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The nightingale of India: Bulbul

Updated October 19, 2020 13:39 IST
Flame-throated bulbul and red-whiskered bulbul
Flame-throated bulbul (Left) and red-whiskered bulbul (Photographs: Vishal Chowdhary)

One fine April morning, during the lockdown, I was awakened by cheerful, mellifluous calls. When I came out of my room, I saw a red-whiskered bulbul perched on a tree outside my house trying to woo a female nearby. After some time, I saw them indulging in theatrics together. He was a slim, lissome bird, a little smaller than a mynah, umber brown above, off-white below, with red tufts on white cheeks matched with a red bottom.

He sports a jaunty, forward pointing crest and has a ‘chinstrap’ which seems to hold it in place and which makes him look like a cheerful guardsman. This was the red-whiskered bulbul. It’s quite common elsewhere too, along with its cousin, the red vented bulbul. This cute guy gets his name from the red ‘cheeks’ that are prominent on the face, and the red vent.

After few days, I saw another pair but this was different. This pair of red-vented bulbuls was happily nibbling at small berries. In contrast to the red-whiskered bulbul, the red-vented bulbul has a short crest, giving the head squarish appearance. The head is also in dark and blackish in color. As name suggests, the bird has a red vent and its black tail is tipped white.

A pair of Himalayan Bulbuls (Photo: Vishal Chowdhary)

Before the lockdown, only crows, pigeons, and a few other birds were visible, but lockdown brought a welcome change. Lockdown restricted human movement and this encouraged birds to come out from their hidden spots, fly freely and enjoy the pollution-free environment. Due to the lockdown, I could spend more time watching the birds around. It helped me remain calm. Bulbuls and mynahs frequently come to my terrace. They became my alarm clock in those period.

For several weeks, I watched them dive in and out of the Jamun tree and bushes, from my terrace.

Bulbuls are medium sized passerine birds in the family Pycnonotidae that are widely distributed across Asia, Africa and South-western Europe. Bulbul species differ in their habitat requirements with some preferring deep forests and thick undergrowth while others like the commonly found red-whiskered and red-vented bulbuls preferring scrublands, gardens and other rural and urban landscapes.

Both the red-whiskered bulbul (Pycnonotus cafer) and the red-vented bulbul (Pycnonotus jocusus) are commonly found throughout India although the red-vented bulbul, which is one of the most common birds of India, appears to be numerous and extensively distributed. Both species are extremely territorial although red-whiskered bulbuls are less aggressive in comparison.

Red vented bulbul pair
A pair of red-vented bulbuls (Photograph: Mrityunjoy Kumar Jha)

Although primarily frugivores, bulbuls are omnivorous birds that consumes various invertebrates and grains. Both are songbirds, and have a call that goes like”petti groo groo” and a few variations of the same.

In my childhood days, radios used to play this song very often, “Ek tha gul aur Ek thi bulbul (story of pair of bulbul) from 1960s hindi film ‘Jab Jab Phool Khile’ and watching them in pairs, this song always start playing in my mind.

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After koel (cuckoo) and kabutar (pigeons), perhaps bulbuls have most caught the imagination of poets and lyricists. The bulbul is a ‘songbird’. The Persian word ‘Bolbol’ is supposed to be the origin of the now common term–bulbul. A ‘nightingale’ in the Persian language has been called the ‘bird of a thousand songs’, this small little passerine with a chirpy sweet voice is a deserving avian for this name. The bulbul is a monogamous bird, often bonds for life and this has been depicted in various songs, poems and folklore.

There are about 200 species of bulbuls in the world. In India there are 12 species, red-vented, red-whiskered, white-cheeked, striated, white-browed, yellow-browed, yellow-throated , grey-headed, square-tailed, white-throated, black and flame-throated bulbuls. Out of these, the most common are the red-vented, the red-whiskered and the white-cheeked bulbuls.

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Once red-whiskered bulbuls were a popular cage bird in parts of India. Bulbuls can be trained as pets much like the parrot and readily eat out of hand. In the past, bulbuls were made to fight with other bulbuls, each going for the opponent’s red feathers. But bird fights are banned now.

The flame-throated bulbul, also called the rubigula, is the mascot of the 36th National Games to be held in Goa because it is the state bird of the state.

While the bulbul clan seems to be faring well, three species have been put on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species. They are the yellow-throated bulbul mainly from south India, (listed as Vulnerable), the grey-headed bulbul from the Western Ghats (Near Threatened) and the rather insipid Nicobar bulbul (Near Threatened), endemic to the Nicobar Islands.

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