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The Common Koel & Why I’d Make a Lousy Buddhist

The Common Koel & Why I'd Make a Lousy Buddhist.

Gawd do those darn birds drive me crazy!…

Around November of last year a longtime member of my neighbourhood bird community, the Common Koel (lovingly known for his stealth gliding through the trees), transformed his pleasant warbling into an incessant, high-pitched shrill. Right outside my bedroom window. All of my windows actually. And all day and all night.

Throughout the day and 11pm, 12pm, 1am, 2am, 3am (especially 3am), this is what I hear:


The Koel’s mating calls started in November, ran through the month of December, and now here we are at the end of January. That’s stamina. It’s also crazy making (for insomniacs especially).

Earphones didn’t work to cut the noise so drugs (of some sort) were up next. And Nootropics are said to fit the bill. Remember those?

I first tried Melatonin. A mistake. I now know that Melatonin is great for switching timezones but if you are too enthusiastic, you’ll start waking up in the early hours. And stay up. My up lasted two weeks plus.

I then dipped into even more Nootropics and found a (hopefully) permanent fix. So if you too are the recipient of the Common Koel’s randy call, here’s my personal mix:

At around 9pm I quiet my body and mind with Bacopa Extract. Three to four pills does it for me. Around 10-11pm I down 500 mgs of L-Tryptophan. After the L-Tryptophan, sleep comes fast.

Once I got my sleep sorted I went looking for information about the Common Koel in Thailand. My Thai friends all professed a love for the blasted thing (as I once did and will again) but after three months of radically disturbed sleep I was ready to kill. Or at the very least, singe his feathers with one of those super duper lazer pens easily acquired in Thailand.

So there you have it. The proof that I’ll never ever make anything but a lousy Buddhist. Because yeah, it’s not over ’till it’s over and it’s clearly not over yet.

Anywaaaaay, in a nutshell, the Common Koel is an oversized member of the Cuckoo family. Brood parasites, the momma Koels turf eggs from the nests of black birds and others, laying their own eggs in place. Once the Koel chicks have been nurtured by the host parents and are ready to fly, the Koel(s) come back and off they go (this last point I’m not 100% sure of).

The Common Koel & Why I'd Make a Lousy Buddhist

Thai Poetry: The Common Koel, the Black Crow, and motherhood…

Not ready to give up on knowing more about the Common Koel and Thailand, I found an old Thai lullaby that briefly touches on the Koel’s attributes. The poem (with translation and transliteration) is below. As is a YouTube video. Note: the singing style is not to my taste but it has to be someone’s. Enjoy.

Except for knowing what type of Thai poem this is (อาขยาน /aa-kà-yaan/ – a narration of sorts) I know little else. I do know that in Thai poetry words are added to make the words flow. Personally, I found that the unnecessary words made translation difficult so only the gist of the poem is below. And yes yes yes, I had to yell, scream, and holler for help.

Overview of the poem: A Common Koel lays an egg in a crow’s nest. The crow hatches the egg, taking care of the baby bird as her own. The momma crow feeds the baby and then takes it for an outing along a river. After eating, the crow and the baby fly back, landing on a nearby tree. A hunter spots the birds, bagging the mother crow for dinner. End of story.

The Common Koel …
กาเหว่า เอย
gaa-hăy-wâa oie

leaves an egg for the mother crow to hatch.
ไข่ ไว้ ให้ แม่ กา ฟัก
kài wái hâi mâe gaa fák

The mother crow falls in love (with the chick).
แม่ กา ก็ หลงรัก
mâe gaa gôr lŏng rák

She believes the egg came from her belly.
คิดว่า ลูก ใน อุทร
kít-wâa look nai u-ton

Carries food in her mouth.
คาบ เอา ข้าว มา เผื่อ
kâap ao kâao maa pèua

Carries food to feed (the chick).
ไป คาบ เอา เหยื่อ มา ป้อน
bpai kâap ao yèua maa bpôn

