We were quietly savouring a traditional Belizean lunch of spicy black beans and fresh salsa when the sudden knocking resumed. Looking up at the huge glass pane below the sloping roofline, I frowned and nearly dropped the warm tortilla, startled by the tell-tale robber mask and the sharp black eyes staring at us intently. He furiously tapped the insert again, insistent and loud to get our complete attention and then let out the elated, eponymous cry to let us know he really meant business.
“Qu’est-ce-qu’il-dit?” the bandit quickly cut to the chase and demanded in typical bold manner. This characteristic line is attributed by some to the sense of humour of the much maligned French, who heard in the ironic call, the perfect rhythm and musical words of their own baffled question perhaps then common in the multilingual West Indian colonies, which roughly translated to “What is he saying?”
Mocking him “kiss, kiss” I repeated the exuberant query as he stood, a bit taken back by my temerity, high on the ledge, his yellow vest glaring in the sunshine against the black coat topped with a cheeky little hat. A common sight wherever we have lived, the great kiskadee is a charming Caribbean survivor waking us up with its boisterous calls and cheerfully managing to co-exist in our crowded cities and the cultivated countryside from Belize and Central America up in the colder north, across the windswept islands to Guyana and Trinidad far in the hot south.
The kiskadee has been a constant companion from our carefree childhood days to the present journey into the latter part of my life, a flashy figure flitting across the landscape of rapid changes and difficult moves, an enduring symbol of avian resilience and triumph that has seen it adapt and thrive to remain one of the region’s least endangered birds.
Besides catching insects, the kiskadee is an opportunistic and omnivorous feeder, gorging on juicy fruits, small fishes, tadpoles and even dog food. With an onomatopoeic name in different languages, the beautiful bird is classified in Latin as Pitangus sulphuratus for the distinct golden non-metallic element that marks the brilliant hue of its fluffy chest. In Brazil it is called “bem-te-vi” Portuguese for “I saw you well” while in many Spanish-speaking countries it is often “bien-te-veo” or “I see you well” sometimes shortened to “benteveo.”
Described as a large tyrant flycatcher, it is a passerine member of the popular order Passeriformes which includes more than half of all bird species. Monogamous and an opportunistic feeder, the kiskadee is a famously devoted and courageous parent willing to take on raptors and predators over thrice its size to aggressively defend its nest and young.
What made my husband sputter in shock and nearly choke that day was not the creature’s admirable marital or nurturing habits but its obvious great intelligence. Pecking at the giant picture window in the front of our home and peering into the living room, he spied us dining near the adjoining kitchen at the other end and flew round to the matching back glass section, sealed to let in glorious views of the sky but keep out the battalion of bugs. Anything but a misnamed “bird brain” the warm-blooded vertebrate had calculated that he would have a better and closer view of us through that rear window, and therefore a stronger chance of being fed. The kiskadee’s strategy worked admirably as my impressed spouse with uncharacteristic speed promptly left his meal, grabbed giant handfuls of whole wheat bread and scattered it across the lawn.
Here in the densely populated north western Trinidad, last March, I watched a pair work hard to build a bulky nest precariously balanced atop the highest structure around, a tall, narrow metal lamp pole next to our home, a steady food source. One fiery afternoon I would find the fat fledglings had flown down on to the asphalted road, following their natural instincts to try and seek tree cover.
A baby was dead from being run over and the other was barely breathing from being injured during the long, hard fall and lying in the hours of blinding sunlight. Severely dehydrated and wheezing weakly, I knew he had little chance as I picked him up and saw the mites running all over.
Already, rising temperatures and extreme rainfall, both emerging side effects of climate change, are affecting South American birds including the kiskadee, which are falling prey to greater numbers of parasites which flourish in the warmer and wetter conditions.
A study from the Wildlife Conservation Society, seven years ago, concluded that environmental factors were increasingly behind the abundance of these opportunistic organisms, with kiskadee chicks found covered with parasitic fly larvae that burrow deep into the skin to feed. Higher mortality, and impaired growth of the few which manage to survive, ensue.
A bevy of bountiful birds has enriched our lives wherever we have resided, including for a precious time the hardy Belizean woodpeckers with their glossy scarlet caps, pale fronts and wavy white and black striped feathering. They would ignore our groans and mumbled imprecations, to invariably greet us early each day with intense hammering on our bedroom windows and mahogany awnings to get up and go.
Out of the Belmopan blue one morning, there was a dull, inexplicable quiet. Of course, I could not sleep in and went to check with a growing sense of unease. From the back landing I could see some of the woodpeckers hopping about, an alarming deep red spreading and staining their soft grey chests and flecked feathers. Some lay still on the ground, others twitched, a few badly injured gave a wretched cry and tried to fly as I drew nearer, but only succeeded in making it into the bushes just across the neighbouring fence of an unoccupied house. It was a bloodbath as birds died before my bewildered gaze and several limped exhausted and hurt to hide behind the cool leafy facade of our towering mango trees, there to endure a slow and painful end.
Later, our son would learn from his friend next door that the child’s older brother, a slim, handsome Mennonite lad with neat platinum blonde hair and cool blue eyes had decided to exterminate the lot, calmly smashing their heads with a rock as they tried to take off on broken wings, and escape the deadly wrath of the first assault air rifle. The birds’ crime was drumming and trying to bore the wooden overhang of the wrong roofline.
I remembered this haunting massacre of the innocents when I stumbled across a disturbing image shared on the usually idyllic Exotic Guyana page better noted for its lush landscapes, fine flora and the patriotic poetry of our Florida-based bard Dmitri Allicock. I stared in horror at the photograph of kiskadees piled in the ubiquitous, black plastic bag without quite understanding, momentarily nonplussed, thinking perhaps it was another bizarre case of songbird smuggling gone terribly wrong.
On reading the online comments, I closed my eyes trying to prevent the bile from rising into my throat. Shared hundreds of times and with similar amounts of outraged reactions from Guyanese and overseas viewers, the picture of the flock of little, dead birds with their still shining chests, rich chocolate brown feathers and slender feet seemed to have touched a rare chord in the collective consciousness.
Deliberately mass killed with poisoned rice reportedly by a woman in Pike Street, Kitty who was angered by the mess left on clothes hung outdoors, the kiskadees’ photograph has prompted a response from the tagged Guyana Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (GSPCA) which re-shared the snapshot sent out on June 8 last. If anyone knows the identity of person or persons responsible please call 226-4237 and file a report…” the organisation urged.
The Trinidadian musical storyteller, Asheba sings “And if for fun you hide yourself so that I could not see/ I’d know you still, you pretty thing/When you sing, I hear you sing, Kiskadee, Kiskadee, Kiskadee, Kiskadee!”
For at least one harmless group of Guyanese kiskadees sadly, the final darkness has also come unexpectedly and early, and there will be no other happy songs but the long sound of solemn silence.
ID wrote this column to the clarion call of the kiskadees who feed alongside numerous birds outside her open windows and in a tiny garden, with a fluffy beauty flying up to preen, croon and maybe check out the bedrooms.