Monday, October 26, 2009

Black Drongo: the bird with an attitude

Small but wouldn’t mind taking birds double its size as they fiercely protect its territory, Drongo is known for its aggressive nature so much so other small birds (like bulbuls, doves, orioles so on) prefer nesting in the vicinity of Drongo nest to gain protection. The reason why they are also referred to as kotwal (policeman) in Hindi, in malayalam it is kakka thampuratti meaning queen of crows. Unfortunately drongo is an Australian slang for idiot or dullard, there is an interesting story behind it. It so happened that in 1920s there was a horse in racing circuit here that was named drongo and was quite rated but never won a race, frustrated punters made it a generic for their disappointment!. Nothing against Drongo but I do understand punter’s feelings!!.

Most of us have often seen Black Drongo, it conspicuously sits on the power line along the open field or grassland, with an unmistakable distinctive long forked tail (the reason why in Tamil they called erattai valan), a common sight while traveling across the country. It mostly feeds on insects by swooping on them- the accompanying acrobatics is a treat to watch. They can also be seen perched on cattle; many times farmers too create artificial perches for them as they feed on pests. The repertoire of this enterprising bird also include mimicking, they can even imitate alarm calls of birds of prey for defense as also to steal grubs from other startled species. Studies on these birds confirm that they imitate keeping the context like for instance when encounter a snake they make noise of its predator-hawk. There also a mention by Darwin on Drongo cuckoo being a mimic of Drongo.

Edward Hamilton Aitken (popularly known as EHA,1851-1909) was closely involved in founding of Bombay Natural History Society. He wrote several books on natural history, including the Birds of Bombay. Here is a amusing and insightful description of drango’s tail and women’s hat !!

The drongos, which are flycatchers in habit, wear their tails very long and deeply forked; and one of them, the racket-tailed drongo, has the two side feathers extended beyond the rest for nearly a foot, and as thin as wires, expanding into a blade at the ends. I have seen nothing in ladies' hats more preposterous. It is vain to object that there can be no proper comparison between tails and hats because the woman chooses her own hat while the bird has to wear what Nature has given it. I know that, but the contention is utterly superficial. What choice has a woman as to the style of her hat? Fashion prescribes for her, and Nature for the birds; that is all the difference. No doubt she acquiesces when theoretically she might rebel. The bird cannot rebel, but does it not acquiesce? Does a lyre bird submit to its tail—wear it under protest, so to speak? Believe me, every bird that has an aesthetic tail knows the fact, and tries to live up to it. We may push the argument even further, for the motmot of Brazil is not content with a ready-made tail, but actually strips the web off the two long side feathers with its own beak, except a little patch at the end, so as to get the pattern which Nature, if one must use the phrase, gave to the racket-tailed drongo.

As I got to know him better I found he was an exceptional writer, even a short story on-line, though one need add there is a patronizing attitude towards common Indians (but I guess I need put it in context of the time he lived, the colonialists and associated imperial headiness can be dizzying). Many of his writings are amusing and sense of humor distinctly British. Here a brilliantly witty paragraph from the essay “The Indian Snake Charmer”

Scientific men aver that a snake has no ears and cannot possibly hear the strains of the pipe, but that sort of science simply spoils a picturesque subject like the snake-charmer. So much is certain, that all snakes cannot be played upon in this way: there are some species which are utterly callous to the influences to which the cobra yields itself so readily. No missionary will find any difficulty in getting a snake-charmer to appreciate that Scripture text about the deaf adder which will not listen to the voice of the charmer, charm he never so wisely.

He was amazingly observant and this blogger did get vivid glimpses of India of 19th century. On many occasion he comes out as empathetic and adorable fellow. Most amusing was that he worked for years in salt department (!!) of British India, his literary talent was recognized quite late in life and last two years of his service he was put in literary charge of The Sind Gazetteer. He is also credited with the discovery of a new species of anopheline mosquito which was named after him Anopheles aitkeni. Here is an excerpt from his writing The Five Windows of the Soul I found quite interesting

"How many times more true is all this in the case of the moral sense? When the heart is still young and tender, how spontaneously and sweetly and urgently does every vision of goodness and nobleness in the conduct of another awaken the impulse to go and do likewise! And if that impulse is not obeyed, how certainly does the first approving perception of the beauty of goodness become duller, until at last we may even come to hate it where we find it, for its discordance with the 'motions of sins in our members'!

