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.

The Other Mauritius – Riot of colour

There were several trees around hosting colonies of weaver birds; their straw nests hanging down from the branches.  They would come and visit us in ones or twos only, and were the most shy.  While most of the others would be guzzling away at our feet, the weaver birds would watch from a nearby bush, then swoop down to catch a small piece as far from us as possible and take it off into the trees to consume.  Once in a while they would hang around in closer proximity to us, which gave me a great opportunity to observe their bodies and habits.  They had the shape similar to a British starling, matched by the intensity of the look they gave you from their sharp glistening eyes.  They are one of those birds that convince you that dinosaurs are alive and well and flying around the skies.

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One of our weavers

The mynahs were similar; but much more bold, than the weavers.  They would storm in to the centre of a squabbling bunch of birds and from their greater height launch in with their beak and steal the larger chunks of bread.  Few bothered to try and steal from them and they tended not to interfere with others of their own species.

The most colourful bird that came in to our garden was a small bright red sparrow like bird called a fody.  At first we thought it might be the endemically endangered Mauritian Fody, but on closer inspection its body was rounder, the beak shorter.  But it was still a wonderful creature; the Mascarene or Cardinal Fody.  Although its wings were sparrow marked and coloured, the body was an almost complete covering of orangey red, save for a black bandits mask on its face.  It was remarkably dextrous; it would regularly cling from a high look out post on the cord for one of the blinds in the car port area.  It would often be the first there in the morning and would whistle a high pitched alert call when I unlocked the security grill and stepped out.  Like a call to arms, the other birds would come flocking in at this sound.  The fody was a nervous creature however; he would often wait until the furore from the sparrows and pigeons had died down before hopping round the quieter corners to pick up the remaining bread. But he was quite ingenious.  We normally broke up the bread into small chunks before scattering it on the ground, but sometimes we would just chuck out a sizeable cylinder of baguette.  Many of the birds attacked it from the top and found slim pickings from the crust.  It was the fody that worked out it could make more progress from the white ends of the bread, and it may take a day or two but he and a couple of the cleverer sparrows would hollow out a tunnel inside the crust.

The Other Mauritius – Feeding time

The birds in the morning became a source of great pleasure.  Mike had started the feeding early on before I arrived in Mauritius.  We tended to buy baguettes fresh from the supermarket or local store, but we never ate it all in a day, and by the second morning the crust was hard, the inside starting to go stale and dry.  So we always bought a fresh loaf each day.   In fact we bought far too much but Mike’s approach was to go large rather than go hungry.  So he started breaking it up and putting it in the driveway, and as the birds started to increase in number and confidence, threw it on the car port floor itself.  I was happy to pick up the habit, and we often had a number of birds hanging around in the morning waiting for the feed; so much in expectation  that they would flutter and squeak at you once you opened the security gate as if in protest at the poor service standards.

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Waiting for the baguettes

We had several types of birds come in.  Most numerous were the ubiquitous house sparrows who started appearing in ones or two’s – after  a few weeks there were over 25 regularly turning up in the morning.  We’d watch the squabbling, worked out families, saw flirtations.  All life was here.  A few periods we would see young fledglings come in with their mother.  They would stand on the sidelines squawking away while their mother would graze up the crumbs and fly up to feed them.  After a while they would chase their mother around the floor and she would give up and let them have some out of their food.  Finally they would see their noise was futile and after a couple of minutes of traipsing after their mother would realise the only way they would get a meal was if they picked it up themselves.

The fighting was tempestuous at times.  With all the other birds feeding away, two sparrows would come haring through the car port, screaming at the tops of their little voices.  We occasionally saw some ruthless bullying of a bird out in the garden – a whole mob bombing down on him with claws and beaks until, with a bit of luck, he could escape beyond their territories.

While not so numerous, the pigeons ate the most of the bread.  They would flock in to the driveway first, then circuitously wander round the garden as if the last things on their tiny minds was to have bread for breakfast, and then, if they thought you were not looking would come in to the car port and start to feed.  The whole coy effort was a charade; once close to the bread, very little could shoo them away again.  The only distraction was sex.  It seemed to be constantly on the minds of the males.  I found it impossible to distinguish the sexes of the pigeons until I saw the male pursuing the female round the car port.  They became so single minded that they would stomp on other birds, bump into their fellow pigeons feeding and even blunder into our chairs.  The females seemed almost permanently uninterested in any advances, indeed did everything to get away from these pests.  But they would coo and nod their heads and strut away with all the charm of an Essex boy at a disco.  And of course when they did manage to jump the female, the coital embrace lasted less than a second and he would be off in pursuit of another.  Didn’t seem worth it at all in my mind; although I was always taught about the birds and the bees, the bird way was so = fleeting.  At least it was better than the bees for the male; drones explode their insides on ejaculation with a queen bee and die.

The pigeons bullied the other birds not intentionally, just by their much larger size and blundering presence, so we tried to dissuade them and hope that some of the more interesting avian fauna would grace us with their presence.