An idea born in the Indian jungle

Tiger toothpick

Treepie in Ranthambhore

There are many secrets in the jungle.

Tree pies are fantastically clever birds that wear similar colours to the tiger. They have fruity, bubbly calls that guide you straight to them, and they are bold enough to have learnt how to nab food directly from the hands of surprised picnickers.

On my first day in Ranthambhore National Park, one sat on my head for 20 minutes, enjoying the ride as we travelled around the park. It’s not uncommon to see them on the backs and heads of deer and antelope too.

I have seen many tree pies around a tiger kill, but they soon scattered as Machali, the queen of Ranthambhore, returned and took exception to these uninvited guests eating her food.

Machali Tiger in Ranthambhore

It has become a popular story that the tree pie got its name as the tiger toothpick because it cleans the tiger’s teeth of meat between meals, but none of the guides in Ranthambhore, to my knowledge, have witnessed this. Since they regularly see tigers and there are many tree pies in the park, you would think, were the story true, that someone would have documented such behaviour.

I asked a friend of mine in Ranthambhore, whom I highly respect, if he believed the story and he didn’t because he had often seen tigers kill small animals that came too close.

Yet when I asked the same question of another friend in Corbett National Park, to my surprise he said he had seen it. Walking through the forest one day, identifying bird calls, he heard a curious tapping and stopped to see what it was. He spotted a tiger through his binoculars and was amazed to see this bird tapping on the tiger’s canine teeth.

I want to believe him of course, and I highly respect his great love and knowledge of the jungle, but as yet we have no definitive proof. But then the jungle is full of secrets just waiting in the wings to be discovered.

It reminded me of one of my first encounters with a wild animal that captured my imagination as a small boy. When I grew up in England in the 1960s, milk used to be delivered to the doorstep early each morning in bottles with thick silver foil caps. One winter day when natural food supplies were scarce, I saw a blue tit hop down and diligently peck its way through the lid to reach the cream that sat on top of the milk. Others came to share the prize.

How impressive that a tiny bird had learnt this trick so quickly and passed it on. Animals will adapt their behaviour as new potential food supplies appear, it seems; finding new ways to adapt to their changing surroundings is not something that just happens to humans. Maybe you have recently seen something new in nature that people don’t generally know about?

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