Golden yellow — the colour of the sun, the colour of sunflowers, allamanda and daffodils, the colour of mustard fields and a colour associated with warmth and happiness. The same colour lends itself to a bird, fleet of wing and with a melodious voice. Welcome to the world of the Indian Golden Oriole, a bird that delights bird watchers who greet its arrival with glee and enthralls the layperson with its brilliant colouring.
Scientifically, the Indian Golden Oriole is known as Oriolus kundoo and is found in the Indian subcontinent and central Asia. It belongs to the family Oriolidae. Until recently, the Indian Golden Oriole evaded correct identification by ornithologists. It was considered a subspecies of the Eurasian Golden Oriole but now it has been elevated to a new species status based on the morphological characters, call, plumage and migratory behaviour.
My first sighting of this beautiful bird was back in my childhood when, in my garden I heard a beautiful bird call and looking up, I sighted a brilliant golden yellow bird sitting on the branch of a gooseberry tree. I watched the solitary bird calling now and then, a sound similar to that of a flute, ‘choo..kee..kee’, with its pinkish beak. After some time, it flew away from its perch, not to be seen again in my garden for many years.
Beginning to appreciate the diversity in birds, I realised that it was not one of the regular birds that visited the garden.
It was a couple of decades before I zeroed in on to Salim Ali’s bird guide to identify the bird. All I did was look for a myna-sized yellow bird from the many illustrations and there it was — The Golden Oriole. Not too sure that anyone can resist falling in love with it.
These birds feed on the fruit of ficus trees like banyan, peepal, Ficus mysorensis and glomerata. They feed on seeds, berries, nectar and insects. One summer, I sat in front of a Ficus mysorensis tree for half a day and watched golden orioles, along with 26 other bird species, feed on its ripe fruit.
Golden orioles are more often heard than seen. I hear their melodious call loud and clear from leafy branches in the wooded habitat near river banks. They make two kinds of call a — “ke… keee…” and another flute like melodious call, “pee... lu loo”.
Indian golden orioles are migratory in nature and winter finds them migrating from north India to south. Their flight is very swift, strong, undulating and spectacular. The northeast monsoon brings heavy rain to Chennai and numerous migratory birds in its wake. In the third week of October, I begin anticipating the arrival of the golden oriole.
At around 7.30 am on Oct 30, a rainy day, I sighted a male golden oriole in our backyard. It appeared in our rain pool and tried to land on an acacia tree that was occupied by a number of common mynas. The latter shouted and protested and did not allow the oriole to perch. The oriole after a couple of attempts, screeched and flew away, only to come back later and hang around for a couple of hours.
Like every year, the oriole flew close to my window, perched on the acacia tree, screeched and beat its wings as if to say “hello” to me.
It remains silent, occasionally screeching until three weeks after its arrival, I heard a female’s soft musical call. Shy by nature, these birds fly away at the slightest movement or sound.
It’s wonderful to watch birds representing a wide spectrum of colours from blues (kingfishers and bee-eater), blacks (drongo) to yellows (orioles) and green (parakeets).
By mid-February the rain pool shrinks and temperatures soar and it’s time for the oriole to bid adieu.
■ Length: 25 cm
■ Lays 2-5 eggs
■ Male and female are distinct
■ Male orioles are brilliant golden yellow and female dull yellowish green. Both orioles camouflage well in the leaf canopy
■ They are known to migrate from north and central parts of India to south India during winter
■ There are many spectacular orioles found in India. Black hooded oriole from Western Ghats, Maroon Oriole and Slender bill Oriole from the Himalayas and North east, Black-naped Oriole from Andaman and Kerala
■ Threats/Conservation – The golden oriole depends on fig trees and sadly the fig tree population is on a declining trend, causing a loss of habitat for these birds