Takes care of the baby in the nest.
ถนอม ไว้ ใน รัง นอน
tà-nŏm wái nai rang non

Works hard getting food.
ซ่อน เหยื่อ มา ให้ กิน
sôn yèua maa hâi gin

The chick’s wings are still weak.
ปีก เจ้า ยัง อ่อน คลอ แคล
bpèek jâo yang òn klor kaen

It’s not time yet for the chick to fly.
ท้อแท้ จะ สอน บิน
tór-táe jà sŏn bin

Mother takes the chick to look for food.
แม่ กา พาไป กิน
mâe gaa paa-bpai gin

At the mouth of the river …
ที่ ปากน้ำ พระ คงคา
têe bpàak-náam prá kong-kaa

the baby steps on algae …
ตีน เจ้า เหยียบ สาหร่าย
dteen jâo yìap săa-ràai

and uses her mouth to catch fish.
ปาก ก็ ไซ้ หาปลา
bpàak gôr sái hăa-bplaa

Eats shrimp and mantis shrimp.
กิน กุ้ง แล กิน กั้ง
gin gung lae gin gâng

Eats shellfish and horseshoe crab.
กิน หอย กระทั้ง แมงดา
gin hŏi gràtang maeng-daa

After eating they fly to …
กิน แล้วก็ โผ มา
gin láew-gôr pŏh maa

a Jambolan tree.
จับ ที่ ต้นหว้า โพธิ์ทอง
jàp têe dtôn-wâa poh-tong

Yet there is a hunter.
ยัง มี นายพราน
yang mee naai-praan

He’s out looking, stalking.
เที่ยว เยี่ยม เยี่ยม มอง มอง
tîeow yîam yîam mong mong

He lifts his rifle.
ยก เอา ปืน ขึ้น ส่อง
yók ao bpeun kêun sòng

Aims at the mother crow.
จ้อง เอา แม่ กาดำ
jông ao mâe gaa dam

He’s thinking of boiling one of them.
ตัว หนึ่ง ว่า จะ ต้ม
dtua nèung wâa jà dtôm

The other to make into a salad.
อีก ตัว ว่า จะ ยำ
èek dtua wâa jà yam

Eat the mother crow …
กิน นาง แม่ กาดำ
gin naang mâe gaa-dam

tonight. Sad for mother crow.
ค่ำ วันนี้ อุ แม่ นา
kâm wan-née u mâe naa

There are a few iffy spots in the translation so please don’t be shy; go ahead and share corrections in the comments below. Also, as per usual, there’s a moral to this lullaby. Do you know what it is?

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My passion is promoting the Thai language. Fullstop. Oh, and traveling. I'm passionate about that as well. And photography too.

24 Comments

  1. I love the common koels. But then I don’t have one right outside my window. They are beautiful if you can ever see one. The male is all black except for its bright red eyes. In Thai the bird’s name กาเหว่า is pronounced “ka wow” (big falling tone at the end) and like so many of the Thai words for their animals it is onomatopoetic. That is what the birds says, “ka wow”, again and again and again, getting louder each time, until Cat goes crazy. Lots of luck with the sleeping Cat.

  2. The dictionary I used first came up with Catherine’s version of the pronunciation. Upon further digging, I found one that had it low and short, and that made sense according to the rules I’ve learned about pronouncing Thai.

    Far be it from me as an English speaker (OK, American English :-), to object to words in other languages that are not pronounced as I think they should be. :-)

    However, do we have the bird itself to blame? Perhaps its own pronunciation gets ever more bigger and emphatic as it gets ever more strident with its ever more desperate plea?

    Or should I say “its sad lament”? I found this word in my search: โอดกาเหว่า which my dictionary lists as meaning to “bemoan” or “lament.”

    In any case, from halfway around the world, my thanks to Cat for the story and my thanks to Hugh for the additional insight into it.

    cheers,
    Keith

  3. Hugh, I’ve been fond of the Common Koel since I lived in Brunei, in the early ’90’s I lived next to an open swamp area filled with trees and there was a pair that’d glide around my area, silently. Mostly black, but with a beautiful rust coloured underbelly. When spotted I’d stop whatever I was doing to watch.

