Urban Jungle

A Starburst of Colour and the Quest for a Nest

In a polluted, concrete and plastic-ridden city, a resilient sunbird couple builds and rebuilds their home

By Neha Sinha

The movement was like a heartbeat, pulsating; and then silent when I listened for it. Something had flitted, lightning fast, out of my field of vision. Then it returned, and vanished again. In jungle-craft, there is only one rule: if you want to spot a wild animal, you wait. You wait even as you get sedimented in your own sweat, bitten by mosquitoes or explored by leeches. Then, the wild object of your affection may well be gone again, as you lie painfully in wait. But wait you must.

Muscles cramping and sweat glistening in an odd posture which took off from a pilates move, I saw what it was. A little purple sunbird. A female, coloured a modest olive-green and yellow-brown. She was gone almost as soon as she arrived. But arrive she did, every few minutes. There could only be one reason for this. She was making a nest. I left the place because I had been spotted. But the next morning, I was awake and alert, waiting to see the nest from a safe distance and another awkwardly-held posture. Of all the plants in the garden, the sunbird had chosen hanging money-plant vines to nest in. Most people dismiss the money plant as plebeian, too common, too unbeautiful; perhaps this is because it is shockingly easy to grow. But nature surprises us, and I was excited to see the nest progress in a plant I didn’t even have to water each day. The nest grew a little every day, suspended impossibly by gossamer-thin threads. On day three, it started looking like a pouch hanging from a narrow mouth.

The Age of the Anthropocene: the female sunbird brings paint shavings to line her nest. Photo: Neha Sinha

Sunbirds are small birds, and naturally jumpy. The male is effortlessly glamourous — he looks metallic black, only that he isn’t. When sunlight falls on his body, you see the dark colour is actually a purple; this changes to an iridescent blue-green as it moves. The flashy colour reminds me of the peacock, another quintessentially Indian bird.

There are many colours in the colour wheel; and many words for colours-like-purple. A colour that forms when red and blue coalesce, with the urgent warmth of both, at once. Purple could be described as brinjal purple, violet, teal, peacock green, turquoise, indigo or aubergine. But there’s only one sort of sunbird purple. It’s not really even a colour — it is a starburst, the body of a sunray spliced into brilliance.

A male purple sunbird on Calotropis flowers. When sunlight falls on his body, it turns into a stunning blue-green. Photo: Indrajit Ghorpade

A male purple sunbird on Calotropis flowers. When sunlight falls on his body, it turns into a stunning blue-green. Photo: Indrajit Ghorpade

I had been watching the sunbird couple during their mating season in Delhi. In March, the glamorous male was kitted out in shoulder patches, a dazzling red and gold. It was, almost, a return to primary colours. The pectoral feathers reminded me of epaulettes, decorations worn lightly on proud military shoulders.

In Bharatpur bird sanctuary (now Keoladeo National Park) in the same month, I spotted another purple sunbird, different from the individual in Delhi, but unforgettable all the same. This one had a fine filigree over his body, the purple interspersed with bits of grey-silver.

A male purple sunbird pauses while taking nectar from flowers in Keoladeo National Park. Photo: Neha Sinha

While building the nest on the money plant, the pair was extra cautious. I watched and listened as the female came to the nest with nesting material, no doubt after a long search. As she approached, resting lightly on a money plant leaf, the sound of a nail being hammered into a wall roughly rent the air. She dropped her package and flew off. At that moment, it seemed like everything in the noisy city would be an impediment to the birds’ architecture. But inevitably, the pair would return, with pieces of lint, grass, and the odd wall paint shaving. The city was bustling, hot and disturbing, but they were devoted, and blazing with determination.

The nest was now a thing — a definite shape, a feeling of welcome for the chicks to come. Each piece of the nest was fervently searched for, across bird species. I had seen yellow-footed green pigeons tugging twigs off trees for their nests. Black kites boldly lifting sticks from terraces close to people. Squirrels taking threads off cotton and wool socks. Brahminy mynas twisting and tearing at pieces of rope. The purple sunbird was the smallest and shyest of them all, and would look for nesting material while trying to stay hidden, and while trying to keep its nest hidden. It was a secret enterprise, as frail and as abiding as a spool of spider’s silk.

Then one morning, my dog barked his head off. The reason was an unlikely cousin. A rhesus macaque had come near the plants, her young baby in tow. The young one had a neat, suppurating bite mark on its leg. The monkeys had naturally wrinkled faces of worry. They were refugees in the city, fed at temples, stoned at all other places.

When the pair left, I saw what had kept them busy. The mother had torn the sunbird nest to bits. My heart hammered in my chest, rage bubbling up inside me. I went closer. The nest was glittering. Amongst its pieces, were little bits of party confetti. Perhaps a little boy had had a birthday party, and the glittering sunbird picked up the plastic to line his nest. Days of work now law in shreds; both the plastic and the monkey were products of the anthropocene. There wasn’t really much to show for in this city — not much except pieces of shining, undying plastic and displaced wildlife.

The sunbird pair came back to the nest, emitting chittering sounds. I wondered if they would build again. I wondered if this had happened to them before. Two days later, the mother rhesus macaque returned to the same spot, perhaps expecting eggs this time.
That sealed it. The sunbirds left the place.

A male purple sunbird in eclipse plumage. In this non-breeding stage, the male starts looking more like the female. Photo: Neha Sinha

I looked out for them, wondering if this meant a lost breeding season. Dark thoughts scudded across my mind. Would they permanently leave this place? Horns and loud sounds, people and plastic litter were one thing; hulking, hungry monkeys quite another. The last few days were a microcosm — they showed all that could go wrong for a little bird in a large city.

And then, I heard it. The sunbird’s chitter. They were around. Maybe they would nest again, in another place even more of a secret than the first.

And nest they did, only that I couldn’t find the nest. Somehow the birds had moved forth. Somehow, that tiny pair of legs, clasping intricate vine branches, and those long, graceful beaks found the energy and will to build again. It seemed something like a miracle.

On days my computer crashed, I felt like giving up. On days the polluted air created a hacking cough in my chest, I felt like moving away.

And today, the tiny sunbirds were bigger, and braver, than me.

Neha Sinha

is a conservation biologist working with the Bombay Natural History Society. She loves art and colour, and is lucky to find them both in nature. She tweets at @nehaa_sinha.

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