"But not less certainly will every earnest effort to bring the life into unison with what we perceive to be right bring its own reward in a clearer and more joyful perception of what is right, and a keener sensitiveness to every discord in ourselves. How all such discord may be removed, how the chords of the heart may be tuned and the life become music,—these are questions of religion, which are quite beyond our scope. But I take it that every religion which has prevailed among the children of Adam is in itself an evidence that, however debased and perverted the moral sense may have become, the painful consciousness that his heart is 'like sweet bells jangled' still presses everywhere and always on the spirit of man; and it is also a conscious or unconscious admission that there is no blessedness for him until his life shall march in step with the music of the 'Eternal Righteousness.'"

O what a beautiful piece of writing!

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Asian koel: the singer with red glistening eyes

Koel (kuil) belongs to cuckoo family and is a bird that has found a prominent place in poems and popular literature, it s one bird that most people in the subcontinent know if not able to identify-indeed they are heard more than seen. "He was but as the cuckoo is in June, Heard, not regarded" that a line from Shakespeare!!. Don’t know about being regarded but yes it very difficult to get a glimpse as they prefer trees dense with foliages. Writes Mughal king Babar (who was quite an avid birdie, same goes with his son Humayun who while fleeing from Sher Shah Suri did find time to get few birds painted. I like these guys!!. Quite Zen like. Not to forget Jehangir who had described many birds in detail and patronized great miniature painters like Ustad Mansur-who has the credit of painting dodo just before it became extinct. The above pic) in 1526 "Another is the Koel, which in length may be equal to the crow, but is much thinner. It has a kind of song, and is the nightingale of Hindustan. It is respected by the natives of Hindustan as much as the nightingale is by us. It inhabits gardens where the trees are close planted."

Asian Koel has distinctive red eyes that look like Kathakali dancer enacting enraged protagonist. They are large long tailed bird, male wear glistening back and are vocal and conspicuous while female (rare spotting, this pic taken in Pondicherry. Incidentally Asian koel is the state bird here) are heavily barred and spotted in white, muted and unobtrusive. They are mostly found on canopies feeding on berries and fruits, therefore also a major seed disperser. It is the bird whose singing heralds rain (some call it spring), the name kokil symbolizes the onset of rains. These singing of great abandon as the heavy clouds gather is what made Kalidasa devote much to this bird in his epic (very sensuous) poem Meghadhootam. And when the rain pours

'Chatak khada chonch khole hai

samput khole seep khadi hai

main apna ghat liye khada hoon

apni apni hame padi hai'.

Chatak is pied crested cuckoo, and it is believed that Chataka drinks only rainwater, I love these myths. I read these on the Net “Many of the old poetic forms in Jndian languages are short and suggestive, like Doha and barve in Hindi, Obi in Marathi, Boli and mahia in Punjabi and Thirukural in Tamil. Some of these succinct forms are very close to haiku. Buddhist thought and the Zen approach to life are also not alien to the common Indian mind. There is a long tradition of poetry in India where the real contents of the poem are not expressed in the literal meanings but are suggestive. Here one from Punjabi:

We koeläh boldiafI

Kade bol

chandara kawah


The koels are singing

Why don’t you also speak

O nasty crow!

A habit of Cuckoos that most of us are aware of is that they lay eggs in other species nest-it’s a brood parasite. Crow despite its reputation of intelligence is hapless victim (other victims include Myna, drango, magpie and many more), however mercifully unlike other cuckoos Koel chicks are not known to evict or kill the host chicks. Brood parasitism of Indian Koel is even mentioned in Sanskrit literature 2000BC or older, mentioned as anya vapa (the one raised by others). The Greeks have also written about European cuckoos.

This beautiful poem by William Wordsworth(1770-1850) titled “To the Cuckoo” is my all-time favorite

O blithe newcomer! I have heard,
I hear thee and rejoice:
O Cuckoo! shall I call thee bird,
Or but a wandering Voice?

While I am lying on the grass
Thy twofold shout I hear;
From hill to hill it seems to pass,
At once far off and near.

Though babbling only to the vale
Of sunshine and of flowers,
Thou bringest unto me a tale
Of visionary hours.

Thrice welcome, darling of the Spring!
Even yet thou art to me
No bird, but an invisible thing,
A voice, a mystery;

The same whom in my schoolboy days
I listened to; that Cry
Which made me look a thousand ways
In bush, and tree, and sky.

To seek thee did I often rove
Through woods and on the green;
And thou wert still a hope, a love;
Still longed for, never seen!

And I can listen to thee yet;
Can lie upon the plain
And listen, till I do beget
That golden time again.

O blessed birth! the earth we pace
Again appears to be
An unsubstantial, fairy place,
That is f
it home for Thee!

