Our weekend wanderings in Purbachal were interrupted by the persistent chatter of Baya Weavers nesting on a palm tree at sector 20. We stood under the tree to enjoy the male birds' agitated wing-flapping and their ecstatic chorus in quivering voices: cheeee-eeee-eee. Eight nests were dangling overhead, with a male hanging from each.
The male Baya Weavers with bright yellow crowns were bringing green leaf strips from a nearby date-palm tree to weave their nests. Only one nest was less than half done, and its builder was bringing beak-full of strips to make haste. He was obviously single since the females come to the males only after their nests are half done.
As expected, the unpaired male Baya Weaver was flapping his wings and singing to every passing female. That initiated the rapturous chorus as the other males sang spontaneously. The males in the other nests, however, had their females in or near the nests. In one nest, the female at the entrance was clearly lecturing her fumbling mate.
Baya Weavers are polygamous birds and make temporary pair-bonds on every breeding season lasting about two months. The nests are all woven by males. The females arrive to inspect the half-woven nests and take over their chosen nests along with the weavers. The males happily complete the nests under the supervision of the females.
Studies have shown that the female Baya Weaver values the location and the safety aspects of the nest much more than the excellence in weaving. It is somewhat like a so-so house in Gulshan being preferred over a posh one in Gabtoli. After taking over a nest, the female makes her mate do his best by exhortation and, at times, by discarding the discordant strips from the nest.
We find the role of the female Baya Weavers in selecting half-made nests so hard-heartedly and bossing so firmly over the males justifiable in every way. It is the female who inhabits the nest for one and a half months of laying and incubating. The male does not sit in the nest for a single minute. He happily feeds in the grass by day and sleeps in reeds or catkins at night.
Once a female Weaver starts incubating her eggs, the male may leave to make another nest on a distant tree and find another mate. The male, however, keeps paying short, intermittent visits to his old mate; and may occasionally help her at feeding the chicks.
A strong female may also do a little bit of philandering and sometimes lay eggs in nearby nests. All these shenanigans help improve the genetic diversity and survivability of the Baya Weavers like many other small birds. We need not judge these little creatures by our human standards, practices or morals.
None of the eight males we saw at the palm tree in Purbachal, however, is likely to have a second family. We did not find another breeding colony of Baya Weavers in that vast area preparing for the human invasion. In fact, the palm at Sector 20 was the last tree with breeding Bayas in Purbachal.
Six of the eight nests of the Baya Weavers at Purbachal unmistakably belonged to the newly formed pairs. The males were busy either finishing the egg-chambers or weaving the entrance-tube through which the female would fly in and out of the nests.
The weaving of only one of the eight nests was complete with an elongated entrance-tube which was more than twice as long as the bulbous upper chamber. Most likely, the female bird was sitting inside the nest to lay her eggs as her mate sat on guard on a palm frond nearby. He would feel free to stray only after she had laid her last egg.
Unlike all other small birds, the Baya Weaver makes the nest visible to all and sundry. It keeps the exposed nest free of predation by hanging it very high up and making a long vertical tube as the only way to enter the nest. It is one of the most difficult nests to vandalise for people, cats, snakes, hawks, crows, or cuckoos.
Baya Weavers are smart birds in many ways. And that became a problem for them. They were once captured in large numbers and trained for street performances all over the Indian Subcontinent. The bird would fly out of its trainer's hand to deliver sweets and collect money from the spectators. That show had been a popular street show in the Subcontinent since the sixteenth century.
Edward Blyth, the great birdman of the nineteenth century and the curator of the museum of Royal Asiatic Society of Bengal, wrote about the Baya Weavers of Kolkata streets: '.. the feats performed by trained Bayas are really very wonderful, and must be witnessed to be fully credited.'
By the middle of the twentieth century, the street shows involving wildlife petered out mainly because of the newfound mass entertainment machines such as radio, cinema and television. We have been fortunate to find entertainment indoors rather than watch the Baya Weavers perform for us out in the street.
In the twenty-first century, we are more than fortunate to see the Baya Weavers live their tenuous lives in our claustrophobic capital. They need not put up a show to please us. We are more than amazed to see them go through their wonderfully complex lives and know that they can survive in a world entirely overtaken by humans.