Birds in Concrete Jungles

Fifteen years ago, on a sultry summer morning, our entire gang assembled and watched with horror mingled with curiosity, as Achan ruthlessly demolished the larger than usual wasp nest on the car porch ceiling. As soon as the mud house hit the ground, we inspected it for casualties and were surprised to find no larvae or dead mamma wasps in it. They would have made it into our rather impressive dead insects collection that Amma threatened to throw away for probably the 100th time that week.

By noon, there was a small flock of tiny black birds with a long white patch along with their bodies, a black and white twin feather for a plumage – a kind we hadn’t seen before – fluttering about the car porch in visible panic. We were aghast when we found out that the mud house belonged to these visitors from a land afar. In their jittery trepidation, they could be seen chirping loudly, probably fighting with the “idiot whose idea it was to build a nest here” and flying in groups of threes in small circles in the air.

They dared not to come inside the porch, let alone anywhere near the ruins of their home throughout the day. But in two days, there was once again a half-made mud nest atop our ceiling, close to the original location but on the same ceiling. We did not know what had changed. Perhaps a demolition-resistant material? An enhanced security system? We never found out in the 15 years the nest stayed put on our car porch ceiling. What was first deemed an encroachment now became a curiosity.

The construction was an elaborate process in itself, a lesson in teamwork and definitely some first-class bird architecture. They worked in pairs – one would guard the nest and the other (partner) would collect the mud from outside. The partner would return with a ball of mud in its beak and fix it to the half-made house. The guard bird would now take off for its turn to collect the mud. In about a week, the nest was ready to be occupied. Theirs was not a nuclear family – grandmas and grandpas, uncles and aunts, nephews and nieces, all huddled together inside every night over the years.

Also read: A Baby Bird Called ‘It’

To say the birds became a part of the family would be an overstatement. Nevertheless, they stayed at their elaborately built mud house, even taking the liberty of leaving all of their bird droppings on the floor without the slightest hint of hesitation. In time, they even tried initiating friendly conversations with us. However, they were a proud flock: they responded only when we spoke in human voices and refused to engage in any kind of bird-voice sweet talk.

They preferred to live as equal mortals in a world we owned equally, it would seem. After long days of hunting, they preferred silent nights of blissful sleep and gave us an earful if we made too much noise. They probably never caught their worms, though, they weren’t early birds. After choosing concrete ceilings over cosy trees, we should have known they weren’t birds of the conventional kind. A species evolutionarily adapted to deforestation, they were birds of neo-concrete jungles.

In the evenings, they got playful and flew back and forth in pairs between the electric wires and their nest. Watching them swooping into their nest like tiny black missiles was a sight indeed. The nest looked like an inverted igloo, there was a small bird-sized hole forming a passage that led to an inverted dome-like structure where the birds sat. In our vivid imagination, we see them lounging in their fancy houses with roofs, away from all sorts of predators, while talking in high-pitched squeaks to their little wingless nestlings about their exploits of the day.

Many things changed during the 15 years; like a metaphorical example, the nest stayed, with each new generation occupying the house of their ancestors. The nest was never completely abandoned. The egg-laying seasons were when the droppings would reach a crescendo. Once or twice, their tiny eggs also rolled out of their nests, for want of space, perhaps. Sometimes, tiny nestlings themselves would fall, they seldom survived the fall and the clan never welcomed back the survivors we nursed back to health.

The birds were strange that way. In the 15 years, they endured flimsily handled spider web brooms, two rounds of re-painting, a home renovation and the occasional lizards and other insects that tried to stealthily occupy their cosy residence. We did not understand why the birds still chose to reside in this 15-year-old nest. Is mud nest building a lost art, a forgotten skill? Weren’t there enough numbers to justify building a new nest?

During the latest renovation, we converted the car porch to a sit-out and affixed glass windows and doors to the openings through which they swooped in and out. But we have worked out an arrangement, we keep the doors open for them early in the morning and late in the evening. Sometimes, they wait patiently at the window sills until one of us wakes up and lets them out.

The birds aren’t the chirpy flock they used to be anymore, they sense change in the air. It’s disheartening to see how they wait every morning to be let out like caged birds. There is fear in their eyes. They don’t wait around for small talk anymore.

We don’t know for how long the proud birds would be ready to submit to us their liberty this way. Coexistence can be hard when power equations are destabilised.

They have lesser freedoms and lesser rights in a world we once owned equally.

Anjana Kesav is a chemical engineering in the making, or that’s what her parents think. 

Featured image provided by the author