Saturday, February 15, 2014



Puff ball
~ m krishnan
PUNDITS have been puzzled by the lora’s taxonomical position, whether to place it with the bulbuls or with the orioles or in a class by itself, but no one has ever doubted that it is one of the most charming of our garden birds. In the breeding season the dapper little cock wears a vivid livery of black and yellow — the hen is on less attractive, all the year round, in green and yellow. The cock has a variety of loud, clear calls, some of them remarkably like a human whistle, and its courtship display is justly celebrated. It shoots up into the air and then descends on slow wings – “all at once the long, white downy plumes that keep its ribs warm will start out on each side, then, like a white puff ball dashed with black and gold, it will slowly descend, quivering and glittering in the rays of the morning sun”.
However, it is of the nest and the hen that I write. Let me quote “Eha” again, on the nest. “A beautiful piece of work, a little cup, the size of a small after-dinner coffee cup, compactly woven of fine fibres and bound all round on the outside with white cob-webs.” It is as dainty and almost as white as the best china, but of course it is much lighter, being made of fibres and gauzy cobweb, not heavy clay.
In September this year I found a lora’s nest in a mango tree, some 13 feet from the ground and in the ultimate fork of the lowest bough. The only way to get on terms with the nest, for photography, was to build a machan-hide beside it on four stout poles, but I had no time for elaborate constructions and so used a packing case on top of a stool, which gave me almost an eye-level view when I stood upright upon it. However, there were difficulties. The cock, which took the afternoon sessions at the nest, would not come anywhere near while the undisguised photographer stood by. But the hen, which covered the eggs during the forenoon and at night, was a close sitter and was prepared to suffer my proximity, so long as I kept quite still and had a dark-khaki bush-shirt over by head.
There were other difficulties. The tall library-stool and rickety legs, the packing-case had very limited stability and I weigh close on 160 lb — a combination of circumstances ill suited to one another. In fact, in the attempt to rise gradually on my toes so as to get the lens level with the nest, I came down precipitately, but after assuring myself that both camera and self were whole, I learnt the excruciating trick of the feat. Throughout the hen lora sat tight, indifferent to my ludicrous fall. Its only response to my nearness was to turn in the nest so as rudely to present its tail to me, however, I shifted the stool and altered my angle of approach.
You should have heard the hen calling to its mate, which keeps within hearing distance, when it was the cock’s turn to take over — a torrent of quick, musical notes that seemed, to the human ear, to be fired with impatience. This call was also used when the hen, returning to the nest spotted me on my precarious packing case, head and camera bowed and the sweat running in a steady trickle down my chin. The temptation to look up at the bird was great, but very soon I learned the wisdom of wanting till it was well settled in the nest before raising the camera.
On the evening of 14 September there was a sudden downpour. A friend wondered how the little bird and the frail, exposed nest could survive the drenching. Later in the night, the rain changed to an exquisitely fine drizzle and a cold wind set in. At 10 pm I visited the nest, with the paraphernalia for flash photography. The next gleamed whiter than ever in the beam of my torch, but where was the bird? I mounted the packing-case and gradually stood up — and saw a remarkable sight. A soft deep pile of white topped the next, like a roof of silk-cotton — that was the hen covering the eggs, so lost in the fluffed out down that no trace of head or wing or recognizable bird feature could be seen. After taking my photograph I climbed down, but accidentally touched the bough in my clumsiness.
At once the lid of fluff rose up till it was a ball of fluff with just a tiny bird-face visible on top, then slowly the down-feathers subsided till the lora was recognisable as a bird, though still much puffed out. Then it hopped on to a twig above the nest, puffed itself out again till it was once more a ball of fluff and went to sleep. The head and feet, and even the twig beneath the feet, were completely lost in the down, and the bird looked like a larger, puff-ball nest above the cup-nest in the fork that held the eggs.
I retired quietly hoping the bird would return to its nest with my departure. At 1 am when I furtively revisited the nest, the puff-ball was still on the twig above the fork and I took a photograph. The fine drizzle had stopped, but it was quite cold and as I got into bed I could not help feeling guilty, thinking of the exposed eggs. I need have had no qualms, for early next morning I found the hen on the nest again and in the afternoon just before I left that place, I watched the cock take over, and settle firmly on posterity.

This was first published on 20 November 1955 in 
The Sunday Statesman

1 comment:

  1. How very eloquent! I shall daydream the lovely images of this puff ball for quite some time to come. Thank you for sharing this,