Occassionally, an eerie ululating call will sound out across the neighbourhood. It always seems to come during a lull in the day, when everything feels peaceful and the air shimmers hot and lazy over the streets. And every single time, it will send a chill down my spine. This is not only because of the moments at which it arrives or the haunting resonance of the sound. In spite of myself, I can’t help but think about what it could represent – not only is it resonant but also taunting, as if tempting the occurrence of an unfortunate event or even Fate herself.
In the bare canopy of an old yellow flame tree across the road, I saw the koel. An Indonesian domestic helper who used to work for my mother described the bird as like a ‘black chicken with glowing red eyes’. It was larger than many other birds I’d seen around the estate, distinctly visible as a dark hulk amid the thin branches. It was a male; the females had lighter speckled plumage. As a child I had once seen one up close in person, and I had been petrified by those bright blood-red eyes. Again that chilling, booming announcement – kooo-OW, kooo-OW; the koel introduced himself to all who could hear. Abruptly, he fell silent, leaped to another nearby branch, started again.
Again I wrestled with the old feelings that always surfaced whenever I heard one of the male koel’s calls. The bird itself is not bad luck, I told myself, in spite of what my Indonesian helper had told my mother based on Javanese belief. My mother wholeheartedly believed it, because when the koel called a neighbour had lost her family during vacation and moved out from the house in grief. When the koel called, there had been an argument the other time. When the koel called, my mother would ready a water pistol and shoot in its general direction as vigorously as she could. My discovery that the koel was a brood parasite turned me off the bird, too. And always it would disappear and reappear, wraith-like, solidifying the connection between its presence and bad luck in our minds.
Biology attributes the koel’s call to a far less malevolent reason. The bird is simply lonely, and is calling to attract a mate. In Indian folklore, the koel is conversely a lucky bird. Its call is said to summon rain, and they are even revered according to Hindu legal texts. Some find its singing melodious, and keep the birds in cages and feed them boiled rice. I find it intriguing how the same bird could inspire such vastly different reactions in different areas of its range. Perhaps its sonorous cries and mysterious movements easily give rise to polarising emotions: awe, or fear.
Some days, I feel pity for the bird that has been misunderstood. Perhaps, I wonder, it isn’t unlucky in itself, but simply warning us of the potential pitfalls and dangers that could pursue us in our lives. And now whenever I hear the male koel pining for a mate, I keep this in mind. A bird that calls to mind a useful pointer on life is a good bird indeed. And as for that bird I saw in the yellow flame tree, I wish him success in his quest for a willing partner.