The Other Mauritius – Training the Bulbul

Of all the birds that graced our humble abode in Calodyne, my favourite by far was the bulbul.  Although common in Mauritius and elsewhere, it has such a distinctive shape and wonderful voice that it cannot be ignored.  It is a slender, sleek bird whose body plumage is off white, and its wings a brown to black mix.  It has a long thin beak and its head has two distinctive features, a long dark grey crest on a black and white head, and on each cheek a red flash.  This has given it its common name in many parts of the world; the Red Whiskered Bulbul.

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Bulbul – still from a video

Its song is sweet and varied, and once detected, you realise it is one of the strongest singers in the community.  It has a long call which pierces through the air, and it can chunter away to you at close proximity too.

At first it seemed to come under the category of one of the shier birds.  It would observe from a nearby shrub, or at best sit on the furthest part of the car port wall.  If it was feeling bold it would swoop down at high speed and grab what it could before retreating to safety.

But I started to realise it was much more clever that than.  It was observing like many of the birds, yes, but it was also a quick learner.  He would see me holding the bread and breaking off a piece and he knew if he started his approach as I lifted my arm he would be first to dart in and scoop up the bread before the others had noticed what was happening.  He would then return to his favourite perch and watch my hand again.  I started to tempt him with holding the piece of bread up between thumb and forefinger.  I’d extend my arm out as far to the left.  The bird watched intently but could not summon the confidence to come and take it, but as soon as I released it he was over and caught it as it reached the floor.  Patiently I would repeat the exercise, again and again.  The bird each time would stare intently at the bread, sometimes would flap his wings ,obviously in two minds as to whether to come over or not.

It took a few days of trying.  One morning I was up earliest as usual and had spread around some of the bread that the sparrows and pigeons were now fighting for.  The bulbul appeared on its usual perch up in the eaves of the car port.  I ripped off a chunk of bread and held my arm out as far as I could reach.  He flew over, stabbed straight at the bread, turned on a sixpence and flew out into the garden.  I looked at my empty hands in astonishment.  There had hardly been time to experience the brush of his wings, the cool air flapped around my fingers and the vicious little tug as he took the bread away.  What is more, it had obviously astonished him in to shyness again and I did not see him back that breakfast.

When Mike emerged for his fag and coffee I smirked at him and told him what had just happened.  “What?” he exclaimed;  “I’ve been trying to get these fuckers to take bread from me for months!  I don’t believe you.  I have to see it.”

The bulbul did not return that day.  In fact he did not make an appearance for several more days and I began to wonder whether it had been a one off fluke.  Then one morning he did turn up again, fortuitously when Mike was sitting out on the port with me, one breakfast time.  I started the tempting process.  The bulbul hesitated, but this time not for long; he came across and grabbed the bread, this time with more precision and care and much less fear.

Mike was astonished, then sick with envy, then he smiled and said “good on you”.  What a privilege to have this incredibly beautiful and intelligent bird interact in such a way.  Eventually he took Mike into his confidence and allowed to be hand fed by him too.

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