Plaintive chirping has filled the air outside my bedroom window the past three days – unmistakable signs of a season of new beginnings and adventure, for a pair of yellow-vented bulbul fledglings are making their first forays out of the nest.
They huddled together, constantly chirping, on one of the branches of the pink Calliandra tree in the yard. They stood out, two fat brown smudges, on that exposed branch juxtaposed against the swathe of green canopy around them. They looked almost like adult bulbuls with their smoky brown feathers and distinctive black eye patches, but for their downy chick plumage and the beige streak against the corners of their beaks. The fledgling on the right, whom my mum nicknamed ‘The Brother’ (perhaps for associating boldness with masculinity), repeated two-note appeals into the sky: tu-WHIT, tu-WHIT. His ‘sister’ buried her head into her wings: maybe it was the dizzying height between the tree and the ground, the unfamiliarity of their surroundings, the absence of their mother.
“It’s so funny how they know how to fly short distances but not to eat the flowers on the branches for food,” my mother mused. I wondered how far they must have travelled from their nest – a pair of bulbuls had woven a nest in one of her potted plants two years ago, but the chicks had unfortunately perished just two weeks after hatching. Thus seeing a pair of fully-fledged young birds out in the open, on their way to becoming beautiful adult birds, sent a small shiver down my spine.
The Brother’s calls met with a sharp response. A brown blur streaked into the branches on the other side of the tree – Mama Bird was back. With a shriek of delight, The Brother took off in her direction – his flight was short, but already hinted at the speed and grace with which he would move once he grew into an adult. The Sister remained, poking her head out with what seemed like a mix of curiosity and relief. Her brother opened his mouth wide as Mama Bird stuffed a juicy mouthful of petals down his throat.
This was step one on their journey of becoming independent: learning which plants were good for eating. Storm clouds were brewing overhead – they would also have to learn how to find shelter, and quickly, or they would be soaked. Mama Bird took off again, with a parting cry: ‘Stay here, I’ll be back’, perhaps. The plaintive cries of both chicks started up again.
In two weeks, I thought, I’ll be heading off to college. Perhaps I’ll be like these two baby birds – appearing almost fully-fledged, but without some of the real skills I’d need to survive in an environment different from the one I’d always known. These birds are going to have to deal directly with the daily struggle of avoiding predators, coping with the elements, and finding enough each day to survive. And at that moment, I marvelled at the ability of nature to create metaphors for our lives.
A sharp clip of feathers. The Sister has flown off to a taller tree, now no longer visible except as a dark speck in the distance. Now it was The Brother’s turn to sit on the Calliandra branch and gape after her. I stood and watched until both of them took off on their own, and imagined them one day feeding and teaching chicks of their own.