Of Cats and Squirrels

July, 2014 :

Done with an errand, we were walking along the by-lane when we witnessed quite a funny morning early this month.

My hubby, who is very sensitive to dust, sneezed in rapid successions and with high intensity; so much so that in this case of ‘man vs.the wild’, two full-grown cats were “shaken up” !!! 🙂  Their green-eyes popped out in seconds and stepping-back, they quickly hid behind the pillar of a shop, tightly huddled up against each other (as if two friends holding hands in apprehension). Then they timidly waited there until my hubby managed to control his numerous sneezes and well crossed the spot !! 🙂

It was indeed such a funny scene. I burst into a laughter; so did the shop-owner, the sales-boy and a group of school-goers.

December, 1989 :

This reminded me of my cat, Jhumi, whom I possessed during the late eighties. She had been presented to us as a gift in an old string-purse. She was so tiny then that I think I could have accommodated three or four Jhumis in my palm. Being an only child, I soon found Jhumi to be a great companion, particularly on weekend afternoons. Initially, she used to stay endlessly in the comfort of my lap or little pockets of my baggy trousers and skirts.  As she grew up, she would sort of peep around and then quickly recognize my chair and crouch beneath it even when I was away. In my presence, she often laid there resting her warm body against my then cushion-like feet. Her feathery tail tickling my toes, for a while, made me forget all the rigours of the day. During winter mornings and afternoons, I would always find her on my blanket, coiled like an inactive snail. When we got out of the bed, she would demonstrate one of the finest stretch exercises and then bask on the fresh hay until Ma called us for breakfast.

Problems for Jhumi started when her kittens were born. Our Cook and Domestic Help could never tolerate the kittens since they used to jump here and there over their work areas and it also meant that they had to clean all the utensils and spots again and again. One afternoon, as our Cook prepared to serve food, the kittens emerged from bowls. 🙂 Funny but dangerous !… I was enjoying it but elders were then worried about preventing such misadventures. At the dinner table, they discussed about donating them away or making a separate, restrictive arrangement at the bungalow; then they lowered their thoughtful glances at my radiating joy and innocence, and could not conclude.

The next day went as usual.

In the evening, when we were away at a friend’s place, the two ladies (Cook and Domestic Help) packed Jhumi and her kittens in a rice sac and dispatched them on the local train. They entrusted the sac to their common friend who was travelling on the same train. Unless confronted, it must have thrust Jhumi’s family to a village at least 30-40 kilometres away.

That was the end of all my fun. When I enquired in dismay, my grand-mother explained about all infections that would have been likely caused by Jhumi’s family loitering in the kitchen and therefore, the necessity to release them into open, distant places. And our Cook added happily, “Don’t worry, baby… we have put enough food in the sac; they won’t starve” !

For almost a month, I did hope for them to trace paths back to home… But even more, I prayed that they all stayed safe in some caring hands.

Jhumi has been the only feline I possessed.

August, 1992 :

A garden around a bungalow is incomplete without springy squirrels. We were blessed with plenty of them. While we chatted on the verandah, we could see them jump over our legs or while we unwinded on lazy afternoons, we could watch them playing along window-frames and swaying branches. Their merry clicks enlivened the entire ambience.

Ma was an ardent lover of hanging varieties of plants. So she had a row of them adorning the tall borders and roofs of the long verandah. As a keen gardener, she used to place the right supports (dry twigs, jute strings, wire mesh, etc.) for her other plants as well to extend, grow and bloom in the best of their displays. But sometimes the supports went missing, and so did the Help’s colourful cleaning-rags ! Everyone was clueless !! The official gardener and watchman of the bungalow were upset because they could not account for it. And after a few days, they all started believing that ‘kahaani poori fillaami hai… koi purani aatma ghus ayee hai bungalow mein‘ (some ghostly theme of a film depicting return of an old spirit to the bungalow) !!! 🙂

