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  • Chetana B P

Making room for bulbuls to start a family: The garden story

Photo by Purushotham B. G.

It has been my mothers dream for as long as I can remember to have a garden at home that is healthy enough for birds to want to nest in. Her dream has been that specific.

Everything she does in, and for the garden has been to that end. It was admittedly difficult at first. Even though my mother comes from a family that had a passion for gardening in their genes, we had just moved into a new house and greenery had to be created from scratch. We planted two coconut saplings and numerous potted plants. Mexican grass was all the rage at the start of the millennium, so we put that in too. It turned out to demand a lot of water and chemicals to keep insects from mowing down the grass. We removed it soon enough.

We had a large and jumpy Labrador that loved running amok in the garden. He loved eating and digging up everything, from flowers to vegetables. To a bratty child, it seemed to be that a dog roaming freely was more important than my mother’s hard work and plants. After my dog passed away, she was terribly upset but also felt that it was time for her plants to have some room to thrive. She immersed herself in gardening all days of the week, before and after work, during the weekends. She collected plants during all her travels. She experimented with natural plant treatments and designing structures to allow plants to grow in all dimensions and heights. Plants were growing everywhere-outside our house, inside, on the walls, occupying our terrace. There were mango and coconut trees, flowering shrubs, vegetables, creepers, orchids, cacti and ferns.

Soon after the drastic transformation in the garden, butterflies and insects started visiting our garden. Squirrels and kites loved the coconut trees. The occasional snake, lots of geckos, toads, millipedes, scorpions and shrews. We also had rats!

We required so much compost that our kitchen waste was not sufficient. My mother would source rotting vegetables and fruits from neighbouring shops and dry leaves that fell from avenue trees on our street.

“Why aren’t birds coming yet?” she would often ask as we sat in the garden drinking tea. I would reassure her that even her garden was wonderful and green, it was an oasis amidst a jungle of concrete. It was going to take the birds time, but they would come and find us. It started at first with tailor birds. They were so tiny, I thought I was imagining them. They hopped across the ends of our garden searching for the thickest bushes. They seemed to love eating caterpillars and spiders.

My mother let all insects live and no one was a pest (although Indian snails ate a lot of her plants during the monsoon periods, so they were asked to leave). Plants started growing wild, with little to no pruning. One had to duck while walking through to avoid getting stuck in the branches. Once the foliage started becoming dense, we started seeing sunbirds, coucals, shikras, barbets and the tailor birds, of course, remained regular visitors. Perhaps they were the messengers who told the rest of the birds that they had found a promising land that was worth visiting.

Bulbuls were the most entertaining to watch as they fluttered around the garden. They seemed to love bathing in the water that collected on leaves that were freshly watered or wet after a good spell of rain. My mother started keeping out water baths hidden amidst the garlic vine patch. Years later they still use this water bath for their cleanse twice each day.

Every once in a while, we would stumble upon a tufted ball of feathers propped on a branch, only to realize just in time that we had nearly disturbed a sleeping bulbul!

My mother was thrilled to see birds visiting, feeding, bathing and now sleeping in the garden. Although, I realized that she would not be fully happy until birds came to nest.

And then it happened.

The first time bulbuls decided to try nesting in the garden, they chose a very conspicuous potted plant near the gate and built their nest two feet off the ground. We did not expect this to be a successful effort, and sure enough, the bulbuls did not even lay eggs in the nest. My mother was quite disappointed but not crushed, her garden was in the nesting radar now.

The following year, a pair of bulbuls began making a nest in an Ixora plant towards the back of the garden, well hidden from view. This seemed ideal. Eggs were laid, the parents took turns incubating them and my mother started keeping regular notes to track their progress. Sadly, a week later the eggs had vanished. We think that feral cats had something to do with their disappearance. The following year, a bulbul nest was made in another part of our garden but again, with no success. We did not want to think of nesting birds anymore lest we jinx them with our enthusiasm.

It was ultimately successful when where we least expected it. The bulbuls showed up in the first few weeks of the nationwide coronavirus lockdown. They brought with them nesting material and were oddly enough working on a nest in the corner of our balcony that had no plants. But it was a smartly chosen location. They built their nest in a suspended coil of insulated cables that hung from the iron rod that held our clotheslines together. Sheltered from the rain and cats. Brilliant!

My mother watched the parents take turns sitting on their eggs, she was there when they hatched one after the other. She saw the parents give them their first flying lessons in the garden! They knew her well, were comfortable with her around. They even watched as she went about her gardening activities. She was curious to see what the parents would bring back as food for the chicks and wondered whether it was the father or the mother that did more of the work.

She admired how all the chicks seemed to get equal amounts of food while also sometimes expressing criticism over certain parenting techniques- “she should have waited a few more days before teaching them how to fly!” She tried to learn their language and watched them grow bigger until they grew their flying feathers and left the garden. Only to see them come by from time to time. To eat, bathe, and occasionally get a good night’s sleep.

We have left the nest to remain undisturbed. As a memory of this bulbul family, we had as company through the lockdown. They might just reuse it next year, who knows!


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