We stopped dead on our track when we heard a sharp whistle followed by a series of sweet, bubbling notes. We knew it was a Shama beginning its long repertoire of songs. We stood still wishing the Shama not to notice us and carry on with its blissful singing. We were weary of hiking on the steep hills of Lama and needed to rest a little anyway.
From the morning we were hoping to see a Shama on our trail because the forest between the hillocks looked just right for such shy insect-eating birds to reside. The compassionate Shama piped in at the very end of our trail when we were about to give up hope. In these hills we used to see Shama on every trail at the beginning of the century; but no more these days.
We stood still and listened to the Shama sing its heart out. The unseen bird was singing from a tree close by; we did not wish to interrupt its melodic renderings by our impulsive attempt to see it. We knew how shy the bird was and how fast it flew away from intruders. It desires to stay unobserved; its sleek dark feathers help it stay that way in the dim light of the forest.
On that bright August morning, the forest was not too dark for our eager eyes; the Shama did not remain unseen for too long. Without moving our limbs we followed the song and found an imposing male straddling a fork well below the forest canopy. We were delighted to see its pink feet, chestnut belly and dark throat-sac quivering to produce those lovely notes.
The bird, perhaps, had just concluded an intense breeding period and was about to drop off his scruffy tail feathers. Although the female Shama alone incubates her eggs, the male has to enter the nest-hole to feed the chicks. That damages his exceedingly long tail as much as the feathers of her entire body. Male and female both must moult to get their shiny fresh feathers in the fall.
Unlike many forest-birds, the male Shama continues to sing well past the breeding season. That is because he maintains a feeding territory and marks it by singing periodically along the invisible boundary of his property. If you play his song on your phone there the excited male is sure to contest it and fly overhead to chase you out of his territory. Needless to say that it would be unnecessarily disturbing and exhausting work for the poor bird.
Because the male Shama maintains its territory by persistent singing, he has evolved into an indefatigable vocalist. He has a lot to say to his rivals, paramour and passersby; and he says all that in his song. Fortunately, his song is quite pleasing to human ears, and as so many have claimed, immensely invigorating to the human soul. The thirteenth-century Persian Sufi poet Jalal ad-Din Rumi alluded to that in this verse:
My deepest griefs:
Now I'm just as ecstatic as they,
But with nothing to say!
Silently we listened to what the Shama had to say to the forest. We did not know how much of our griefs were relieved, but we were fascinated by the sheer joy and optimism expressed in the song of that ebullient little bird. We felt that nothing bad could creep into that dark forest of Lama so long as the Shama continues to sing.
Unfortunately, when people are fascinated by a single feature of a wild creature it often does not contribute to its wellbeing. Peoples' fascination with the song of Shama did not serve it too well in the past century. It was caught in the wild and its nests were robbed to meet the demands of the cage-bird trade.
Shama became a popular cage-bird because of its talent as a singer, and its population diminished everywhere in its native lands. People concocted some feed to keep the insect-eating bird alive in their cages. At the same time, the bird started spreading in new territories after escaping from the cage. Shama got introduced to lands as far off as Taiwan and Hawaii.
The vociferous Shama on the hill of Lama continued to sing for a few more blissful minutes in spite of our shuffling and fidgeting with cameras. The bird noticed us only when we decided to slowly resume our walk on the trail. Abruptly it stopped singing, raised its long tail to the sky in alarm, flashed the snow-white feathers on its rump, and flew away.
That flashy white rump is what gave the bird its common English name: White-rumped Shama. It is known simply as 'Shama' in most languages of the Indian subcontinent. The bird does not need an epithet with its name since there is no second Shama in the subcontinent. There are, however, seven other species of Shama in Southeast Asia.
Shama is a very close relative of our national bird, the Oriental Magpie Robin. In the genus 'Copsicus' there are six species of Magpie Robin and eight species of Shama in the world. All the 14 species are talented singers; and arguably, White-rumped Shama is the best of all. Song of a captive Shama was recorded in Germany when the first voice recording became possible on Edison's wax cylinders some 130 years ago.
We believe the Shama of Lama continues to sing the same charming song it sang in Germany some thirteen decades before.
Enam Ul Haque is the Chairman of WildTeam. First Published in The Business Standard.
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