Friday, May 15, 2009

Behold the Brahminy Kite

Brahminy Kites (Haliastur indus) are one handsome looking raptor, marble white and chestnut colored lower half. They are found next to water bodies and coastal regions. They have powerful talons with which they scoop the prey. These are non migratory birds, very tolerant to humans and so can be found in abundance in coastal towns and wetlands, marshy fields. Commonly found in Asia and Australia they look similar to white-bellied eagle (but eagles are bigger in size, and white bellied are darker coloured) A characteristic distinguisher of Brahminy kites from other Kites is that it has round tail (more like a hawk) unlike forked tail common among kites.

In Hindu mythology, this kite referred to as the ‘king of birds’: the Garuda. The celestial carrier or vahana of Lord Vishnu and hence given the status of a deity by the religious scriptures and is worshipped. I read in the Net that the origin of name Brahminy is from Brahmin. In Hindi it is referred to as brahminy cheel while in Tamil, Malayalam they are Krishna parunthu, in Kannada Garuda. In ancient India heroes who died heroic death were sometimes immortalized as garudas. This bird also has a sacred reference in Buddhism too. The emblem of Jakarta (Indonesia) is Brahminy kite, even the airline is named Garuda airlines. Incidentally Brahminy kite is endangered specie in Indonesia. In recent times a cigarette company has instigated demand for this hapless bird as pets, this I read in the Net: Femke Haas, founder of the Jakarta Animal Aid Network, says a recent cigarette advertisement sparked local demand for the Brahminy Kite. “There is a big commercial, and they are using this bird as their icon, and now many birds are being sought by private pet owners because they think it’s cool to have these birds, since it’s an icon for this big cigarette company. And actually you see this all over Jakarta and all over Indonesia, big pictures of this bird.”

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Pigeon: the city bird

Pigeons and doves include some 300 species of birds. In general parlance the terms "dove" and "pigeon" are used somewhat interchangeably. In ornithological practice, there is a tendency for "dove" to be used for smaller species with pointed tails and "pigeon" for larger ones. The young doves and pigeons are called "squabs". Unlike most other birds doves and pigeons produce "crop milk", which is secreted by a sloughing of fluid-filled cells from the lining of the crop. Both sexes produce this highly nutritious substance to feed to the young. The nestling obtains this “milk” by poking its bill down the parent’s throat.

The largest species are the crowned pigeons of New Guinea, which are nearly turkey-sized. The Common Ground Dove is among the smallest species in the family. This family is a highly coherent group with no members showing obvious links with other bird families, or vice versa.

Feral pigeons, also called city doves, city pigeons or street pigeons, are derived from domestic pigeons that have returned to the wild and have become adapted to life and are abundant in towns and cities all over the world. These show a variety of plumages, although some have the blue barred pattern like the pure Rock Pigeon does. The scarcity of the pure wild species is partly due to interbreeding with feral birds. Wild Rock Pigeons are pale grey with two black bars on each wing, domestic and feral pigeons are very variable in color and pattern. Rock Pigeons have been domesticated for several thousand years, giving rise to the domestic pigeon. As well as pets, domesticated pigeons were utilized as homing pigeons and carrier pigeons, and so-called war pigeons- well known for their ability to find their way home from long distances therefore used for thousands of years to carry brief written messages. Pigeons have been tamed since at least 3000 BC.

Pigeons feed on the ground in flocks or individually. They roost together in buildings or on walls or statues. There is an interesting fact on pigeons when drinking most birds take small sips and tilt their heads backwards to swallow the water, pigeons are able to dip their specialized bills through which they can suck up water steadily and drink continuously without having to tilt their heads back. Did you know that Dodo- the extinct bird- is classified under the same family (Columbidae- subfamily Raphinae) as pigeons?. Dodo was a pigeon!!!.

While many species of pigeons have benefited from human activities (and even considered nuisance in cities, they put spikes to avoid them) many other species have declined in numbers and some have become threatened or even succumbed to extinction. 10 species have become extinct since 1600. Around 59 species of pigeon and dove are threatened with extinction today, this is 19% of all species. Most of these are tropical and live on islands. The Passenger Pigeon is an example of extinct bird that was not island specie (the painting of passenger bird from Whitman collection).

In the Old Testament in the Bible, Noah sends out a dove after the flood. In the New Testament a dove is the symbol of the Holy Spirit. In Islam, doves and the pigeon clan in general are respected and favored because they are believed to have assisted the prophet of Islam, Muhammad in distracting his enemies outside the cave of Thaw'r in the great Hijra. According to the Tanakh (Jewish holy book), doves are kosher, and they are the only birds that may be used for a korban. White pigeons in the contemporary world are considered as symbol of peace. In Hindi it is called kabutar, Malayalam pravu.

I came across this remarkable man who had done more study on pigeon than anybody else. Charles Otis Whitman (18

42–1910) was an American zoologist author of numerous research studies. At the age of 50 he took up pigeons for his research. Why pigeons? He said that he kept pigeons as a boy, and was fascinated by them and watched them by the hour. But it was more than that. He felt that there was a fallacy in Darwin's theory of randomness in evolution, and that by making a broader study of many species of pigeons and doves -- a broader study than Darwin's -- he might demonstrate new evolutionary truths, even directional change. Financed by Whitman himself the birds were not kept at the Zoology Laboratory. "His house was surrounded by pigeon cotes, and he always had some birds under observation indoors, so that the cooing of doves was for years a dominant sound in his house. He took care of the birds for the most part himself, though he usually had the assistance of one or two maids”. He thus actually lived with his birds constantly and very rarely was absent from them even for a single day. He made observations and kept notes on all aspects of the life and behavior of each species, as well as of such hybrids as he was able to produce. He always had one Japanese artist at work continuously drawing pigeons (incidentally Whitman is credited to have introduced modern zoological studies to Japan). In the latter part of his life the collection comprised some 550 individuals representing about thirty species.

At the University of Chicago he selected and taught only those pursuing advanced research. Forty-four of these obtained the doctor degree under his direction, many of them to become famous biologists in turn. Seven of them used pigeons and doves for their research: (1) Michael F. Guyer, spermatogenesis; (2) Eugene H. Harper, fertilization of the egg; (3) Mary Blount, early embryology; (4) John T. Patterson, later embryology; (5) Oscar Riddle, feather growth, endocrinology, biochemistry; (6) Wallace Craig, Behavior; (7) George W. Bertelmez, embryology. In addition to these, Whitman influenced a number of other investigators to pay attention to pigeons. These include R. W. Shufeldt in osteology; R. M. Strong, feather structure; T. H. Morgan, heredity and Harvey A. Carr, Behavior.

Whitman was influential to the founding of classical ethology. A dedicated educator he made major contributions in the areas of evolution and embryology of worms, comparative anatomy, heredity, and animal behavior. Modern research discoveries in biology and genetics suggest that he had some prophetic insight. Here then was a great figure in the history of pigeon biology, a man to whom we owe even more respect than he is generally accorded.

I came a blog that titles itself as People for Pigeons and states "People for Pigeons is concerned with the protection and preservation of mankind's oldest domestic bird, the gentle and loyal pigeon. We support pro-pigeonism".