During the third week of October, I observed a pair of house crows feeding a half-grown female koel. Three or four pairs of these crows nest regularly in my neighbourhood —every year a pair nests in the tall Polyalthia tree at my gate. I have seen crows tending nestling koels thrice before, but those nestlings were small, just out of the nest and barely able to fly — two or them were female, and a dark, warm brown with thin mottlings of buff.
This was the first time I saw a koel nestling, almost grown and well able to fly, being fed by its foster parents. The koel was a light murky grey when seen from a distance, lighter in overall colour, in fact, than some fully adult hens. From nearer, the mottlings and bars were quite clear, but the eye was not red as in the adult bird. However, both from far off and near there was no mistaking the identity of the young bird — it was so obviously a hen koel. Still, the crows fed it and looked after it assiduously, bound to this unnatural daughter by the powerful ties of parental instincts, which obviously blinded them (perhaps among the most intelligent of birds) from going by their senses!
The young koel lurked in a large neem in my compound most of the time. When one of the crows came up with food, and perched on a nearby parapet or on a dead limb of the neem, the koel would fly out with urgent calls and pester its foster parent till the mouthful of food was delivered to it — very much in the manner of a young crow.
Although the koel was no longer masquerading as a nestling crow but was blatantly in the plumage of the female of its species, its call was strangely corvine still. It was much like the somewhat high-pitched, uncertain, long-drawn caw of a fledgeling crow, but louder — in fact, it was exactly like the voice of a man with a sore throat imitating a young crow. This call was repeatedly indulged in, in the manner of a young crow, as soon as the parent birds were sighted.
Last night I was the witness to a remarkable piece of predatory greed and efficiency. The six-inch gecko that shares my den with me was on the wall below the electric light, immobile as usual when waiting. Then suddenly it scurried diagonally down the wall to the floor — on the floor, unnoticed by me till the lizard&’s rush drew my attention to it, there was a centipede, the common red-and-black centipede that enters our homes, about four inches long and not quite full-grown.
The normal mode of attack of most lizards is a patient, painstaking stalk and then a sudden rush from close quarters — I have timed this same gecko when it was stalking a praying mantis, and it took all of eight minutes to move from within a foot to within six inches, after which it took the mantis in a lightning movement. However, this mode of hunting is sometimes varied by a straight rush from a considerable distance away, when the prey is moving freely.
The gecko spotted the centipede from about 15 feet away and made a beeline for it. It seized its victim by the neck close to the head, too close for the centipede to turn round and sink its poison fangs into the lizard; this grip was shifted by lateral jerks of the head and body to quickly take in the head of the centipede — just prior to this, immediately on seizure the victim was violently shaken, but this shaking did not immobilise it. The lizard then proceeded to swallow its actively squirming prey, bracing its body flat against the floor with the legs outspread and shaking itself from time to time, the jaws moving down the length of the centipede with each spasmodic shake of the body and head.
The chitinous legs of the centipede, whose sharp points can prick the human skin (as I know from experience) seemed to present no difficulty, probably because, in this head-to-tail swallowing, the engulfing movement was with the lie of the legs. The swallowing was almost fully completed in a minute, but with a quarter of an inch of the centipede&’s rear end still sticking out of its jaws, the lizard scuttled to a corner of the room, climbed up the wall to the window, and went out of the window — an hour later it was under the lamp once more, very much on the lookout for prey.
I have seen a large male bloodsucker take a much larger centipede — of the species Scolopendra, with its body banded black and yellow boldly, and red legs and feelers. The bloodsucker was 12 feet up a woodapple tree in my backyard, and on sighting the centipede on the ground, near the base of the tree, it raced down and threw itself bodily at its victim when still four feet from the ground — it just flung itself away from the trunk of the tree towards the centipede, which it attacked and swallowed immediately — it was all over in a second or two. I have rarely seen anything more impressive in its rapacity and swift violence.
We are apt to forget that the lizard tribe once ruled the earth and that there were many terrible predators among them. Today they are unimpressive, small and outmoded, but though puny in size by comparison, some of them are highly predatory still. I have seen a large bloodsucker seize a beetle as large as its head and, after a struggle, overpower its prey and swallow it; quite a feat considering the fact that these lizards have to swallow their prey whole and that the hard wing-cases of beetles cannot lightly be crushed.
This was published on 5 November 1961 in The Sunday Statesman.