A few weeks ago, on a bright, sunny morning, a sunbird (nectariniidae or small passerine birds), yellow-breasted with a greenish back and purple-brown wings, flew through the window of our apartment, perched itself atop the stack of books on our coffee table, regarded the room for a moment and then flew out.
I was sitting at our work table and had a front-seat view to this marvelous and entirely inexplicable event. I resisted the urge to gasp or make any sound and, as you might see in a comic book or a cartoon for children, quickly covered my mouth with both hands.
That was the second instance of a visit that morning. Earlier, I was folding the laundry in the bedroom when a sunbird flew to the windowsill, perched there awhile and then flew away.
In both instances, I didn’t sense anything like fear, or disorientation.
Why would a sunbird fly right into your apartment and sit on your books?
We’re guilty of anthropomorphizing the birds, we admit. This is because about four months ago, a sunbird decided to build a nest on the hanging, arching foliage of a lipstick plant (Aeschynanthus evergreen subtropical plants in the family Gesneriaceae) hanging not far from the front door of my in-laws’ house. Their nests are lovely things. They are made on what seems to be a fragile vine and look to me like an almond-shaped eye, tilted vertically. With pointed ends, the hollow inside which they lay their eggs is a wondrous example of a warm cocoon.
We named her Mallika (the Tamil name for the jasmine flower, our favourite, and the flower of the gods in Hinduism). Whenever we visited, most often in the evening, she was done with her tasks for the day and sat in the nest, plump and utterly still. She was undisturbed by our goings and comings, the lights turning on and off at the drive-way and even by our irrepressible desire to stealthily walk by, stand not too far away and simply look at her. Sunbirds pollinate lipstick plants, so the choice was obvious and only natural. Nonetheless, it struck us as remarkable that she felt safe being so close to humans. We are, I suppose, less of a threat than the koel, the mynah, the oriole.
Mallika went on to give birth to three chicks. Our in-laws told us that a couple of days after this, they were about to head out in their car when these three sunbirds, Mallika’s offspring, appeared and began fluttering around their heads, twittering with great energy. They said it felt like they had come to say good bye. Mallika still came by and spent some evenings in that cocoon, quiet and still. We joked that it must be handful managing three young ones and that she probably came here to rest.
We got rather carried away with the story-telling. With this lovely gestation and birthing experience, we imagined Mallika letting her sister or friend know that this was a perfect spot in which to nest. We imagined another sunbird arriving after Mallika’s departure.
And of course, it happened. A new sunbird has arrived, the nest has been spruced up and of course, we’ve named her again. She is Manjula.
We’ve also bought a lipstick plant.
We’ve rescued all kinds of bizarre creatures from our house, most often late in the evening or at night, when we’ve only got the two standing lamps on. Yes, moths (often brown like bark, but also white as clouds), but also cicadas; once, a spider-moth, several wasps, a praying mantis and a grasshopper. In every instance, there is disorientation and sometimes, sadly, an injury. These are instances of short-lived lives; creatures seeking succor, desperate for the light, always drawn to it, creatures coming to a place to die. This is how it is: on a wall, just resting, on a wall, still, death around the corner. If they are on the ceiling, we leave them alone, knowing that the next morning we’ll find them on the floor, somewhere behind the couch or under the side table.
Sometimes, with the angrier ones (angry because they are on the defensive), rescue is difficult. So we have to capture them in tupperware, lightly place the cover and give it a gentle shake so that they’re a bit dizzy. Then, when they’re not sure where they are or what’s going on, we release them, usually into the bushes or onto a lush, healthy plant.
The most bizarre rescue (and possibly the most educational for me) was when we found a Banded Malayan coral snake near the door of another apartment in our small enclave. It was an infant, indistinguishable from a worm. But a worm is a worm and we thought it best to move it to the mud, grass and away from people’s feet and shoes.
But as it turned out, the worm was a coral snake. The tupperware exercise was nearly futile. A piece of paper to edge it into the tupperware also did not work and a twig, when dealing with something so slender and delicate, can be fatal.
Was it a newborn? Even then, the defensive instinct was perfectly operational. The coral snake flipped, belly-upped and suddenly, there it was: the luminous yellow and black stripes and the orange “head” with a black dot, signifying the eye. A new snake, a new version, a new avatar. This was its threatening posture: these colours were meant to evoke fear and also disorientation (the tail was now the head). This twisting, writhing dance continued for a while, so that it felt like an optical illusion: first a dull brown, worm-like snake, then a banded, bright, poisonous snake, back and forth.
It took a while, the neighbours got involved, people from upstairs peered down and watched and it all turned into a bit of an event.
We eventually managed to get it into the tupperware, where it continued to writhe.This moment in time, from capture to release, is a time in which I always feel a strange well of love. I have no way to tell this thing writhing or trembling inside this transparent box with the lid only lightly on (to let air in) that this is not an execution, but a rescue. Release is always a lovely moment. Of course, we have no idea what happens after that. We could very well be delaying an imminent death, or releasing them into the clutches of a more dangerous world, a predatory realm. We know all this. But this is how it is. Better that, than be trampled on, flicked, sprayed on with a chemical, or be stamped out with a rolled up newspaper by a human hand.
The snake was released into a wide, open field. We saw it hesitate and then move quickly through the undergrowth.
And Manjula just gave birth to two little ones.