A tale of Hornbills

Sighting the Malabar Grey Hornbill family from my balcony

I have always maintained that hornbills are one of the coolest birds. Huge size, beautiful beaks, graceful appearance; and the males take on an awesome parental care responsibility! All you bird nerds must be knowing that it’s hard to beat a hornbill dad in the ‘Best Dad Ever’ competition. Because, when the hornbill couple decide to have a chick (or two), they find a suitable tree hollow, the male locks up the female in the hollow (now hold your horses before you start marking this as domestic abuse!), plasters the tree hollow with mud and faeces till only the beak of the female has room to come out. This, my friends, is to be their nest. The female lays eggs in this hollow, nurtures and protects the chick(s) while the male provides for the female and then the chick. Such a nest is made to protect the female and the chick from predators! While I can go on and on about hornbills, I have a story to tell today, so to know more about these amazing birds, I will direct you to this very awesome comic by Green Humour (Rohan Chakravaty) on the hornbills.

The stream behind my house
A small coconut plantation seen from the balcony

To study the herpetofauna (reptiles and amphibians) of the Tillari region in northern Western Ghats, I moved to the border of Goa-Maharashtra in a small village called Maneri. Here I stay close to my field site. My house is located near a beautiful stream and there is a small coconut plantation right behind my house. Standing in my balcony I can see this mesmerizing site and even do birdwatching from here.

Since I moved here, a Malabar Grey Hornbill (Ocyceros griseus) couple has been visiting me every few days. Sometimes they would wake me up in the morning by pecking at the window (they do this because the windows are reflective and lot of birds get confused seeing their own reflection), other times they would just cackle (a call of the hornbill is called cackle) from the coconut tree perch outside the balcony.

Few months ago, (precisely from February end), I stopped seeing the female here. The male came infrequently but alone. I knew it was hornbill breeding season and I believed they must be nesting. Even then I worried for them. Lot of plantations near my house are being cut and ‘developed’ into buildings. I worried our hornbill couple might succumb to this developmental activities.

I had a camera of a friend for a few days and managed to click this picture of the male of Malabar Grey Hornbill during the time he used to come alone

But today morning I woke up to a hornbill chorus! I saw the male cackling outside my window. I slowly came close to the window. I heard two distinct cackles so I was looking for another hornbill and then slowly the female jumped up from the back frond of the coconut tree and joined her mate. It seemed they were announcing something, and while I looked at them, a head popped up from behind and I gaped at that because voilà! It was a chick! A juvenile little Malabar Grey hornbill! I watched all three of them cackle with tears of joy rolling down my cheeks. For about half an hour they sat there cackling, preening and the chick going on eating something.

The male on the left and the female on the right



See if you can locate all of three of them in this picture! This image is taken from my mobile from a closed window and hence this poor quality.

In the above video, notice a small head popping in the end!

I have been watching this couple and now after many months of not seeing the female, having million different worries about them, and then seeing them like this, is one of the most wonderful sights of my life! I had no idea how much I was invested in this couple until this happened. This, in my opinion, is the best way to wake up. Oh, What a beautiful Sunday morning! 🙂

“Is this a class or a fish market?”

On 27th December 2014, a pleasant Sunday morning in Mumbai, I decided to join a friend for his field work. This is a little unusual. When I say field, I and many of the people I know, usually imagine it as some kind of forest-studying animals. This friend counts the number of boats arriving at Sasoon Dock, which will enable him to determine the fish stock coming in the fishing boats. So I joined him at Sasoon Dock. I must warn you that there aren’t going to be any pictures on this post as photographing is not allowed on the dock. To say that the fishing dock is a chaos is an understatement. Sasoon Dock is one of the busiest docks of the city and was built in 1875 (quite old, huh!) by a gentleman named Albert Abdullah David Sasoon (and hence the name).

“Sassoon Dock
What a place!
So many fishes!
So crowded!”

It was 7 AM in the morning and the fisher folk were already up and about, making sure their stock got sold fastest and in maximum price. There was just so much diversity of fishes in their baskets. Fishes, crabs, prawns, stingrays. I was lucky enough to see a hammer-headed shark (unlucky for the shark because it was dead). Walking around the dock seems like a challenge to your whole existence (No, this is not an exaggeration. Try walking on the edge of the dock with hardly 6 inches space to place your foot while a super pissed fisher woman pushes you because you aren’t walking fast enough while balancing yourself and trying not to fall off in the water).

While I tried walking in a place where it seemed impossible to accommodate a fly, the local fisher people gave me passing looks of anger, amusement, pity, ridicule and disbelief. The entire one hour at Sasoon dock seemed like a second just passed. I was so numb by so much chaos but was enjoying every second of it. Not to mention, the smell was mind numbing as well. Especially for me as I have never eaten fish in my life, except once when a well-meaning aunty in Kerala fed me fish trying to convince me that it was a vegetable. (I smelled of fishes for good two hours after I had said good-bye to the place. I like to believe that I stopped smelling of fish after that).

Having never ever been to any fishing market, I never quite understood the feeling when the teachers in the class used to yell at us naughty students in the class, the statement “Is this a class or a fish market?”. Teachers, take a bow. Sasoon dock felt like I was an ant in this giant world. With all this, the friend, walking ahead of me (totally comfortable with chaos and adept at walking amidst busy and angry fisher folk) explaining different types of fishing techniques, fishing nets, fishing boats, etc. while I tried keeping up with his pace, understanding what all he said, asking him too many questions (some inappropriate for the place, i.e. “Isn’t it illegal to fish XYZ fishes?”).

While walking, we kept talking, my mind struggling to concentrate between staying alive and grasping all the knowledge that my friend had to offer. Once I almost bumped into an 8-9 ft long and narrow lorry carrying fishes that an old man was pushing amidst the crowd, but an attentive young fisherman held my hand, fairly amused at my inattentiveness, his friends laughing at my expense. The floor of the dock was all wet (obviously) and the water was pushing its way through my sandals and my socks; wetting my feet.

The walk lead to a beautiful open place where we could stand peacefully, watching the open sea that gives us bounty of fishes to eat and livelihoods to so many people who brave the storms to go out in the waters to bring us food.

We stumbled upon a chai-wallah (Tea seller) and stood sipping the tea watching Gulls and Terns foraging in the open seas along with the men in boats, both communities aiming at the same goal: catch the most. The morning scene was beautiful. On one side, there was a busy chaotic fish market selling fishes and a part of the dock which was comparatively new, was relatively empty, fishermen standing in small groups, chatting, discussing their day to day lives and enjoying the morning sunlight. Mumbai had a pleasant weather compared to cold Ahmedabad. Mornings gave a feeling of chill but failed to trap us in sweaters (thankfully!) Eventually said goodbye to the dock, carrying with me lot of memories and fish smell.