One day, as I sat in the verandah preparing for my exams, I noticed about four or five adult squirrels sort of ‘spying’ on some thing. It instantly drew my attention and I closed the then boring pages of the Civics textbook. I gathered to look myself what was the ‘spying’ about. Soon, I observed that three or four of them first spread around in directions from which Ma or the gardener usually approaches for the plants on the verandah. Then they perhaps squeaked in some code of their own at which the last squirrel, seemingly younger and quicker, sprang into action without clicking a bit. That was definitely to deceive us that the group was playing far in the garden (the squeaking squirrels on guard) and there was none even near the verandah ! 🙂 While others kept guard, I saw this younger one quietly locate those plant-supports and loot one after the other ! It performed with such intelligence, dexterity and speed that I never blinked for a second, let alone calling Ma to witness this amazing scene !!

For example, if it was a simple twig, the squirrel would just pluck and hold it in its mouth. If it was a woollen or nylon thread, it would mostly use its forelegs to untie it without forming any knot and then neatly roll the loosened thread into a ball. Then tucking all these loot in its mouth, it would rush towards a particular bush. The queer activities were repetitive until a certain satisfaction was signalled en masse. Then they would all immediately disperse along with the accumulated loot in a joint effort.

That bush, I noticed, was situated right beneath the shade of a big mango tree on which they (may be, just two among them) had a nest. Later, gazing at it with my naked eyes, I found a robust nest based on the beautiful loot and also those ‘missing’ colourful rags hanging from it. 🙂

When I narrated the incident to my parents, they never believed me until they had the chance to themselves witness it. It was wonderful to watch this loot, together. 🙂

Ma was so emotional and generous that instead of getting angry at it, she started keeping rags and threads near the bushes !! 🙂  She believed that would unburden the cute creatures and enable them to uninterruptedly guard their little ones lying undefended in the nest during which ‘squirrel Ma-Baba‘ (the adult squirrels) had to gather hardware supports.

And indeed thereafter, the ‘squirrel Ma-Baba‘ (the adult squirrels) utilized the readily available resources and resorted to Ma’s garden only if they needed any extras.

The attendants of the bungalow had to quit the mysterious gossip around their ‘purani bhatakti hui aatma‘ (old wandering spirit) theory :-)… but nevertheless, were amused at this fact unearthed by Chote-babu (me).

Wish we had an advanced digital camera then……

 

An Indian Summer with the Bulbuls

A story from Purulia (West Bengal, India) made quite a few headlines last week. A tusker, also known to have killed three people last year, smashed a house into bits and started moving away. Just then it heard the cries of a helpless 10-month-old baby from under the debris. To the crowd’s amazement, it immediately turned back and gently removed every last bit of stone, brick and mortar from the infant’s body before heading back to the forest.

A similar incident was reported from Jalpaiguri (also in West Bengal, India) about six months ago where a herd of elephants carefully removed a little girl from the way before going on a rampage.

Very recently, it has been reported that elephants and dogs too recognize certain voices and languages. On a lighter note, now we know how justified is ‘HMV’ and its logo – His Master’s Voice !! 🙂

Incidents as these that sound straight from India’s Amar Chitra Katha series or Jataka Tales or western Fairy Tales, have been observed all over the world. In about two or three separate articles starting from this particular write-up, I would love to narrate a few remarkable ones from my childhood. These would also constitute my humble attempt in appreciating all Nature-lovers, observers and researchers. And I hope that readers will enjoy this curious side of life where Nature vividly communicates with man in symbolic languages.

Before I begin, I would like to mention that my parents have always ardently hailed Nature. My mother (here addressed as Ma), was not only keen at gardening but also guarded all life-forms in our garden just as she was protective of her own family. And therefore we believed that’s perhaps how she was more well-recognized, completely trusted and sort of much admired by the other occupants of our green ambience.