    When I moved to this condo there was yet another pair of Koels that’d glide through the trees. I considered it a lucky day indeed when I was gifted with a sighting.

    And I did hear them, at both locations. Again, I felt that any day hearing a Koel was a treat.

    Years back there was one gal on a Thai forum complaining about the noise. I didn’t quite understand because I’d only heard them in the background. So in my way of thinking, she was a lucky gal to have a pair of Koel’s in her area. Now I know what she was going through.

    And when that Koel sits on the branches (shown in the photo above) and goes on and on throughout the night, he might as well be singing on my pillow.

  4. Keith, the transliteration comes from T2E as is. I prefer no transliteration at all so this is a compromise of sorts. T2E isn’t perfect (none are that I know of).

    I figure that if I leave the boogers in, people will eventually get to a point where they will be driven to learn how to read Thai script. But so far, the only people driven crazy are those who know what it’s supposed to be. lol…

    A ‘sad lament’… good one. That sounds about right. Heard incessantly, especially at 3am, there is indeed a painful element to the Koel’s call. It perforates earplugs, going straight for the drums.

  5. Yes, we know him well at our house. Our pet name for him is “that f***ing bird” because he shows up early, like 5 am, and yells at us as if to purposely wake us from a sound sleep.

    I’m a bird lover, bird watcher, etc., but I’ve cursed this little beauty many times. I completely understand your choice of title for this post.

  6. Dave, I too am a bird lover. It’s one of the reasons I purchased a condo at tree level – to enjoy the active bird community. But man oh man does the Koel beat all.

    Yesterday a different bird started calling. Only this was the mynah (another I follow when given the opportunity). At first I cringed (unlike me, but it’s been a rough few months!)

    Eventually I went out on my balcony to call back.

    My neighbours must think I’m crazy. The mynah calls. I return the call. The mynah calls….

    I can usually get a mynah to perch on branches closer to my condo (they are curious birds) but not this time. Maybe later because this was their second recent visit (I could hear at least two).

  7. Aside from the bird we love to complain about here’s a question I have about birds in Thailand, or should I say, the lack of birds in Thailand. I live near the ocean in Alaska where we have uncountable numbers of sea gulls, puffins, murres and cormorants. In Alaska’s brief but glorious summer we have literally millions of shorebirds of every description, swans, snipe and cranes raising their young all around the state, not to mention crows, ravens, eagles, hawks and owls who are year round residents. In the contiguous U.S. (what we call the “lower 48”) there are hundreds of varieties of songbirds, dozens of gamebirds, ducks and sea birds. The wetlands and woods are a cacophony of bird song.

    Yet here in Thailand, a tropical paradise, I can practically count the number of sea birds I’ve seen on one hand. Int ehpast few years I’ve traveled extensively here and while there are birds around, they are certainly not plentiful. We hear the song of the koel and a few sparrows, doves, and the occasional crow. Where the heck are all the birds?

  8. Dave,

    I lived in Alaska as a girl so do remember how amazing and varied the wildlife was (and I guess still is).

    In Bangkok, I see and hear a fair amount of birds and squirrels from my balcony. Flocks of different birds fly in, stay awhile, then move on (I saw what looked like large yellow parrots yesterday but they were moving too fast for me to get photos). Go to the seaside and there are sea gulls where ever food is found. But I don’t recall ever seeing a great deal of variety in huge numbers in Thailand.

    And come to think of it, there isn’t that much going on in Borneo either. When I moved to a house butted up to the jungle I expected more wildlife. Maybe they hide in the jungle?

    When I lived in France I would go back to the UK and notice how many more birds, rabbits, pheasants, etc., were in the UK compared to France. I assumed the French ate theirs. Could the Thais be doing the same?

  9. This reminds me… a couple of years ago I drove to Wat Phailom to see the winter nesting ground of the openbilled storks. I read that it was the largest stork community of its type in the world. When I arrived there were only a few stragglers. The head monk apologised about my wasted trip. He explained that the Thai government had poisoned the grounds right before the storks were due to arrive.

