Fictional Birds, Part I

This is the story of the great war that Rikki-tikki-tavi fought single-handed, through the bath-rooms of the big bungalow in Segowlee cantonment. Darzee, the Tailorbird, helped him, and Chuchundra, the musk-rat, who never comes out into the middle of the floor, but always creeps round by the wall, gave him advice, but Rikki-tikki did the real fighting.

That is from Rudyard Kipling’s wonderful short story Riki-Tikki-Tavi, the mongoose who saved his human family from Nag and Nagaina, the cobras. But it really wasn’t Darzee who helped, it was his wife. When the time came that Nagaina had to be distracted while Rikki-tikki-tavi scurried off to the melon bed to break the cobra’s eggs, it was Darzee’s wife who knew what had to be done and did it.

Darzee was a feather-brained little fellow who could never hold more than one idea at a time in his head. And just because he knew that Nagaina’s children were born in eggs like his own, he didn’t think at first that it was fair to kill them. But his wife was a sensible bird, and she knew that cobra’s eggs meant young cobras later on. So she flew off from the nest, and left Darzee to keep the babies warm, and continue his song about the death of Nag. Darzee was very like a man in some ways. She fluttered in front of Nagaina by the rubbish heap and cried out, “Oh, my wing is broken! The boy in the house threw a stone at me and broke it.” Then she fluttered more desperately than ever. Nagaina lifted up her head and hissed, “You warned Rikki-tikki when I would have killed him. Indeed and truly, you’ve chosen a bad place to be lame in.” And she moved toward Darzee’s wife, slipping along over the dust. “The boy broke it with a stone!” shrieked Darzee’s wife. . . .[Nagaina replied,] What is the use of running away? I am sure to catch you. Little fool, look at me!” Darzee’s wife knew better than to do that, for a bird who looks at a snake’s eyes gets so frightened that she cannot move. Darzee’s wife fluttered on, piping sorrowfully, and never leaving the ground, and Nagaina quickened her pace.

Scientists have a technical name for that kind of avian behavior, they call it “Distraction Displays” and many ground dwelling birds are quite adept at it. Kipling was taking fictional liberties with that distraction display. Such displays are almost always the behavior of ground dwelling bird parents trying to keep a predator away from their nest. orthotomus_sutorius.jpgTailorbirds, so named because they pierce the edges of a large leaf and then sew it together using plant fiber or spider’s web to make a pouch which they fill with grass to make their nest, nest in trees. They live in South Asia and are warblers with short rounded wings, short tails, strong legs and long curved bills. They hold their tails upright, like wrens. Kipling knew his birds; his story takes place in an urban garden and tailorbirds live in open woodland, scrub and gardens.

He may have known his birds but he was writing in the Victorian Era and Darzee’s wife never gets her own name. But, like I said, it was she that knew what had to be done and did it. When Nagaina is about to kill the little boy who rescued Rikki-tikki at the beginning of the story, Rikki-tikki arrives with the last of the cobra’s eggs in his mouth. Nagaina forgets killing the boy in order to get her last egg.  She eventually does and flees for her hole with the egg in her mouth. Darzee just keeps on singing:

But Darzee’s wife was wiser. She flew off her nest as Nagaina came along, and flapped her wings about Nagaina’s head. If Darzee had helped they might have turned her, but Nagaina only lowered her hood and went on.

And so, because Darzee is an idiot, Rikki-tikki has to follow Nagaina into her hole and little mongooses are frequently killed by snakes in snake holes where there is no room for the mongoose to manuever. But Rikki-tikki emerges the winner. Then we are introduced to the second bird species of the story, the Coppersmith Barbet.

Tell the Coppersmith, Darzee, and he will tell the garden that Nagaina is dead.” The Coppersmith is a bird who makes a noise exactly like the beating of a little hammer on a copper pot; and the reason he is always making it is because he is the town crier to every Indian garden, and tells all the news to everybody who cares to listen. As Rikki-tikki went up the path, he heard his “attention” notes like a tiny dinner gong, and then the steady “Ding-dong-tock! Nag is dead–dong! Nagaina is dead! Ding-dong-tock!” That set all the birds in the garden singing, and the frogs croaking, for Nag and Nagaina used to eat frogs as well as little birds.

The Coppersmith Barbet is also a resident of South Asia. megalaima_haemacephala.jpg It is the most common barbet and lives entirely in trees, preferring open wooded country and urban gardens. Its call is a loud metallic sounding “tuk…tuk…tuk,” which is how it got its name. It makes the call by closing its beak then inflating and collapsing its throat like a rubber bulb. It does this monotonously for hours, accompanying the call with much shaking of its body and tail. It is one of India’s most frequent bird sounds, during the warm season. It is largely quiet in colder weather. Rikki-Tikki-Tavi takes place during the warm Monsoon season.

Like I said, Kipling knew his birds.


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