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When a One-Legged Common Mynah Enlivened our Mornings
by Swaraj Raj

“Are you listening? Come here, and see.” “What’s it?” I asked. “You can see it only when you’ll come out!” Rubbing my eyes, I dragged myself out of the bed with great reluctance. I did not know what my wife wanted to show me so early in the morning.

 

“What’s it?” 

“Look at that common mynah, on the wall, there. See, she has only one leg.”

I peered at it through the early morning fog to make out if it really had only one leg. Then I rushed in for my glasses. The mynah did seem to have only one leg. But I wasn’t convinced.

“No, no. It can’t be. She isn’t one-legged. I think she has tucked her leg up like birds generally do. Haven’t you seen how most egrets and stilts stand on one leg in the shallows?”

“It is one-legged. See how she hobbles on one leg! All others with whom she came have flown away, leaving behind the poor thing alone.”

My wife was right. This mynah wasn’t warming one leg in her plumage that cold February morning. She was actually one-legged. We had never seen her before among those who came daily to feed on the food crumbs we put on the wall. She was hobbling and hopping alone, with her abdomen touching the wall sometimes. After picking whatever was left on the wall, she waited for a minute or two and then flew away. However, this wasn’t her one-off visit to our home; she became a regular sight almost every morning till the end of April.  

We often wondered what could have gone wrong with her. Had she been deprived of her leg in a fight with some of her kin? Mynahs are known to be very cantankerous. I have seen them involved in a sort of mortal combat with each other. They fight with great ferocity, tooth and nail, as they say. They fight with their beaks, spring up in the air and clobber their adversaries with great force with their outstretched feet. The one pinned to the ground and being lynched mercilessly fights back for some time and then plays possum to escape the savagery of the attackers. I don’t know of the existence of any avian banana court that allows such brutality in the name of instant justice; but this is what nature is – an enigma, unrelentingly brutal, treacherous and generous as well.

I distinctly remember once picking up a presumably badly injured mynah after the mynah lynch mob had departed leaving their injured, unmoving victim on the ground. It was totally still, its warm body flaccid when I picked it up. I put it on our garden table to examine where it was wounded and how we could help. But what a nice surprise she had in store for us! All of a sudden, it came to life, as if nothing had happened. In no time it flew away gurgling ku-lu-lu-luk, the sound mynahs make when they take wing. I stood there rooted for some time, wondering how it had pulled a fast one on its attackers and me! That a bird could resort to such a stratagem to save itself puts human craftiness into perspective. We, the humans are not the only fakers and pretenders in the animal world; there are many others too who surpass us in this respect but get hardly any credit for their intelligence.  

As the time passed, as our one-legged mynah became more familiar with us, she became more confident as well. She would arrive with her flock but was always the last to leave. When there was no food left for her, she chirped incessantly waiting to be fed. A time came when she started taking food literally from our hands. It was a joy feeding her in the morning. For us the feeding time meant a day well begun. And the feeding time became a daily ritual. The feeding sessions were punctuated by endearments we uttered to her: “oye aa ja kudiye, roti kha lai … O come, come girlie, have your food.”  We waited eagerly for her. With no sexual dimorphism among the mynahs to tell the male from the female, it was difficult to know if our mynah was a male or a female. But since we tend to assign female gender to all mynahs collectively, for us she was just ‘she’.

We missed her badly the day she did not turn up with others, though her absence was a rare phenomenon in those days.

Her missing leg remained a mystery for us prompting us to think how she could have lost it. Was she so intolerably quarrelsome that someone from her own species had broken it? The presence of a stump alone could prove that she was actually a victim of such atrocity. But there wasn’t even a hint of a stump. The mynahs have no surgeons among them to amputate a bad leg to prevent some deadly gangrenous infection from spreading further. No, she wasn’t an amputee. This deformity must have been congenital.

Whatever was the cause of her disability, her condition appeared quite pitiable. When the mynah flock would come for the morning tattoo and ensemble, most of the others strutted confidently on the wall, while she alone hobbled with great effort. After having their breakfast when all others would leave, she chirped and sang her songs alone. Not being her kin, there was no way for us to know whether her songs were dolorous or cheerful. To me our moping one-legged mynah was an unloved social outcast. I wondered if it was my imagination getting the better of me because even her unpretentious sober grey, white, black and glossy brown attire and her yellow beak and eyes too appeared blue to me, indicative of her blue mood. She looked forlorn, her behaviour a study in despondency. 