  10. I had the same thought Cat – Thais, like people everywhere in the absence of strong laws governing the use of natural resources like fish and crabs, would likely capture and consume or sell every available bit of that resource. There are many examples of this, Atlantic codfish, Alaskan king crab, passenger pigeons, dodo birds — the list is long. Humans are very successful predators.

    Given the free wheeling nature of Thai law and the absence of any discernible regulation on the taking of wild animals and fish, I suspect that Thais may have indeed eaten the native bird population down, especially considering the level of poverty in rural areas.

    Who knows?

  11. Transliteration is my own pet peeve as well. As you say, none of the schemes are perfect. Becker’s scheme is probably the best, though I do like the the way Higbies’s grammar indicates tones.

    The book “Everyday Thai for Beginners” stands out. Written by a professor of Thai language studies in America, it is the only book I know of that dispenses with transliteration altogether, a brave decision in a market where transliteration attempts to make Thai more accessible.

    On another subject, how would you describe the call of the common koel? Would it be ขันกาเหว่า ?

    Other than bloody annoying, of course!

    A friend of mine told me a story of a squirrel that kept him awake at night with its constant scurrying in his attic overhead. One day while he was shaving, the electricity went out. He looked out the window to see the charred remains of that very same squirrel perched atop an electrical transformer. He went on to say that night he had the best sleep he had had in a long time.

    :-)

  12. Dave, I didn’t realise that the Alaskan king crab was in harms way. That’s awful. When I was a youngin in Alaska, my brothers and I would pool our allowance to carry one of those beauties home. What a treat.

    Indeed, who knows (so much mystery in Thailand – little is known about many subjects). I have SE Asian bird books but there isn’t a mention of the population going down (that I’ve come across). There are a few knowledgeable bird watchers in forums around so if I get a chance I’ll ask.

  13. Keith, I don’t like Becker or Higbie but it’s down to not liking transliteration more than anything. And when I run Thai script through T2E to get the transliteration on my site, I just close my eyes :-)

    I absolutely love “Everyday Thai for Beginners” for that very same reason. Finally, a book that doesn’t include transliteration! “Introduction to Thai Reading” is another. It introduces the alphabet using transliteration but leaves it behind rather quickly. It also has sound files so there is no real need for anyone to panic.

    How would I describe the Koel? I’m just waking up so I’ll get back to you on that one (right now I can’t come up with anything nice to say :-D

    Critters invading homes often meet their demise! When I first moved out on my own, I had a little grey mouse who’d scurry around my house. At first it was disturbing because mice didn’t belong in houses (or so I was raised to believe). But after awhile the company was welcome. Other than ghost like noises inside walls and cup boards, it didn’t make a huge racket (not like the Koel or that squirrel). And it certainly wasn’t as freaky as the guy who came through my window to rummage through my underwear drawer. One day I noticed the absence of the mouse; no more noises or little shadows tiptoeing here and there. Poor thing, it had drowned in the grease bucket under the sink.

  14. Cat, I didn’t mean to say that Alaskan king crab was becoming extinct but it is much much less plentiful than it was in the heyday of king crabbing when a skipper and crew could net millions of dollars on a single run and you could catch king crab in Homer Harbor. Strict and controversial new regulations have shrunk the size of the fishing fleet and the number of pounds of allowable catch to limits that will preserve the species and should, if the planners are making correct assumptions, provide a sustainable harvest.

    In stark contrast to Thailand, Alaska’s regulations are comprehensive and are rigorously enforced by the Coast Guard and state Fish & Game officers. I watched Thais pulling nets through the surf at Aou Minou a few weeks ago, taking netfuls of tiny crab that they were selling by the roadside. My Thai partner asked the sellers some questions about the crab. The crab seller lamented the fact that the crab were getting smaller and smaller as every year. It’s no mystery to me why that is.

