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Of Kohas and Cuckoos

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by Dr Rohan H
Wickramasinghe

It was a delight and encouraging to read in The Island editorial of 13th April the information that the Koha is said to be conspicuous by its absence this New Year. Many would not have assigned valuable space for this observation in the issue of the newspaper published on the day before the Sinhala and Tamil New Year given the serious competition from other pressing issues. It was also encouraging that this information had been considered important enough for someone to have brought it to the notice of the newspaper in a time when Lanka and the world outside are experiencing challenging times. This scribe would like to pen a few words about this beloved bird of Lanka, who bears the formal name of the Asian Koel (Eudynamys scolopaceus), and its equally beloved British counterpart, the European or Common Cuckoo (Cuculus canorus). Reams have been published over centuries relevant to these species and the purpose of this brief note is to encourage both wildlife enthusiasts and the lay public to delve further into the avenues indicated.

Their place in Nature

The Koha and the European or Common Cuckoo are included in the family of birds known as the Cuculidae. The cuckoo family includes the European or Common Cuckoo, road runners, koels, malkohas, couas, coucals and anis.

Aristotle (384 to 322 BC) was possibly the first to observe and describe the Common Cuckoo’s behaviour. Edward Jenner was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS) in 1788 for his studies relating to the Common Cuckoo rather than for his development of the vaccine against smallpox.

The Asian koels (to which our Koha belongs) was named by Carl Linnaeus as Cuculus scolopaceus in 1758. They are mainly resident breeders in tropical southern Asia but have a very wide range with several geographic forms. The familiar call of the male is a repeated ‘koo-Ooo’, while that of the female is a shrill ‘kik-kik-kik’. Asian koels are largely fruit eaters as adults.

The Common Cuckoo (Cuculus canorus canorus) was named by Carl Linnaeus in 1758. There are four subspecies worldwide.

The present presentation does not attempt to discuss in any detail the huge volume of information known and published about the cuckoos. Those interested in following up details appearing in this communication will encounter items which will be of interest to wildlife enthusiasts in general, ornithologists, environmentalists, biologists, those conversant with Asian languages of the present day and ancient times, European literature, music lovers, poets and in many other bye-ways of Mankind’s interest and investigation.

Kohas and the European Cuckoos

Though there are marked differences in form and lifestyles of some members of the Cuckoo family, there are also similarities and correspondence between some. Some of these differences and similarities, which are noteworthy, follow:

a) Day associated with the Koha and the European Cuckoo

In Lanka, Sinhala and Tamil New Year on the 14th April is associated with hearing the call of the Koha or Koel. Interestingly, in Britain, St. Tiburtius Day is celebrated on 14th April and according to tradition is when one would hear the first cuckoo of the year (but see below). This event is celebrated in the ‘Cuckoo Song’ by Rudyard Kipling (1865 to 1936). The poem, which is well worth reading, is introduced by the following comment:

(Spring begins in southern England on the 14th April, on which date the Old Woman lets the Cuckoo out of her basket at Heatfield Fair locally known as Heffle Cuckoo Fair.)

b) Migration of cuckoos

In Sri Lanka, the Koha is considered a mainly resident species but the European Cuckoo leaves Britain for the winter and migrates to sunnier climes, such as Africa. The adult birds traditionally return from their migration south in late March or April and depart in July or August. (Young adults leave a month or so later.) An interesting development has been reports in a bird identification service (www.birdspot.co.uk/first-cuckoo) that adult common cuckoos have been observed this year much earlier than usual; ranging from one in East Hampshire on 3 January 2021 and several others in January and February 2021. (One observer claims to have seen a fledgling cuckoo in a garden in Telford on 13 February 2021, which indicates that the mother laid its egg(s) in another bird’s nest at least a month previously.)

c) Breeding of cuckoos

Different species of cuckoos may differ in their style of breeding but the Koha and the European Cuckoo are similar in that they practice ‘brood parasitism’. This basically involves using birds of other species to hatch their egg(s) and bring up the young which emerge. In some instances, the ‘guest’ may push the eggs and young of the host out of the nest in order to reduce competition for food.