Many questions came to our mind as our friendship with her grew deeper. Was she conscious of her own her disability? Did she crave for sympathy from others? Did others make fun of her in their avian chatter, deride her for the most awkward manner she hopped? Did anyone empathize with her? Was her mother more considerate towards her than her other babies who were perhaps not born handicapped like her? How could she survive with this handicap if the law of the wild was simply the survival of the fittest? But the most important question was if she would ever be able to find a mate; a he if she were a she, and a she if she were not a she. Mynahs are known to mate for life. Even if she did find a mate, would he remain steadfast in his relationship? How would she go about the usual avian household chores such as making and looking after the nest, feeding the young ones and so on. These questions, I know, are a typical case of anthropomorphizing, but this encounter was so fascinating that it made me look afresh at the affinity and difference we posit between humans and animals.

My fears about our one-legged mynah not being able to find a mate were, however, unfounded. Towards the end of March when the spring had started painting the earth in its myriad hues, she did find a mate who always accompanied her. And both of them appeared quite happy. However, in April, her visits became less frequent. Finally, by the middle of May, she stopped coming altogether. Hopefully the happy couple had found a nice niche in a wall or in the hollow of a tree, a safe haven to start a family of their own. Hopefully her babies had not inherited her handicap from their mother. We missed their daily visits, but we were also happy to imagine that they had perhaps settled somewhere. 

Normally, we tend to ignore these rather plebeian looking birds. They are neither exotic nor rare. Their plumage is not resplendent like that of many other birds. They are too many, widely distributed in many countries and are considered to be a nuisance because they are known to be a highly invasive species.

The common mynah, Acridotheres tristis, a passerine belongs to the family Sturnidae and genus Acridotheres. The roots of the name of the genus Acridotheres lie in the Greek term ‘akris’ which means locust, and ‘theres’ which means hunter. Thus, the very name of the genus establishes the basic trait of this bird. It enjoys locusts, grasshoppers, spiders, moths, butterflies and many other insects. Hence, despite the bad press it has received for being an invasive species, it helps in controlling the population of pests like locusts and grasshoppers. The common mynah’s species name tristis comes from Latin and it means sad, saturnine and having dark, gloomy colour which refers to the actual plumage. The family Sturnidae is quite large; the Bank mynah, Pied mynah, Jungle mynah, Hill mynah, Brahminy mynah and many starlings also belong to this family.

K. N. Dave, in his book Birds in Sanskrit Literature (2005) writes that in Sanskrit literature, the common mynah has a number of names, most of which describe the appearance or behaviour of the bird. In addition to saarika (a songbird), the other names are kalahapriya (which means ‘one who is fond of arguments’ referring to the quarrelsome nature of this bird); chitranetra (which refers to the bird’s ‘picturesque eyes’; peetanetra (one with yellow eyes) and peetapaad (one with yellow legs).

To me, the word saarika captures the essence of this songbird. We have read and heard about the songs of larks, nightingales and thrushes in poems by many English poets. But I’ve not come across a poem on the songs of our own, remarkable virtuoso that can trill, chirp, tweet, whistle, squawk, click and can mimic the calls of many birds. The saarika having such a varied repertoire of calls and alarms makes me think as if many muses have made a home in her throat. Her doodling with her syrinx to produce her atonal polyphony, to me, is actually the work of the muses. Her range of vocabulary is simply amazing.

The excellent adaptability of the common mynah is the main reason for their ever-increasing population in many parts of the world. Being omnivores, they can survive on a diverse diet of grains, fruits, insects, arachnids and discarded litter near human habitations. Since they feed on fruits and on small insects and arachnids in flowers, therefore they act as a cross-pollinators as well. They can be found in large numbers in pastures where cattle graze; they look for insects in the soil disturbed by the grazing cattle. They are highly sociable birds found feeding in large flocks. Hundreds of mynahs assemble in the evening at their roosting sites which may be trees and/or telephone wires. Their evening parliament is an extremely noisy affair, a sort of pandemonium that can be heard from far off. It appears as if all the gossips have gathered to speak out their mind at the same time. 

About the adaptability of the Indian mynah , C. J. Dennis, an Australian poet is right in saying:

GIMME the town an' its clamour an' clutter;

I ain't very fond of the bush;

For my cobbers are coves of the gardens and gutter--

A tough metropolitan push.

I ain't never too keen on the countryfied life;

It's the hustle an' bustle for me an' me wife.

 

The Bank mynah (Acridotheres gingianus), Jungle mynah (Acridotheres fuscus), Indian Pied mynah or Pied Starling (Gracupica contra), Brahminy mynah (Sturnia pagodarum), Chestnut-tailed Starling (Sturnia malabrica), Spot-winged Starling (Saroglossa spiloptera) and the common starling (Sturnus vulgaris) are other mynah species that are largely distributed in India.

All these starlings or mynahs are extremely fascinating birds, a delight to watch, both individually and in flocks. They comprise quite a large part of the city fauna along with crows, rock pigeons, jungle babblers and parrots. Watching them is what brings us closer to our humanity.

Image by Evie S.
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