    Thailand is a wonderful place and the lack of heavy regulatory pressure is a blessing in some respects. In the U.S. you have to jump through many hoops to open a restaurant or start a business. And you’ll never find a charcoal brazier on a cafe tabletop in a country where a person can successfully sue McDonalds for serving coffee that was too hot. She had herself spilled the coffee in her lap when she popped the lid to add sugar. She won millions. Crazy but true.

    Nevertheless, the absence of sensible laws to regulate the taking of wild species, or the “taming” of thousands of acres of forests and wetlands, will cost Thailand dearly in the end. Could the flooding this year be related to that? I think it is.

    Missing birds is only the beginning.

  15. I agree. The lack of laws (and lack of enforcing laws in place) are causing problems in Thailand.

    Last year I drove through a state park and was surprised to see prawns being harvested. When I looked into it further I found that prawn farms are destroying not only the peace and tranquility expected in a park, but the health of the soil as well.

    Check out this report: Thailand Shrimp Farming

    The new Thai government is making moves to clear out resorts and homes built in state parks but I haven’t heard anything about the gov going after prawn farms.

  16. Cat, I feel for you. I have a few common koels living in my neighborhood and one often visits my balcony to warble to me, at me and or just to annoy me. I love the bird just not so up close and personal.

  17. Talen, your balcony? That’d drive me plain nuts! Mine sits in the tree right next to my condo and that’s too close. A mating Koel perched on my balcony would result in a much shorter life (for him).

    I sometimes wake up around 3-4am and go outside to see if I can spot that darn bird. The Koel’s favourite spot to twiddle is in my neighbour’s yard right outside my window. It’s a tree filled compound with three traditional Thai houses, windows open to catch the night breeze. So the design is not conducive for keeping noise out. When I’m out there I often hear my neighbour moving around inside his house, so the bird is absolutely keeping more than me awake.

  18. My house guest arrived late last night. In the morning he asked, “What that heck was that? The racket went all… night… long!”

    After I explained he replied, “So to get sleep I have to either kill the darn thing or mate with it? Great.”

  19. I hate them! There are two males living in my area and their calls are extremely loud (because of the acoustics of several high rises) and thus extremely annoying. They start at dawn until noon, but quite often as early as 3 am. Even my Thai wife hates them. A laser pen sounds like a great idea but I’m not sure I can reach them through the foliage.

  20. Hi James. I moved to Chiang mai and while there are Koels here, they are far enough away to be background noise, not living in my eardrums.

  21. We get them here in Sydney too around the same time of year. OMG.
    I used earplugs, but my research led me to this more combative and perhaps satisfying solution: Buy a high-powered water pistol, one of those pump-action ones that kids like to use in swimming pools. Fill with white vinegar. Shoot offending bird. Apparently, the physical assault functions to shoo it away, and the vinegar helps ensure they don’t return because they find the smell repellent.
    Congrats on the move to Chiang Mai. That’s where I’d choose too.

  22. Dennis, your idea of a high-powered water pistol with vinegar just might work. When I move back to Bangkok (and if that darn bird shows up again) I’ll check it out!

    Note: Chiang mai is wonderful (nice and cool) but some of the best weather has been ruined by the seasonal burning. What a shame…

  23. In Phuket, Thailand, I don’t know anyone – farang or Thai – who “professed a love for the blasted thing”. All I know say the birds are annoying and deprive themselves of sleep. Me too.

    So ‘Hurrah’ for the shop in Phuket town near Central Festival that sells BB guns. I have one and today, for the very first time, I saw the “blasted thing” way, way up in an “Indian Devil Tree” in my garden. My first shot was in the general direction of the screeching, before I actually saw it.

    When it started again, I managed to see it and let off a shot. It immediately took flight. It was BIG! And now peace reigns in my garden, the sun is shining and all is well with the world.

    If he comes back again, I know where he likes to perch.

  24. Boy do I feel your pain! Night after night, that darn bird had me in tears. He’s since moved on but the experience will always be at the back of my mind … and I too will be waiting.

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