In this article, I shall focus on one episode based on birds in the district of Mayurbhanj (Odisha, India), where I spent most of my young days, almost 25 years.

The jovial Bulbuls seemed to be eternally present in the green, calm surroundings of the bungalow. Once a pretty young Bulbul-ma (that’s how I used to call the mother-bird) over-estimated her plans of a good nest and the entire fledging process after her cute eggs hatched. Consequently, on a scorching summer day in May,1990 she anxiously fluttered up to Ma who was watering the plants in the patio. She chirped madly and then flew to and fro in the direction of her unsecured nest. Ma lost no time in understanding that she had to rush as per Bulbul-ma‘s directional moves. I tiptoed along on the grassy patches here and there, intermittently starred by some bright seasonal flowers. Bulbul-ma perched on a nascent palm tree planted in a clay pot. Its leaves had quite dwindled away in the heat that was everywhere. The tree barely supported the small nest built for three members. Ma peeped at the centre and her heart sank to see three tiny nestlings struggling to survive the heat, thirst and hunger. Hair on their skin was singed and beneath it was visible the tender skin, slightly reddish. Their beaks were wide open with its pink delicate but almost dry inner linings exposed towards the clear blue sky that was absolutely unpromising of a shower for the next couple of days. They were desperately waiting for Bulbul-ma‘s solace. But she was utterly helpless because she could not have transferred them anywhere at this stage! The well too was far from the pot; so she could not have even managed a small spray on her nest with her wings soaked in the water from any container.

With the gardener’s help, Ma quickly but carefully shifted the pot to a spot in the verandah where shade was almost perpetual and we could monitor them maximally. A polythene sheet was later hung at one side as a double guard against all the remaining rays. Ma found a very innovative way to artificially feed the nestlings- she took a new ink-pen dropper and with it, very smoothly let droplets of water and mango-juice into their mouths. They gulped and gulped…and I was always very excited when Ma delegated this task to me after a simple demonstration. Then she taught me to spray their almost singed bodies with cool water and to often check their nests for enemies- ants and insects. When they grew better, Bulbul-ma would feed them small dead ants and insects. At nightfall, it was the watchman’s turn to guard the nest as well. Ma also regularly gave hand-mashed mango pulp and nuts to Bulbul-ma, who sitting on the same palm tree, would sincerely observe us when we nursed her nestlings. Her expression was like ‘achaa! itna kuch karna parrta hai kya? mujhe nahi malum tha!! (oh! we got to do all these, is it? I didn’t know!!)’ :-).

And Bulbul-ma was somehow acquainted with saree (Ma, grand-ma and domestic helps), dhoti (gardener and grand-father) and casual skirt and top (me). Till date, I wonder why she missed out the formal shirt and trousers (my father)! So initially, when my father went near the palm tree to see this interesting episode, she would scream and again start seeking Ma or me. We explained to her in a language of the homo sapiens that ‘a father’ is the man-of-the-house, someone who would ultimately rescue us all in case there is a danger…that he is Ma’s husband and my father, the little girl’s father. And several times, we took him along with us to the nest so that Bulbul-ma would learn that he is after all a safe visitor :-).

I had just stepped into my teenage. Once, during a mid-day chat with Ma who was my closest friend, she very jokingly remarked ‘perhaps, this Bulbul-ma has not come of age…looks like these eggs are borne out of a pre-matured wedlock’… 🙂 Then in the next few moments, her tone transformed to that of immense appreciation and respect for Bulbul-ma– ‘but one thing my girl, note she hasn’t ditched her eggs…rather she has accepted Nature’s rule in rearing them up, even all alone in this scorching heat’ !! And again she rushed towards their nest to check on them.