In the case of the European Cuckoo, dunnocks, meadow pipits and reed warblers are frequently used as ‘hosts’. However, some 291 host bird species have been reported in whose nests the chicks and eggs of the European or common cuckoos have been recorded. In the case of the Koha, the nests of the Jungle Crow and (in more recent years; probably following widespread deforestation and urbanization) those of the Common Crow may be utilized. Other cuckoo species in India may use other foster parents, such as the mynah and the iora.

The male Koha is black and similar in appearance to a crow while the female is brown. The male Koha positions itself on a branch close to a crow’s nest and sings beautifully to attract a female. It follows this by hurling insults at the crows and provokes them to chase him. While the crows chase after the male Koha, the crafty female slips in and lays an egg in the nest. (The egg resembles a crow’s egg.) The incubation periods of the eggs of the various players have been reported as follows: crows 17 to 20 days, koels 12 to 14 days and cuckoos 13 to 16 days. The young Asian cuckoos fledge in 20 to 28 days.

As mentioned above, this lifestyle has been termed ‘brood parasitism’. Interestingly, the Vedas, which have been orally communicated since the second millennium B.C., referred to the Koha by a term which has been translated as ‘that which has been raised by others’. This has been taken to signify ‘brood parasitism’.

However, not all species of cuckoo practice brood parasitism. ‘Brood parasitism’ may contribute to why the male Koha has acquired the ability to sing beautifully in the neighbourhood of nesting crows in order to attract female Kohas to the locality.

Incidentally, the word ‘Koel’ is onomatopoeic in origin. The Sanskrit name ‘kokila’ and other words in many Indian languages are similarly echoic.

d) Literature and Music

The cuckoo may well be the most romanticised bird in literature and has given rise to the term ‘cuckoldry’, as in Shakespeare’s “Love’s Labours Lost’.

One must not fail to note the musical composition for orchestra in Norway in 1912 by Fredrick Delius (1862 to 1934) of the symphonic poem, “On hearing the first cuckoo in Spring”. This is available to listen to on ‘You Tube’ grace of Jayne Anne Strutt, who describes it as ‘a two note Spring song’. Jayne Anne Strutt mentions that she has not heard a Common Cuckoo in her locality in Britain for three years and that it is ‘breaking her heart’.

What the future holds

The recent population decline of the Common Cuckoo in Britain has led to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) moving it to the category of a ‘Red List Species’ as regards its status. (The three categories of the RSPB are Red, Amber and Green.) A recent estimate is that there are currently some 15,000 breeding pairs of the Common Cuckoo in the UK. The reasons for its population decline in Britain probably include urbanization and tree felling leading to the loss of breeding sites. Climate change, which would, among others, influence migration patterns would be another important factor.

Urbanisation and tree felling will, also, be among factors impacting reproductive success and population figures of the Koha in Lanka. Climate change, including its effect on rainfall patterns, is another. It is well to keep in mind what may lie in store for one of the most beloved birds in our land.



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Sat Mag

When a wonderful human being crosses the great divide

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Sarasaviya took this picture of Punya and Milroy at their home after the “Abhimani” Legendary Award was conferred on Punya, during their last visit to Sri Lanka to attend the Sarasaviya Festival in 2016.

“There are friends,
There is family,
And then there are friends
That become family”

Such a friend was Milroy, whose passing away a few days ago, we learnt with heavy hearts and deep sorrow.

To those who didn’t know him, he was the husband of Punya Heendeniya, the actress who captivated the hearts and minds of a nation by her portrayal of Nanda in the film classic “Gamperaliya”; Nanda was the quintessential Sinhala upper class village maiden who valued tradition over love.

To MBS (Siri) he was a lifelong friend “who stayed forever, beyond word, beyond distance, beyond time”.

To me (Kumar Gunawardane) who came to know him through Siri and also through his brothers, he was a pleasant companion, and good friend.

PUNYA:

“He loved music, sing songs and kalawaa (art) in all its forms. That is why he married me. He went out of his way to help the needy in whatever way he could. He did everything for me and the children.

“In the last year or two he took to understanding what real Buddha Dharma was.

“May he attain the supreme bliss of Nibbana!”

