Encounter: The Brain Fever bird

When I was a child, the Brain Fever Bird was one of my mystery birds. Its plaintive call, rising to a feverish crescendo, kept me awake on many moonlit nights. I was to encounter the bird again, and again, and again, and each time the story wedged itself deeper in my imagination

When I was a child, this was one of my three mystery birds (the others were the Red-wattled Lapwing and the Indian Cuckoo). Near Palakkad, in northeastern Kerala, where I spent most of my summer vacations, moonlit nights and rainy afternoons would reverberate with the unending call of this bird. My grandparents told me the bird was crying out: ‘Kezhekku edha? Kezhekku edha?‘ (‘Where’s the east, where’s the east?’). But the bird behind the call remained a mystery. Sometimes, I would run out in the middle of a meal when I heard its call from the mango trees behind my grandfather’s house. Usually, I saw nothing but a shadowy shape flitting away, with the call trailing behind it.

I was about 14 when I had my first chance encounter with the Brainfever Bird, known to less poetic and more formal ornithologists as the Common Hawk-Cuckoo. It had just rained in the afternoon. I was strolling through the newly sown paddy fields looking for Sparrow Larks when I saw a greyish bird flapping weakly above my head. The paddy fields were like a clearing between two groves. The bird took its time covering the distance and entered the grove ahead of me. It was an acacia grove and the only purpose it really served was to provide solitude to clandestine lovers and liquor bootleggers. Of course, the kids were told that it was full of wild boar and therefore dangerous.

Alone, with a pair of binoculars, I entered the grove. I didn’t come across any clandestine lovers, bootleggers or wild boar. There were no other birds in that grove except some jungle crows and yellow-billed babblers.

The calls grew louder and they came from everywhere. There was more than one bird. I followed the calls for about 15 minutes and wandered right to the end of the grove. Then I saw it, clinging to a casuarina tree and calling. This was it – the mystery brainfever bird. And a few hundred feet ahead of it, on another tree, was another individual. And then a third broke into song above my head. The acacia grove was teeming with them.

Since, I have seen Common Hawk-Cuckoos (Cuculus varius) very often. They kept me up all night at Auroville, and then again up at Didana in the Garhwal Himalaya. This picture came out of a trip to BR Hills, when Sandy shot the guy as he pretended not to notice. Mimicking a shikra or some such hawk, it had sailed off the canopy and perched on an outlying bough.

I could imagine what was on the mind of the sahib who christened this bird as he lay in bed, tormented by malaria and humidity, listening the Common Hawk-cuckoo scream ‘Brain fever, brain fever’ in febrile crescendo. Its call, performed ad nauseam, can drive the most patient birdwatcher mad.

Look at me!

Photograph: © Sandeep Somasekharan


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  • Beej

    Founder-editor of The Green Ogre, Beej began this blog as a solo writing project in 2006. A communications professional, he has worked as a corporate storyteller, journalist, travel writer, cartoonist and photo-blogger. He was formerly the founder-editor of Yahoo India's travel site.

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