The monsoons were nearing when one day, the now hearty fledglings flapped their wings for the first time. Bulbul-ma spent two days in fruitlessly trying to teach them fly. We concluded that they had got used to the comforts in badde-sahaab ke bungalow (big man’s bungalow)- all our family and helps accused Ma and me :-). On the third day, as evening approached, two of them managed to fly out; after hobbling for a few metres, they took to the air smoothly. The last one just didn’t move. It was indeed robust. Ma blamed it on me saying that I over-fed my pet and now its wings could not bear its weight. Bulbul-ma pricked its back with her beak so as to stimulate it. The fledgling merely shrugged off the sensation and continued to stubbornly sit in the nest :-). Then my Ma gently brought it out and placed it on the floor in the verandah. Using her fingers, she prompted the fledgling to follow it and walk. There was no response. Then she slightly stroked her nascent wings and blew some mouth-air over it. We were still surprised how this little fellow was unable to decode natural instincts! Just then, my grand-father happened to sit on a mattress on the floor barely a few metres away from it. Suddenly, the fledgling flapped its wings and flew onto his cosy lap in a manner most unlike of even a distant-cousin of birds :-)! I think it had understood by then that it had to perform under the full glare of spectators and the view of the short distance to be covered at a small altitude helped it muster some strength to fly- ‘bhai, udd le…isse asaan aur chance nahi! (hey,lemme show I can fly…there can’t be an easier chance to do it!)’ :).

Then it again sat there seeming to be very satisfied with its flying skills. I wanted to feed it again with the dropper because I believed it might have got exhausted with its efforts. But Ma stopped me as she seriously wanted it to fly as a natural response to thirst and hunger, and she also empathized with Bulbul-ma in her desperate efforts. Evening was nearing…

In the meanwhile, Bulbul-ma had brought in either Bulbul-baba (the father-bird) or some Bulbul-masi (Bulbul-ma‘s female friend) !! We didn’t try to figure out exactly who it was. We had better tricks of Bulbul-ma to watch. The adult birds had caught hold of a big grasshopper and another insect in their respective beaks and started luring the lazy fledgling towards it. As the latter hobbled after a few minutes, the adult birds continued moving back, maintaining a minimum take-off distance on the runway :-). The trick went on until the fledgling successfully flew towards the trees that the birds had flown to with the insects still held in their beaks.

Even years later, Ma used to recollect this particular trick and was very amused each time. She said ‘wasn’t that so much like human adults who try to lure their kids to desired activities or places by holding out a chocolate or a flashy toy in front of them ?’. Perfectly so.

That lazy fledgling was a female and she continued to be robust. So, we could always identify her as long as we all lived there. I roughly built a nest the following summer at the same spot (to lure my cute lazy fledgling) and I believe she only laid eggs. She turned out to be an intelligent Bulbul-ma and we didn’t have to look after any of her nests. Honestly speaking, I would have loved to bother about all subsequent fledging processes :-).

It was during this phase that I learnt about Dr.Sálim Moizuddin Abdul Ali, the great Indian ornithologist and naturalist. He is known all over the world for having conducted systematic bird surveys and giving a wonderful fillip to the subject. He is also referred to as the “”bird-man of India” and was conferred the Padma Vibhushan in 1976 . I wonder what a whale of observations and conclusions Dr. Ali must have had in his extra-ordinary pursuit to understand the ways of varieties of birds! The International Jury had rightly honoured him with these lines-

Since the writing of your book, the Book of Indian Birds which in its way was the seminal natural history volume for everyone in India, your name has been the single one known throughout the length and breadth of your own country, Pakistan, and Bangladesh as the father of conservation and the fount of knowledge on birds. Your message has gone high and low across the land and we are sure that weaver birds weave your initials in their nests, and swifts perform parabolas in the sky in your honor.
For your lifelong dedication to the preservation of bird life in the Indian subcontinent and your identification with the Bombay Natural History Society as a force for education, the World Wildlife Fund takes delight in presenting you with the second J. Paul Getty Wildlife Conservation Prize. February 19, 1976.

More similar articles to follow, if Aamjunta approves… 🙂

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