a hanging position. The father was more beautiful and charismatic I would say.
When I came back in the afternoon on the tenth day, I was surprised to see the nest full of black lumps as their bodies now had a black feather. They were riding on one another-the beginning of sibling rivalry. I noticed that their eyes were much bigger and two projections were seen on either side of the head which could be the position of the voice box and would come down to either side of neck finally. The nest started sagging on one side due to increase in weight, so I tied a rope to keep the plant upright.
The chicks were growing very fast. On the twelfth day, their feathers turned greenish, looking quite handsome! Initially, I wondered if the mom knew whether she fed all of them evenly, but later I realised that she could see inside their stomach if the previous food was digested, thus she decided whom to feed. The undigested food would be forcefully taken out by inserting the beak deep into their stomach making them ready for next feed. Thus all four chicks grew uniformly.
I found out elsewhere that tailor bird chicks fly away with their parents on the fourteenth day but these chicks were too smart. On the thirteenth day, by the time I woke up, one chick had already left. I got to see the first flight of the rest three chicks. Balls of two and a half inch with green and pearly white silky feathers. They now had a thin tongue and their calls were much louder. One gave me ample scope to photograph as it was not as frisky as it’s parents. First, it flew to other leaves of the same plant, then onto the window sill, scared and confused, jumped to another plant. From there it took a good but inadequate flight and landed on a cloth that I hung to protect them from scorching sunlight. Incidentally, this was a handstitched baby cloth (Kantha in Bengali) on which my kids lay during their infancy.
The last two chicks were two hours late to fly. Their father continued to feed but much less frequently. He was calling from nearby plants cajoling the babies to come out in search of him. Surprisingly, the mother bird disappeared the day before the chicks flew away! I wonder if it was a ploy to force the chicks to forage for food on their own. The third chick must have been a girl. It took a long time to dress up. She cleaned every feather before coming out. They really are sticklers for cleanliness. They removed egg shells immediately after hatching, probably to prevent injury to the chicks. Before the last chick flew away, the father bird took away a lump of cotton wool and fallen hairs from the nest leaving behind an absolutely clean nest.
The father took to major parenting responsibilities when the mother left, feeding and guiding them in their first flying attempts and he continued to so for the next fortnight. As the area of their movement increased the loudness of the father’s call also increased. Normally his call was ‘Ti-titik, Ti-titik’ but when calling unresponding chicks it changed to a much louder ‘pick-pick-pick-pick’. It baffled me that they started to fly before their tails matured, but it was the right time for them to spread their wings.
Tailorbirds nest in the high branches of trees, but these urban birds have adapted well. The journey of these birds gave me an insight into their parental care and made me inquisitive about the habits of the birds as a whole. I learnt that female birds choose partner by the best ornamental cue (here the long feather) of the male which is a proxy for parental skills. Mostly it’s a bi-parental care but female flies away with other male mates entrusting the father to teach flying! Females thus conserve energy for the next breeding. Quite different from human beings who are emotionally attached to their kids for life.
My daughter joked that six people have attained adulthood under my care, of course, including my two kids. From nesting to flying, these guests lived with me for almost a month. It became such an emotional attachment that tears would roll down at the sight of the empty nest. I never expected my potted plants to bring me such a priceless experience.
Read also: Of Dancing flames and Geese
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