Waiting for the oriole

Every morning from mid-September, I lie in bed hoping to hear it. Sometimes, it is early and my wait lasts only a few days. Some years I have to wait a whole month before the harsh call finally sounds.

Like many of you, I live in an apartment building in a city. There are very few large trees around. There are a few gulmohars and pongamia and of late, some West Indian cherry trees (also called Singapore cherry) which have cropped up because they grow really quickly. But most of the old, large raintrees, mangoes, peepals and neem have gone.

Left alone, they grow really tall and broad, sometimes getting their branches entangled among the electricity lines. The city corporation does not like this. They come and chop the branches, leaving a lopsided tree, ready to topple in the strong monsoon winds.

 But let me not digress. We were speaking about the call I wait to hear at the start of each winter — the call of the black-naped oriole.

On the first day I hear its first call, I am usually late for work because I spend far too long watching it from my balcony.

This oriole is a bright yellow bird with a black band that runs around the back of its neck, from eye to eye. The lower part of its wings is black too, and its beak is a pale red. It is a striking bird, among the most colourful that we get to see around here.

 The oriole (I always feel sure it is same one every year, although I cannot prove it) makes its winter home in the twin mango trees in the old abandoned house behind my apartment building.

The mango trees provide food and shelter to several other birds throughout the year: sunbirds and flowerpeckers, spotted doves, drongos, barbets, white-breasted kingfishers, brown flycatchers, the occasional fantail pair, a brahminy kite stopping to rest on a hot afternoon, and even the rare pitta, passing through on its way to other wintering sites.

 Once the black-naped oriole has arrived, I wake up every morning to the flat, harsh call, so unlike the melodious twittering of the small nectar-seeking birds.

The oriole is insectivorous and in January, when the mango blossoms cover the tree, attracting a feast of flying insects, it has a platter of species to choose from.

 The jackfruit tree in the same compound provides an alternate hangout. Its dense foliage forms a much better hiding place than that of the mango trees. When the oriole is among its branches, I only get the occasional glimpse of bright yellow as it hops from branch to branch picking out a meal.

 As the warmer and warmer mornings of March replace the chilliness of winter, I know it will soon leave. And once again, I lie in bed hoping to hear it, but knowing the call will be heard not here but elsewhere one day.

This article appeared in the Hindu in School on 24 April 2013.

Picture: The Black-naped oriole Credit: Pavithra Sankaran