SIRI:

“We met on the very first day in the “Block”; alphabetically we were next to each other, Milroy de Silva and MBS de Silva. That day, wearing our white jackets and ties back to front, we had to march to the Anatomy laboratory, jeered by serried ranks of haughty seniors. The naked bodies lying on marble slabs was nauseating. I was directed to the appropriate cadaver by a tutor and paired with a brilliant student JBC De Silva, to dissect the upper limb. Confused and bewildered I could only gaze at the colleague carving the other arm. He looked equally nonplussed wielding a scalpel nonchalantly, while another student recited the instructions from Cunningham’s manual of Anatomy. Our eyes met and that was the start of a beautiful friendship; a coming together of the high-spirited and full of joie de vivre. We immediately downed tools and scampered to the canteen to revive ourselves with a cup of tea, laced with condensed milk, and the cheapest available cigarette ‘Peacock’. Our interests were similar; studies took a back seat, larking around taking precedence. The friendship was sealed further when we joined Bloemfontein the formidable male medical student hostel alternatively feared and lauded.

“I remember our first Block dance at the King George’s hall. He was smartly dressed in black tuxedo pants and a cream jacket; only missing element was a lady companion. I, who wore a black shirt and a white tie, had a beautiful girl on my arm. I asked Milroy where he came by his tuxedo and he disdainfully replied I have two brothers who are doctors and one tuxedo for the whole family and now it is my turn to have it!!

“Our bonds strengthened during our intern year. Milroy returned to his roots in Galle and I joined him a few months later at Mahamodara, the hospital by the sea. It was a year of back breaking work, but also a year of fun and frolic.

“Milroy was then posted as chief (District Medical Officer) of the Moneragala hospital. But “I was left high and dry, Milroy, thoughtful as ever arranged for me to work with his brother Dr A.S.H De Silva, who had a thriving general practice just down the road from the hospital. Three months later, I got a posting to Buttala, which was then a mostly elephant and serpent infested jungle. It was classed as a ‘punishment’ station by the Health Department. The attractions however were the proximity to Milroy, and also the predecessors who included medical giants such as Professor Rajasooriya and the distinguished surgeons Dr Bartholomeuz, and R. L. Spittel the Surgeon of the Wilderness. In this pastoral outpost Milroy was bowled over by the image of Punya. He was at a loss to reach her. I advised him to write and he did so with panache. She invited him to visit them at Mirigama, her hometown to meet her folk. They teamed up in Punya’s own words for 52 years seven months and 22 days; a match made in heaven.

“As a dutiful father, he wanted to give his son and daughter the best education available and so it was that he and Punya migrated to Zambia. It was here that they demonstrated hidden strengths of character which helped them overcome adversities and even threats to their lives and move over to England. Milroy re-invented himself and rose to top of the ladder to become a consultant psychiatrist. His two children also became consultants in the NHS, the son a gastroenterologist and daughter an endocrinologist. He acknowledged freely Punya’s role not only in all his triumphs, but also in the hazards and misfortunes in their paths.

“Yet, more than all this was his humanity and humility, generosity to those less well endowed especially relatives and also to those medical graduates at the threshold of their careers. They were gracious hosts; Punya was an accomplished cook and less well known, a euphonious singer. I and my good friend Karu had the good fortune to enjoy their hospitality on many occasions in London.

“Milroy my friend, “To live in the hearts of those we love is never to die”

“May your journey in Samsara be short and my you attain the Supreme bliss of Nibbana!”

 

KUMAR:

I first got to know Milroy at Bloemfontein, the medical student’s hostel adjoining Carey College. He was a dapper figure, stylishly dressed with an unceasing gentle smile on his face. His chums, Siri, Gerry, Wicky and others were always friendly with us juniors and never intimidating. Their banter and capers in the dining room and the spacious portico were invariably hilarious.

My friendship with Siri was cemented in the hurly-burly of the Galle hospital, where I too did my internship. When I was unemployed after its completion it was Siri who arranged for me to work with Dr ASH, Milroy’s brother. ASH and Kingsley, another brother became my friends and mentors.

“Punya was a heartthrob of many young bucks of our era. But only one, Milroy, could win her hand and her heart. What a splendid partnership it was.

The Buddha Dhamma teaches that death is natural and inevitable. Yet it is sorrowful and we pray for you and your family’s peace and comfort. Their sadness is soothed by the beauty of your life, a life well lived. As the Buddha said death has no fear to those who fashioned life as a garland of beautiful deeds.

May you attain the Supreme Bliss of Nibbana!

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Sat Mag

A New Arrival at the Pathfinder Wildlife Preservation Centre

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A newly hatched blue and gold macaw bred at the Pathfinder Wildlife Preservation Centre being attended to by a staff member Sisira Kumara.

