We took a break from photographing an irresistible array of Jarul trees in bloom when a beautiful orange-breasted bird landed quietly on a thin branch overhead. We looked at the petite, slender body of the bird and ecstatically whispered: "Hello, Small Minivet." Being about six inches long, the bird was not really that small, but its name happened to be Small Minivet.
The bright orange breast of the Minivet advertised that it was a male in breeding colour. And the dead insect the bird was holding in its beak meant it had a hungry family somewhere. A male Minivet dutifully feeds the incubating female and the nestlings, perhaps as reparation for not sharing the tedious task of incubation with his female partner.
Shortly, the male took off and flew into the clump of foliage of an adjoining Jarul tree. We followed the bird's trajectory and discovered four growing chicks huddled in a congested cup-nest under the Jarul leaves. The diligent father promptly delivered the insect into one of the chick's gapes and tweeted softly to reassure three others that their turn would come soon.
The three screaming chicks closed their gape and went quiet immediately. We felt truly privileged and incredibly fulfilled to witness the greatest nativity scene the planet earth could ever offer a passerby. The Jarul trees suddenly became more animated and intense to us than ever before.
Soon the Minivet left the nest; we closed our mouths just as the nestlings above us silently watched the nest. The careful parents did a wonderful job of hiding the nest on the Jarul branch. An umbrella of green leaves covered the nest from sun, rain and evil eyes. The nest wall was plastered with small pieces of Jarul-bark to make the nest merge with the tree perfectly.
In a minute, a plain-clothed female Minivet landed on a Jarul branch with a dead butterfly in its beak. She did not have the slaty grey head and the striking orange breast of the male. She needed to be as inconspicuous as possible in the nest, laying and incubating her eggs and covering the naked chicks for weeks.
All the nestlings opened their mouths wide and clamoured for food as soon as their mother came near the nest. But the mom apparently had no desire to split one little insect among four. She looked keenly at the four gaping mouths and shoved the insect into the gullet that looked very red. Blood rushing to the throat of a very hungry chick makes it glow red. After a chick gets food, the blood migrates to the stomach leaving its throat pale.
We had the good fortune to observe several quick-feeding sorties of the Small Minivets. Although every time all the chicks wailed equally vigorously for food, the morsel always went to the hungriest. The degree of redness of the throat showed the parents, which were the hungriest chick and needed the food most.
Apparently, an exception was made when a relatively larger insect was brought, and the chick whose turn was to be fed could not swallow it. The feeding parent watched the chick make futile attempts to gulp the oversize morsel for some time, then pulled it out of the tiny throat and gave it to the largest chick out of turn.
We do not know why the caring parent gives a little chick the impossible task of swallowing a large insect and then thwarts the poor baby bird by taking it back and giving it to its sibling. We do not think the wise Minivets use trial and error methods to feed their chicks. Perhaps the baby bird needs to practice swallowing large insects simply to develop its throat muscles.
The mama-bird visited the nest more frequently than papa, although both of them came with food for the chicks equally often. Mama paid extra visits between the feeding sorties to keep the nest clean. On the cleaning call, she comes with no food and tweets softly to the chicks. One of the chicks promptly turns its backside to the mom and expels a white ball of shit.
Mama is quick to pick up the chick's shit-ball and fly off to throw that far away. That explained how the nest and its vicinity remained so amazingly unsoiled in spite of the four chicks eating and defecating all the time. The nest was spick and span, and there was no white spot on the branches and the leaves around it. What outstanding housekeeping by the Small Minivet!
We could not stand on the roadside gawking at the bird-nest the whole day. We had to move on, however, reluctantly. Those amazingly sagacious and graceful birds had transformed the familiar array of Jarul trees on the wayside into an enchanted grove we wished never to leave.
A few lines of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, our favourite American poet of the nineteenth century, cheered us up on our forced walk away from the Jarul grove:
Think, every morning when the sun peeps through
The dim, leaf-latticed windows of the grove,
How jubilant the happy birds renew
Their old melodious madrigals of love!
And when you think of this, remember too,
It is always morning somewhere, and above
The awakening continents, from shore to shore,
Somewhere the birds are singing evermore.