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A bird in hand: Extract from Valmik Thapar’s Winged Fire

Valmik Thapar’s book on Indian birds includes classic essays by Abu’l Fazl and Babur, among others. Here’s an extract from The Nimble Mynah by Frank Finn

books Updated: Jan 30, 2016 12:15 IST
Valmit Thapar,Winged Fire,Birds
(Photo courtesy: Winged Fire)

‘I am not black in my heart, though yellow in my legs…’—Shakespeare

The Mynah needs perhaps to make some apology for his yellow stockings, since such mustard-coloured understandings are not usual among small birds, pertaining rather to the rapacious tribe, and being thus a badge of anything but respectability. But the Mynah atones for his yellow legs, feet, and face, by the exceedingly decorous plumage which covers the rest of him; no objection can be made to his black hood, or the sober chocolate of his body colour, or to the plain black, diversified with white, of his quills and tail. It is no wonder that Linnaeus, probably having only seen a Mynah stuffed, and concluding from his general style that he was some poor relation of the Bird of Paradise, called him Tristis, the sad-coloured, for as a Paradisea he did not show up well.

He has long, however, been degraded to his proper rank among the starlings, and named with a happiness somewhat rare among ornithologists. Acridotheres—the grasshopper-catcher—and so he is likely to remain Acridotheres tristis till the end of the chapter (the general rule being that a bird always bears the first specific name bestowed on it). Nevertheless as a starling our present subject is a rather big and showy bird, being certainly equal in looks to any of his relatives in Calcutta, none of which bear the shotsilk sheen of green and purple which adorns the home starling, also a visitor to India. For the starlings or Mynahs are in great force in the East, which is their true home, and the common Mynah is a good type of the clan. Bold, vigorous, and pushing, he secures to himself a large share of all good things in the way of insects and fruit that may be going, and is a bird of remarkably all-round abilities, though not particularly graceful in his movements. On the ground he runs and walks well, hopping when he wants to put on an extra spurt, albeit there is a swing in his gait which is not particularly elegant. No doubt, however, he is proud of this, as it is a family character; geese, which do not suffer from excessive modesty, have a similar style of going, and are known to be redoubtable pedestrians in their quiet way. But the Mynah, unlike many groundbirds, is nimble and active in a tree as well; and his flight, though not remarkably fast, is tolerable enough for ease, and he feels sufficient confidence in it to occasionally attempt a little insect-catching on the wing, when his quarry has got away from him on foot. When he flies, he tucks up his long yellow shanks to his breast, showing conclusively that birds which stow their legs this way when on the wing do so by custom, not for convenience; for from their size one would think that he would do better to stow them astern like the paddybird and other waders. The Mynah, like most of the birds I have dealt with, goes in for equality between the sexes in the matter of dress. You can only tell a hen Mynah by her slightly smaller form, and by her exemption from the amorous fits which impel her spouse to now and then puff himself out and bow grotesquely for her edification, meanwhile emitting various gurglings, presumably meant to please her ear; the result being charmingly uncertain, for with Mynahs as with men apparently

A glance of despair is no guide, // It may have its ridiculous side, // It may draw you a tear, // Or a box on the ear, // You can never be sure till you’ve tried. (1917)

Winged Fire: A Celebration of Indian Birds

First Published: Jan 30, 2016 12:15 IST