What’s the hullabaloo at the bird bath?

Prof. Sarath Edirisinghe recalls the drama unfolding in his garden, on Augusta Hill in Peradeniya

The northern part of the Augusta Hill Estate, extending on to the north end of the picturesque Peradeniya University Campus offered a panoramic view of the Gannoruwa valley and the distant Alagalla peak on one side and the gentle rise of the Hantane mountain range on the other.

The story I am going to relate took place more than 30 years ago. I was newly married and lived in the University bungalow at Augusta Hill that had the best view of the Gannoruwa valley. Jayanthi was still attached to the University of Colombo and used to come up for the week ends. This was the last house on the bend and the road wound almost right round the beautiful and extensive garden.

When we had visitors we used to take the long, railway station styled wooden bench owned by PAJ, across the winding road to the grassy edge and enjoy an evening drink watching the sun setting over the extensive Gannoruwa valley.

We often reminisced and vividly recreated in our minds the infamous ‘Gannoru Satana’ or the ‘Battle of Gannoruwa’ during which the young Rajasimha II, together with his brother Kumarasimha, the Prince of Uva, annihilated the much superior Portuguese forces (fought on the 23rd and 24th March 1638). During this battle the patriots killed the Portuguese Captain General, the self styled ‘King of Malvana’, Diego de Melo de Castro. Only thirty odd Portuguese survived the fierce battle.

Since the simple story I began narrating has nothing to do with Kandyan history let me get back to it without digressing. At one corner of the beautifully laid out garden, handiwork of PAJ and Indira, was an earthenware bird bath. We spent many an evening watching and enjoying the drama unfolding every evening precisely at the same time near this busy avian meeting place.

The first to arrive at the bath site were the ‘Polkichchas’ (The Southern Magpie Robin – Copsychus saularis ceylonensis Sclater). This omnipresent resident has a beautiful glossy blue-black and white body and with its partner dilly-dallied a while, pecking at insects before alighting on the bath edge. Then they would plunge themselves in the brimming water which I replenished each day. Then the babblers (The Common Babbler – ‘Seven sisters’ – Turdoides striatus striatus (Dumont) babbling all the while at a different corner of the garden would approach the bath and quietly sneak in to wallow in the cool water. The Polkichchas seemed to tolerate the babblers but often times descended on the grassy carpet and took turns in the water sports session.

The festival, a little noisier now, goes on for about half an hour. More often than not a ‘Konda kurulla’ (The Red-vented Bulbul, Molpastes cafer cafer Linnaeus) would swoosh in from a nearby shrub for a quick bath. This lively little creature with its signature vermillion red vent used to make short calls to its paramour while indulging luxuriously in its daily ablutions. G.M.Henry says that these short sprightly calls suggest the words ‘ginger beer’ and ‘sweet potato’. All of a sudden the ‘quickie’ appears.

The quickie is the ‘Pilihuduwa’ (The Ceylon White Breasted Kingfisher- Halcyon smyrnensis fusca Boddaert). Although by name this pretty little bird is a fish eater it equally relishes insects, little frogs and lizards. What takes the cake is its expertise in taking its quickie instant bath almost in flight. From a nearby tree from where it had been scanning the lawn, it would dive down at tremendous speed and plunge into the bird bath and at an equally high speed leave the water to a nearby branch giving the illusion that all was performed as a single act.

Close to 6 o’clock, with some light still remaining comes the climax of the evening performance this time with action filled drama and background music. From across the hedge and the grassy verge that sloped precariously down the precipice they would come and land quite close to the bird bath. They ignored the players who had already performed their acts. Making non-stop noises, each gets about its business of pecking for insects. Yes, these are the ‘spoil sports’ of our story. Their external appearance rarely causes any excitement in the beholders; in fact many do not even notice them in the garden. Let us stop guessing and get on with the ‘Mynahs’ (The Ceylon Common Mynah – Acridotheres tristis melanosternus Legge) whom, both Jayanthi and I christened as the spoilsports.

The justification for our branding this drab little bird as a bad boy will emerge as we narrate its disgusting behaviour at the public bath. However, the question how justified we humans are to judge bird business remains unanswered.

After the preliminary walking about jauntily with an amusing air of self-possession the birds make a bee-line to the bird bath. With much noise and spreading wings they would chase away, quite violently, who ever was having a cool dip. They would splash around spilling water all over and around the bath giving the impression that the act was purposeful.

Then they would get back to the garden and resume looking for grass hoppers. Whenever an unsuspecting babbler or a polkichcha ventured close to the bath, the spoil sports rushed en masse to chase the ‘intruders’ or according to them the ‘trespassers’. They splashed around in whatever the amount of water remaining in the bath as if to show that they were the masters and the new owners of the bath. Nonetheless, others banding together refused to surrender easily. They continued to provoke or tease the bad boys by hopping close to the bath.

This particular act was repeated every time a non- kith and kin approached the bath. Following several repeat performances we noticed that the first to leave the scene would be the babblers. The soft, musical uttering of the seven sisters could still be heard as they disappeared into the creeping darkness. The polkichchas would also disappear without much ceremony. The victors with an air of self importance would also disappear leaving a devastated battle ground reminiscent of the Battle of Gannoruwa fought in the sleepy valley down below.

We walk up to the battle arena and witness the devastation. Only about a centimetre of water now remains in the bath. We see lots of bird droppings, partly mixed with remaining bath water. We are sure they are of the spoil sports. The area around the bath, for a foot or two, is damp with water splashed by the bad guys. We also notice a circle of luxuriantly growing green grass patch around the bath, so painstakingly watered and maintained by the ‘chandias’ during the last act of the performance each day. We clean and refill the bath and retreat into the house.

The performance is over but the behind curtain activities are not. The whole episode climaxes with the brisk walk across the stage by one of the prettiest visitors to our island. Keeping well to the darker side of the arena he/she walks past the bath without even a passing glance at the now tranquil and fully restored stage. The grand finale is by a grand actor/actress, the ‘Avichchiya’ (The Indian Pitta – Pitta brachyuran, Linnaeus). This small visitor from India visiting in September /October and departing in April/May is unmistakable with its rather awkward short tail. With the disappearance of the Pitta into growing darkness the curtain falls. It is a pity that there are no players for a curtain call.

As darkness falls we switch on the garden lights. The corner where the bath is looks splendid in the artificial light. Nobody would ever guess that a breathtaking performance depicting how the meek and the innocent are overwhelmed by the high and mighty was enacted on this tiny open air stage only a few minutes ago.

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