In the world of birds, woodpeckers are architects. While they don’t knit like Baya weavers or tailorbirds creating nests, they do design some of the most desirable homes in bird society. They always choose prime locations, and the partnership between the wood and the pecker creates secure, weather-tolerant, warm, and cosy nests.
One cloudy day, we were out in the old-growth forests in Mussoorie Wildlife Sanctuary documenting some of the beautiful butterflies. As we searched along the stream, we noticed a bald, old, but beautiful poplar tree. The Old Poplar, as we like to call it, was about 15 metres high, with deep cracks running along its corky bark. It stood tall for as long as the locals could remember. Peculiarly, its perennially leafless body was riddled with deep holes and seemed similar to the organised residential system we humans call “apartments”, but this was only for birds. Each of the five “storeys” of the “apartment building” had a hole oriented in a different direction, perhaps to ensure that the serenity of the early morning wasn’t disturbed by chirpy neighbours living on the floor above.
The tree marked the boundary between the sanctuary and local community land. It stood at the convergence of two streams that led to the Kempty channel (the water supply for Kempty Falls in Mussoorie). This singular tree stood among fruit bushes of local raspberry or hissar (Rubus ellipticus), barberry (Berisberis vulgaris) and a field full of Wallich’s thistle (Cirsium wallichii), which is popular with a variety of insects, and mansur (Coriaria nepalensi), a woody shrub, from which Mussoorie gets its name. With little tree cover in either direction, the Old Poplar received a generous amount of sunlight throughout the day. All of these factors made the tree highly sought after by birds.
Admittedly, we didn’t expect to see a nest in such a tree which provided no cover or camouflage whatsoever, but the fact of the holes and continuous chirping originating from them proved otherwise. Distracted by the begging calls, we stopped searching for butterflies and focused our cameras on the tree. To our pleasant surprise, we spotted a brown-fronted woodpecker (Dendrocopos auriceps) chick peeking out of its hole periodically, its eyes filled with childish curiosity. Waiting patiently behind some bushes, we watched the mother climb down the Old Poplar, carrying a raspberry in her mouth.
We spent some time admiring the universal spirit of motherhood before we noticed an adult great barbet (Psilopogon virens) disappear into the east-facing “flat” of the poplar. Carefully reorienting ourselves around the tree as it began to rain, we found the barbet’s nest just one storey above the woodpeckers.
We were thrilled to see two different species residing in the same tree. But as the rain became heavier, we decided to pack up and return the next day.
The following morning we returned to check on the chick, but the tree seemed to be populated by a new group of birds — jungle mynas! The seven of them were ruthless, noisy, and had no respect for bird privacy. We saw the little woodpecker calling for its mother; perhaps it was frightened by the ruckus on the floor below. Though relieved to see the delicate creature, the uncertainty caused by this new situation kept us on edge. We watched and waited till the mother returned with food. We felt fairly certain that the woodpeckers were safe. But to our horror, we saw the mynas intrude on the nest as soon as the mother left.
Feeling a justifiable sense of compassion for the woodpeckers, we made our presence felt as we came out of hiding and approached the Old Poplar. The mynas paused their activities, observed us and decided to fly away. We continued on our search for butterflies and only returned the next day.
Mynas (Acridotheres fuscus) were once considered a pest-controlling species in Australia. They are, however, infamous for raiding other birds’ nests. When mynas were introduced to eradicate the insect and the pest population in Australia, they wreaked havoc by killing native birds and raiding their nests instead.
As we made our way to the Old Poplar the next day, we saw the mother perched on an oak. She seemed to be looking for something. We thought she was looking for insects for her child. Settling behind bushes, we trained our sights on the woodpecker residence.
After an hour, the mother returned, but her beak was empty. She scoured her nest thoroughly; agitated she entered and exited the nest again and again. The sudden shock of realisation struck both of us simultaneously as we looked at each other in despair.
The nest was empty, and the mother was in panic mode. The situation did not look good. At that moment, the mynas returned as if to reveal their hand in the evil ploy against the woodpeckers, or so we assumed. The mother flew away, and we picked up the pieces of our broken hearts and went to observe the east-facing barbet residence.
Soon, the mynas began to pester the barbet, but being the larger bird, it fought off the troupe. However, the mynas did not retreat, for they most likely were trying to claim the Old Poplar as their own.
The only consolation we can take from this series of events is that life must go on. We often praise Mother Nature for her intricate harmonies, but we must also accept the abundance of chaos in her ways. In an ideal world, perhaps the little woodpecker would have grown up and contributed to the bird community and the wilderness, just like her mother. And we must not forget the importance of an old tree that has grown way past its rotation age (the age at which a tree is considered old, and hence cut down). To humans, the tree may have appeared “dead” and incapable of contributing in terms of food or camouflage, but it was still an important habitat for a variety of different birds and the object of their contention.