Species

Nymphs, Love Spells, and the Eurasian Wryneck

When this free-spirited bird visits the outskirts of Kolkata it brings more than a little cheer

By Lesley D. Biswas

Native city birds are like old childhood friends, their familiar presence is reassuring. I’ll always be smitten by the oriental magpie robin’s mellifluous evening song and appreciate the shy sunbirds that flicker in and out of my balcony like dancing sunbeams. But beyond these familiar faces, I’ve also longed to be bewitched by a star in whose presence I too would feel special. To be enamoured by a bird with a fascinating story, or one that had undertaken a perilous journey across continents to be with me. And if there was to be any chance of that exciting encounter with one of those enigmatic species, I knew at least I was in the right place.

One of the most likely spots to sight birds in the city of Kolkata, is Rajarhat. On any given day, all-year-round, there are over a hundred species of birds among its tall grasses and swamps, which are also wintering grounds for migratory avian visitors. A few years back, the Siberian rubythroat that spends summers in the coniferous forest of Siberia, and more recently a rare desert wheatear’s sighting here sent the birdwatching community into a tizzy. Instantly this site became their favourite hangout.

Despite New Town being a fast-growing urban locale of Kolkata’s Rajarhat area,
It is rich in biodiversity. Around 200 species of birds, both resident and migratory 
have been sighted here. Photo: Bidyut Kumar de/ Shutterstock

Despite New Town being a fast-growing urban locale of Kolkata’s Rajarhat area, It is rich in biodiversity. Around 200 species of birds, both resident and migratory have been sighted here. Photo: Bidyut Kumar de/ Shutterstock

But unlike professional birders with sophisticated equipment and a calendar marked for exclusive birding escapades, my bridge camera and lens don’t support long shots, and leave me with no other option but to wait by my window for my subject to come to me rather than pursue it. And as opposed to the inviting interiors of Rajarhat, adjacent New Town is more grey than green. When I moved here two years ago, the first time I looked out of the bedroom window of our flat on the fourth floor of our apartment building in New Town, the chances of sighting the star I was looking for here were as likely as expecting the dodo to return from extinction.

But then, I sighted a cryptic coloured creature among the dry leaves. At first I mistook it for a snake, as I heard it hissing, something I’d never seen any other bird do. I realised it was a bird only when it emerged a few moments later, and I exclaimed in disbelief. It heard me, and flew off. A quick round of research told me that I’d scared away a Eurasian wryneck.

 

The dark-streaked grey upper plumage helps the Bengal bush lark, a resident breeder, to merge seamlessly with the grasses of Rajarhat where it’s often sighted, sometimes even hopping alongside the road. Photo: Arindam Bhattacharya

A member of the woodpecker family, the Eurasian wryneck doesn’t have a long noticeable bill, the signature characteristic of other woodpeckers, used to make holes in trees or to pick out prey from bark. Instead, it forages for ants (its main prey), beetles, larvae, and insects on the ground, using its short brown beak, and licking up its prey with its tongue. Perhaps that’s what it had been doing when I disturbed it. The hissing reaction that had startled me was apparently the way this species responses to a potential threat. Playing dead is its other, more unconventional response.

A predator is the last thing I’d wanted to be perceived as by this exquisite visitor. So when I sighted it again the next morning, I decided to gain its trust. As soon as the bird caught me observing it from my window, I looked away. But from the corner of my eye I noticed it staring at me distrustfully. “Okay. Let’s do it your way,” I thought, and feigned nonchalance. Eventually, the bird returned to foraging.

The open grasslands of Rajarhat are a suitable habitat for birds like the red munia (left) and tri-coloured munia (right) whose main food is grass seeds. While the former is less common, the latter can be sighted easily, foraging in groups. Photo: Arindam Bhattacharya

It was busy in the neighbouring plot, scouring the small mound of soil covered with wild creepers and pecking greedily all afternoon. I hurried back and forth, rushing through my household chores while keeping a keen eye on the bird’s movement, as if babysitting a mischievous child. By late afternoon, we had progressed to uninhibited glances. Then unexpectedly, the Eurasian wryneck hopped onto the apartment boundary wall, giving me a rare chance of a close-up shot with my zoom lens.

I was prepared. Taking up my camera I twizzled the focus ring. As the view became sharp, the bird’s plumage — dull brown, mottled, streaked upperparts with rufous and black bars, and lovely creamy underparts with brown arrow-head like markings, which faded into spots towards the bird’s lower body — gave off a warm luminosity in the golden winter sun. For a while it paraded the boundary wall, and then, like a real showstopper, it spread its gorgeous wings and flew off.

While the bird is native to Asia, Africa, and Europe, and winters in many parts of the Indian subcontinent, it isn’t a common sight in Kolkata, and it’s definitely no ordinary bird. The Eurasian wryneck (Jynx torquilla) gets its genus name from Iynx, a nymph. According to Greek mythology, Iynx was turned into a bird (the Eurasian wryneck), by Hera for casting a mischievous spell under the influence of which Zeus fell in love with Io. The medieval Latin term ‘torquilla’ comes from the word ‘torquere’, which means ‘to twist,’ which is similar to ‘wryneck’ in English, referring to the bird’s uncanny ability to twist its neck 180 degrees, something I was lucky to witness on my first sighting.

The Eurasian wryneck is a thrush-sized bird that is nearly 17 cm in length. It has a repertoire of calls, from the shrill, encore “quee-quee-quee-quee,” to abrupt “tuck’s” and “hisses” when it is alarmed. Photo: dgaurh/Shutterstock

As if the story of the nymph-turned-bird wasn’t intriguing enough, folklore also suggests that in the old days people used it to cast love spells, and in witchcraft it was used to jinx someone. And the word ‘jinx’ is also believed to have come from here.

I was completely enchanted by this free-spirited bird that roams the open countryside, woodlands and parks, and has a special affinity towards orchards with old trees (abundance of food) for breeding grounds. It doesn’t take the trouble to gather nesting material, nor build nests. Instead, it looks for a hole in a tree or a suitable crevice in a wall. If none is available, it might even evict another bird from its readymade nest. Then the Eurasian wryneck lays a clutch of seven to ten eggs. From incubating the eggs, to feeding the chicks until they fledge (around twenty days), both parents share duties.

As winter wrapped up and the migratory birds began their return journeys, I wished the Eurasian wryneck would stay. But later, I was glad it hadn’t. A few days back when it returned, I had the chance to feel bewitched again.

Lesley D. Biswas

is a Kolkata-based freelance writer and children’s author with a passion for nature, bird photography and cricket.

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