Magpie Robin

Hush! This Magpie-Robin just stole a bulbul’s song!

Sometimes, a familiar bird sings an unfamiliar song. Or, curiously enough, when a familiar song emanates from an unfamiliar source, it gets the birder’s attention.

Last weekend, on my morning bird walk at a nearby wetland, I observed a male Oriental Magpie-Robin (Copsychus saularis) involved in a peculiar behaviour as it attempted to scope out a nesting site in the adjoining patch of mixed woodland. It frequently mimicked a Red-whiskered Bulbul (Pycnonotus jocosus), most of the time with great felicity and on some occasions embellishing the mimicked call with additional notes of its own composition.

Birds are both famous and notorious for their mimicry. Several virtuosi lay claim to the badge of honour. In our neck of the woods, our various species of drongos top the list but among songbirds, the Oriental Magpie-Robin is no pushover.

Magpie-robins are fairly common in cities and countrysides, so we’re forgiven for taking their presence (or absence) for granted. After all, these days, birding for most practitioners of the pursuit has become a quest for the unusual. ‘Lifers’ and ‘rarities’ top our priorities, and the dopamine rush of being first-to-post on social media has reduced the joy of watching common birds to a trivial pursuit, devoid of reward or recognition.

The cock-robin includes in his soulful serenade a variety of notes he has gleaned from here and there. He is constantly updating and refining his repertoire. He tries on notes for size, he samples and resamples them, he polishes rough edges, he invents bridges, he riffs and quotes, and often crafts a whole new rendition that is sometimes unrecognisable from the source (jazz musicians need to borrow a leaf from his book, as do audio pirates — well, there’s always a dark side).

A well-travelled birder I know once made an observation that has since stayed with me and it comes to mind every time I hear a male magpie-robin sing: “His song changes depending on where he’s been on his last vacation.”

This got me thinking. We seem to know more about our charismatic winter migrants than the movements of common backyard birds. It is acknowledged that our residents are quite transient, moving about locally, often to a neighbouring patch of woodland or to a different biotope, to exploit food sources or nesting opportunities.

In any case, out of sight usually means out of mind.

For the last 80 days, I’ve been birding every day at Saul Kere, a wetland that I discovered quite by chance in December 2019 despite having lived in its vicinity for 14 years. This lake has become my daily haunt. In the last 80 days or so, I have made about 45 eBird checklists at this location. The Magpie-Robin has not always been a regular in my checklists, but on perusing the sum total of all eBird checklists made by all eBirders at this location over time, I got a fairly good idea of the frequency of Magpie-Robin records here. Discounting blocks of time for which there is insufficient data, there were periods when the Magpie-Robin was not reported at all. Now, this could be owing to a number of factors from the thoroughness of the checklist-making process to the knowledge levels of the birders, but discounting them all, here was a pattern emerging for a relatively common backyard bird.

Magpie-Robin eBird Saul Kere
Screenshot: eBird illustrated checklist for Saul Kere, as of March 14, 2020

The pattern of these absences raises more questions.

During its time away, how is the Magpie-Robin’s song vocabulary and repertoire enriched or diminished? Does it need time to adapt its breeding song to a new location? How reliably does its song represent the avian biodiversity of the region?

As a child, I observed the Oriental Magpie-Robin during my summer (April-May) and winter (December-January) school breaks in a village in Palakkad, Kerala. In winter, the birds were mostly silent, except for a thrush-like screeching and short, nondescript vocalisations that were pleasant but not particularly musical given the bird’s prowess. In summers, the male birds were in rich, full-throated song, starting as early as five in the morning and continuing well after dusk. Years later, I read in journals the writings of other observers who had also noted a fallow period in the Magpie-Robin’s song from November to February in the Indian subcontinent.

Over the last few weeks at Saul Kere, the Magpie-Robins were vocally conspicuous. Besides the highly vocal males, I had also observed a few females delivering what could be termed a song, as it was more clearly defined and structured, and more musical than a call. In the April 2002 issue of The Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS), Anil Kumar and Dinesh Bhatt wrote that though the female rarely sings, the biological significance of its song is to stimulate the breeding male to sing, and stoke his hormones. In other words, she sings to communicate her readiness to breed.

In another journal entry dated December 9, 1953, Professor K K Neelakantan (who wrote in Malayalam under the nom de plume Induchoodan) captures a well-observed anecdote of the secondary songs of various birds, including the Magpie-Robin. Most of his observations, interestingly, are in the Palakkad (then Palghat) region, very close to where I began birding as a child. He observes: “Birds which normally do not indulge in mimicry (i.e. which do not loudly reproduce the call notes or songs of other birds) introduce such imitations freely into their subsong.”

The male bird that I observed was seen aggressively mounting the tempo of his song in response to the presence of another male bird. The female, whom I have seen earlier, was not observed on the day this spectacle was unfolding. It was not entirely clear why the male bird chose to use these mimicked notes in its call. Later, it was heard uttering a prolonged and loud song from a high perch atop a tree, with its tail depressed and the body in a semi-upright stance. The notes of the bulbul’s call were adroitly woven in.

So much success seems to be riding on a song.

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