The mellifluous notes fill the pre-dawn darkness. You wonder who these “earlier birds” are that have already got their orchestra going in full throttle, even before the other ‘early birds’ clear their throats and tune up for the day ahead. As you walk along you see a little bird on the ground under a tall tree. Dapper in its neat dress of black and white, its tail is held upright as it moves, just as the baton of the orchestra conductor. This is the Magpie Robin—the conductor and orchestra all rolled into one. This one does not need a warm up. It bursts straight into a symphony.
The Oriental Magpie Robin is a member of the order Passeriformes which includes more than half of all the bird species. Passerines are perching birds which are distinguished by their toe pattern—three toes facing forward and one toe facing backward—which allows the bird to easily grasp, and cling to both horizontal and nearly vertical perches, including branches and tree trunks
Its scientific name is Copsychus saularis. In the early days there was confusion about this name as early scientists were misled by its Indian name dhaiyal which they believed referred to sundial and hence ‘solaris’. An Englishman Edward Blyth thought that this was inappropriate, and rather felt that the Hindi term saulary (meaning hundred songs) was more fitting. A specimen of the bird along with its Hindi name, was even sent from Madras to James Petiver, a London apothecary famous for his collections of specimens.
Saularis or hundred songs aptly describes this handsome song bird. A black-and-white bird with a cocked tail and upright stance, it is about the size of a bulbul. The male has glossy blue-black upper parts, head and throat, with a white belly, and a broad white band on the wing and white edges on the tail. The female has similar markings, but with slate-grey upperparts and buff flanks.
Magpie Robins are commonly found hear human habitation, in gardens, parks and wooded areas. They can be seen singly or in pairs near shrubs and bushes. But for the most part of the year they are not conspicuous, as they are shy and quiet, only uttering a plaintive swee-ee and harsh chr-r, chr-r notes from time to time.
It is during their breeding season from March till June that they attract our attention, not so much by their sighting but by their sound. This is when the male Magpie Robin pours his heart out in song to attract a mate, as well as to declare and guard his territory. He can be seen perched on a post, or unseen, high up on a leafless tree top, filling the air with his musical notes, punctuated with upward jerks of his tail.
The little fellow has an amazing repertoire of tunes, switching effortlessly from one to another. Besides his own calls, he is also adept at perfectly mimicking the calls of other birds. This ability he uses, not so much to charm his future mate, but to guard his territory. Sometimes, by pretending to be three different birds calling from different locations, the magpie robin male can fool potential intruders into believing that the large territory is already occupied, and unavailable for new lodgers. In case a bold outsider ventures within, the songster transforms into a pugnacious defender, raising his bill, fanning the tail, puffing up his feathers, and strutting aggressively. Additionally, the bird also emits different types of calls, such as threat calls and distress calls, depending on the occasion.
Having finally won over his mate with song and macho displays, the Magpie Robin is ready to set up home. It is the female who takes on the task of the nest builder, making a pad of grass, rootlets and hair in a hollow cavity in a tree trunk, old bough or wall. She lays three to five pale blue green eggs with brownish specks; the eggs are oval in shape. She alone incubates the eggs for 8-14 days, and then feeds her fledglings. Her musical mate however shares some other domestic duties such as protecting the nest from intruders or damage.
Magpie Robins are largely insectivorous. Though chiefly arboreal, they pick crickets, grasshoppers, ants, caterpillars and other insects off the ground, as well as eating worms, snails, centipedes and small lizards. They also visit Silk Cotton and Coral tree blossoms to feed on the nectar.
The Magpie Robin is known by many names in different parts of India. Dhaiyal or Dhaiyar in Hindi and Bengali; Daiyyad in Gujarati; Dominga in Marathi; Kali sooi chiria in Madhya Pradesh.
The bird is equally familiar and known in our neighbouring countries where it is viewed in different ways. In Sri Lanka this bird is called Polkichcha (coconut bird) as well as Pahan-Kichcha (Dawn bird); and it was traditionally believed to be a bird of ill-omen. Its singing is believed to announce bad news, and villagers usually chase it away from the neighbourhood of their dwellings.
On the other hand, in Bangladesh the Magpie Robin known as Doyel or Doel is so well known, and liked, that it has been recognized as the national bird of the country, It is a widely used symbol, even appearing on currency notes in Bangladesh; and a landmark in the capital Dhaka is called Doel Chattar (Doel Square).
Unfortunately it is the song of this bird that puts its own survival in danger. Magpie Robins are popular as caged song birds and there is a widespread illegal trade in these birds, which are sold as pet songbirds. They are smuggled out in large numbers especially from Malaysia, leading to an alarming decline in their populations. As with all species, these birds are also threatened by habitat destruction and climate change. Although the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List has listed the Oriental Magpie Robin as a species of Least Concern, the declining numbers are beginning to cause concern. In Singapore and Hong Kong, this species of birds is protected by law.
In these times when the senses are besieged 24/7 by sights and sounds of war and destruction, I feel blessed that I can start my day with the lilting music of the Magpie Robin. And I cannot but help wistfully thinking what the world would be like if we humans too could defend our territories with songs instead of guns and bombs.