The Pathfinder Wildlife Preservation Centre has a comprehensive collection of rare macaws, cockatoos, lorikeets, and parrots from Southeast Asia, Africa, and Latin America. The collection also includes a range of Arowana fish. This unique collection was originally presented to the Centre by Nimal Jayawardena, a leading business person, lawyer, and wildlife expert.

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Sat Mag

Imagining Malinda Seneviratne

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By Uditha Devapriya

I’d like to begin this tribute with a memory. I wasn’t always an avid reader of newspapers. My father, on the other hand, was. Somewhere in middle school, in Grade Eight I believe, I began picking them up once he had done with them, poring over the columns.

My eyes rested on certain topics more than others. They’d invariably centre on the war. How were we fighting the enemy? How was that enemy fighting back? What new conspiracies had been unearthed? Who had unearthed them? Who was next on the enemy’s kill list? The peace process, dead as a dodo long before it died, had floundered. Officially, we were back at war. As intriguing as that would have been, it was also disconcerting.

Even more disconcerting was the ambivalent stand of the English language press on the war. Not that the editorials called for a cessation of hostilities, much less a return to the peace process. But beneath the fine print, one could discern an almost confused pacifism, an almost abstruse neutralism.

This conformed to the same pattern: an acknowledgement of the heroism of the armed forces followed by a critique of government policy. Ultimately it all boiled down to, not whether the government was conducting the war properly, but whether the war had to be conducted at all. Even there the editors remained indecisive: they concluded that the LTTE had to be defeated, yet refused to endorse the war being waged to achieve that end.

None of that felt frustrating, of course. Cut off from the fears of a war next door, one could only revel in the delicatessen of wartime journalism. Yet it was clear the scales tilted to a side: very few writing in English advocated a military solution to the world’s longest running ongoing ethnic conflict. What explained their hesitation?

I didn’t bother finding out, but given the preponderance of those who wrote against the war, I was transfixed by those who wrote in support of it. Of them, one in particular caught my attention. Seven years later I met him: a coincidence I ponder over even now.

I have known Malinda Seneviratne in his many forms: writer, poet, translator, activist, editor, citizen, father, husband, and teacher. Yet I can’t recall why I wanted to meet him. Was it the eloquent prose, sharp as nails even at its most polemical? The equally eloquent poetry, haiku-like and evocative of both Neruda and Galeano? Or the activism, unabashedly nationalist in a country whose Westernised intelligentsia abhors such “tribalist” sentiments?

Malinda’s political education began with the Left, first with his father Gamini, then with a batch-mate of his father, Nanda Wickramasinghe (attached to the Revolutionary Communist League at the University of Peradeniya), and finally with Vijaya Kumaratunga and Ossie Abeygunasekera (until the latter’s defection to the UNP). The Ratawesi Peramuna, precursor to the Sihala Urumaya, came later.

His activism in (and for) the Ratawesi Peramuna followed his return from Harvard (where he completed his Bachelor’s in Sociology) in 1991. It was while in this group that he deepened his friendship with two of his biggest influences, Patali Champika Ranawaka and Athuraliye Rathana Thera. It was also his activities there that landed him in trouble; the police swooped on a meeting organised in 1992 at Wadduwa, following an exhibition of LTTE, IPKF, and JVP human rights abuses held in Matara, was intercepted by the police, who proceeded to arrest 15 members, including Ranawaka, Rathana Thera, and Malinda.

Held for three weeks, and tortured on the orders of a drunken OIC, they filed a fundamental rights case at the Supreme Court. Upholding their case, the Court, which acknowledged that the RP did not constitute a threat to national security and did not warrant the treatment meted out to its members, ordered the State to pay Rs 5,000 for each applicant. The Human Rights Library of the University of Minnesota later archived the case, “Channa Pieris and Others v. Attorney General and Others.” In the meantime, the Ratawesi Peramuna turned into Janatha Mithuro, a green socialist/nationalist outfit preaching the gospel of alternative development paradigms (what Ranakawa called the “third chapter of development”).

