We saw a group of birds screaming and hopping hysterically on the perimeter wall while our cleaner came running to tell us that a snake was scaling the wall. We saw no snake but watched the agitated birds scold an invisible intruder for quite some time. The birds were Jungle Babblers, and we knew that they hated snakes.
We know that all small birds give alarm calls when a snake is near, but the Jungle Babblers do more than that. They raise hell. They gather around the snake, jump wildly and keep screaming: Ki ki ki ki ki. The poor snake, being deaf, is saved from the clamour they create but not from their aggressive posturing.
The dainty Jungle Babblers do not have the wherewithal to attack a snake, but they pose a grave threat to it all the same. By relentlessly screaming around a snake, they draw the attention of snake-killers such as eagles, hawks, owls, mongooses and people. The snakes instinctively know what could happen when Babblers scream.
No sane snake, therefore, likes to venture out in daylight where a flock of Jungle Babblers resides. These little birds, therefore, work for us as better snake-repellant than carbolic acid. We feel safer walking in the jungles where we see these ashy-grey birds foraging in flocks.
Thankfully, the Jungle Babblers are still seen in nearly every jungle of Bangladesh. They are also happy to live well beyond the jungle; and are seen often in our villages, towns and contemptible cities. These easy-going birds do not necessarily need a jungle to survive; all they want are a few insects to feed on and some vegetation to roost.
Quite appropriately, the Jungle Babbler has an angry look. The white iris and the bony ridge over the eyes give its face a permanent scowl. The threatening look is an obvious asset of the bird that often undertakes the task of reprimanding oversize and vicious intruders like snakes, rodents and raptors.
Jungle Babblers usually live in a small family group of five to ten members and stay together all the time. That is why they are called 'seven brothers' in every Indian language. In Bangla, its name has been Shat-bhai, Shat-bhaira or Shat-bhaila. The English-speaking people of India indulgently changed the gender while translating the bird's name to 'seven sisters'.
The Jungle Babblers do not discriminate between brothers and sisters. In all external features, their male and female look alike, quite unlike most other birds, animals, and us. They live a supportive and joyful community life by feeding, playing together and preening each other at every opportunity.
These birds have also given their communal life a dimension quite rare among birds. In the breeding season, most other birds give up community lives, not the Jungle Babbler. When a pair of Jungle Babblers is ready to nest, the other group members assist them in doing all household chores, from nest building to chick rearing.
During the first three years of life, the Jungle Babblers do not breed. That is when they devote their energy to assisting the breeding seniors. The 'assistants' make up for the loss of those three years by breeding more than once a year when they begin breeding. And they continue breeding for about ten years, an unusually long period for small birds.
The result of all those exceptional breeding strategies could easily have been an unsustainable number of chicks surviving to become adults. The cuckoos came up with a natural remedy to that disastrous population growth in the community of Jungle Babblers. Common Hawk-Cuckoo, Indian Cuckoo and Pied Cuckoo consistently laid their eggs in the babbler nests.
It has never been difficult for a jolly community of Jungle Babblers to feed an outsized cuckoo chick and nest afresh to raise a few chicks of their own in every breeding season. Cuckoos seem to have chosen their foster parents wisely. If the population of the Babblers went down because of their fostering of the cuckoo chicks, the population of the cuckoos would also decline.
We, however, worry about a declining population of Jungle Babblers not because their nests are parasitized by the cuckoo; but because our indiscriminate use of chemical pesticides kills countless Babblers. When they perish, so do the cuckoos. Fortunately, our usage of chemical poison is not dire for the Babblers yet.
The Jungle Babblers are seen all over the Indian subcontinent, but surprisingly, they exist nowhere else in the world. Being very gregarious and garrulous, they resemble in many ways the argumentative subcontinental people living in joint families. No wonder the ethnic people of Mizoram believed that during every solar eclipse a few people became Jungle Babblers.
Frank Finn, a bird-lover and Deputy Super of The Indian Museum at Kolkata chronicled an encounter between the Jungle Babblers and the Viceroy of India in the early twentieth century. The Viceroy was visiting the Taj Mahal at Agra when the Babblers hopped all over the place, paying deference to neither the dignitary nor the Taj. The baffled Viceroy famously asked: "What are those funny little birds?"
We were thrilled to see the Babblers on the parapet when we visited the Taj Mahal a hundred years after that 'Viceroyal' visit. It was very pleasing to see those funny little birds casually visiting Taj-mahal long after the last Viceroy left India and the British Raj went up in smoke.