Malinda ended his political associations once he started out on his journalistic (and writing) career in the 2000s. By then he had gone through Janatha Mithuro, Sihala Urumaya, and the National Movement Against Terrorism (2006-7). These are, no doubt, colourful affiliations, befitting a colourful memoir. Yet, despite his activism, it’s hard to put a finger on his convictions: he just can’t be categorised in the same way his opponents, or for that matter his allies, can.

On the ‘national Question’, on the 13th Amendment, on our relations with India, indeed on global politics, he projects a provocative perspective. Thus, for instance, while he supported the Sihala Urumaya’s and Hela Urumaya’s parliamentary aspirations, he critiqued the latter’s decision to field Buddhist monks at elections. Even so, however, he does not oppose the entry of monks on a matter of unyielding principle: for him, they constitute a group having as much a right to parliamentary representation as any other.

In any case, whatever those convictions, the more I read him in my middle school years, the curiouser I got: then as now, what defines Malinda is the contrast, one could say paradox, between his ideological predilections and his poetic instincts. The two do get together, more often than you’d think, in his anthologies (just sample his poems on Geneva). And yet there’s a disjuncture between them. Perhaps this was what made me want to visit him.

Our first meeting went by innocuously enough. Lasting a little more than an hour, it ended on the promise of a second meeting, which transpired a month later – to be followed by another, and then another. The rapport between us grew quickly; by the time of the third meeting, he was asking me to come in and write to the paper he supervised as editor.

I hesitated at first. With characteristic flippancy, though, he shrugged my concerns aside: “When you work for me,” he promised, “you will write on everything.” I thus gave in: as with all 21-year-olds new to the trade, I wanted to write and be read in print. A few months later, in fulfilment of a promise he made before the January 2015 election, I was in.

Malinda taught several lessons as a writer, journalist, and senior. First and foremost among them was the line between writing news and writing features. For no matter what people may say, a good writer does not necessarily make for a good reporter. Pen and paper in hand, you need to record whatever it is that you’re covering is putting out to the public. Cutting through a morass of irrelevant anecdotes, you need to distil what you heard. And of course, you need to separate facts from comment: you can’t editorialise.

This proved to be a difficult exercise for me, far more difficult than the light pieces I ended up submitting to the features section. Suffice it to say, then, that insofar as Malinda taught me anything about journalism, it was that I could never aspire to be a journalist.

The second lesson was simpler: no matter how good (or bad) you may be as a journalist, if your editor doesn’t encourage you, your ink will dry. This applies to other professions also: where would Thomas Wolfe be, for instance, without Max Perkins?

Malinda, of course, was not my first editor. Yet he and I shared interests which immediately bridged the gap between him and me. In the end, I wound up writing on topics I had always wanted to talk about. That could not have been possible without him.

The third lesson, the most important one, was that writing to newspapers is never going to be a stable profession, especially not here. I learnt this lesson the hard way: five months after I got in, his paper closed down. Petrified for days, wondering whether I would ever be able to write again, I eventually came to realise that, as shocking an experience as it may have been to me, for Malinda it did not mean much: he’d been pole-vaulting from one paper to another from the day he left active politics for journalism.

His experience there became my guide: one evening, after the storm clouds of his termination had died down, he told me bluntly, “In this trade, if you’re good enough, you’ll never be out of tenure.” I disputed him. Six years later, having contributed to every paper he wrote to and is writing to, I realise I was wrong to do so.

Having read him and met him, I thus ended up learning under Malinda: a trajectory I am yet to go through a second time with anyone else in his line of work. I can’t really assess him, or do him justice, except maybe to note that, for the little or the lot he taught, he never demanded a payback.

Perhaps that’s just as well. For without taking away anything from what he did, I was hardly the only person he supported this way. Many others, most of them as young as I, all of them endowed with a superior penmanship, also found their way to the pages of the papers he oversaw. I know for a fact that he always insisted on compensating them – in full.

The West Indian international relations scholar Herb Addo once wrote that Andre Gunder Frank, from whom he learnt about the political economy of underdevelopment, “taught me nothing.” For his contemporaries, Addo argued, Frank “taught from a distance”, yet let his students develop as individual, independent intellectuals, in their own right.

By no means do I suggest that Malinda taught me nothing, or that he did so from a distance. But reflecting on how he taught all that one needed to know, and how he dismisses it today as though was just letting me evolve on my own, I wonder: was he, as Frank had been to Addo, a teacher in the Gibran vein, leading me to the threshold of my mind?

The writer can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com

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