Wordsworth was responsible in ushering in Romanticism in English literature (along with Coleridge). Another of his poem that had an impact one me was “The World Is Too Much with Us”, its about materialism and how we are distancing from nature. So much applicable in the times we live not to forget it was written about two centuries back…amazing!!. Wordsworth defined poetry as “emotion collected in tranquility”.

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
The Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not.--Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.

11 years of bird watching!!

This diwali it will be eleven years since this blogger took up bird watching seriously, I can’t believe it. Time flies!!. If I recall rightly the diwali of 97’ caught me on the wrong foot I was trapped in the intense smoke and noise of congested Karol bagh, I decided never ever to be in cities during these festivals. Next year I took my sack and hit the road intention being Corbett but in route to bus stand decided Bharatpur wouldn’t be bad idea. Met few foreigners on the bird trail and rest as they say is history (and future!). There is lots of fun in knowing about birds, with camera it has got further consolidated and blog has to some extend formalized it. Cheers to that!!

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Little ringed Plovers: the motorized toys!!

Little ringed plovers are diminutive wading bird found around tidal mudflats, shallow flood pools or river banks. I found these at Pulicat lake (-located at an hour’s drive north of Chennai. I took a bus to Red hills-contrary to the name it is quite a desolate place. Funny part here is nobody knew where this place was even the co-passenger in the bus, after much deliberation and I trying to figure out what exactly is the word for lake in Tamil- I tried a mix of rudimentary Tamil- Malayalam-Sanskrit…words like thadakam, perishu thani edam etc were some starters, finally found that pulicat is actually pazhavilkadu!!. The route was spectacular and climate very agreeable having rained heavily a week earlier. Unfortunately the place turned out to be quite dirty with fishes strewn around haphazardly to dry, clumsy buildings and human wastes. The chaos was accentuated by the construction of bridge across the lake. It’s only when you walk few Kms to the outskirts that the beauty of nature unfolds. Most people must have seen Pulicat in movies- the shallow lake stretches to ocean, it is an amazing sight. I saw some painted storks fishing…some pics are posted in my photos link.
Little ringed plovers have distinctive yellow eye-ring around the eyes and one or two black bands (“rings”) across the breast. These are active birds that are suspicious in nature and quick to give alarm calls and take flight. They were found scampering on the mud bank then stop, peck and scoot, giving an impression of motorized toys. I read that they also do “foot trembling” that is standing on one foot while rapidly vibrating the toes of the other foot, this vibration is supposed to disturb prey and so betray their presence. They nest in shallow scrape and like stilts are known to fake ‘broken wing’ to distract the predators. In some countries their numbers have declined and they are included in the Red List where they were previously abundant, their breeding sites are affected by man-made changes.

This a poem by Pablo Neruda (translated), frankly this not really my favorite of Neruda but some lines are spectacular. Like this one “How out of its throat, smaller than a finger, can there, fall the waters, of its song?”

Ode to Bird Watching

Let's look for birds!
The tall iron branches
in the forest,
The dense
fertility on the ground.
The world
is wet.
A dewdrop or raindrop
a diminutive star
among the leaves.
The morning time
mother earth
is cool.
The air
is like a river
which shakes
the silence.
It smells of rosemary,
of space
and roots.
a crazy song.
It's a bird.
out of its throat
smaller than a finger
can there fall the waters
of its song?
Luminous ease!
of music
in the leaves.
Sacred conversations!
Clean and fresh washed
is this
day resounding
like a green dulcimer.
I bury
my shoes
in the mud,
jump over rivulets.
A thorn
bites me and a gust
of air like a crystal
splits up inside my chest.
are the birds?
Maybe it was
rustling in the foliage
or that fleeting pellet
of brown velvet
or that displaced
perfume? That
leaf that let loose cinnamon smell
- was that a bird? That dust
from an irritated magnolia
or that fruit
which fell with a thump -
was that a flight?
Oh, invisible little
birds of the devil
with their ringing
with their useless feathers.
I only want
to caress them,
to see them resplendent.
I don't want
to see under glass
the embalmed lightning.
I want to see them living.
I want to touch their gloves
of real hide,
which they never forget in
the branches
and to converse with
sitting on my shoulders
although they may leave
me like certain statues
undeservedly whitewashed.
You can't touch them.
You can hear them
like a heavenly
rustle or movement.
They converse
with precision.
They repeat
their observations.
They brag
of how much they do.
They comment
on everything that exists.
They learn
certain sciences
like hydrography.
and by a sure science
they know
where there are harvests
of grain.

Pablo Neruda (July 12, 1904 – September 23, 1973) real name Neftalí Ricardo Reyes Basoalto was one of the most influential 20th century poet and writer from South American country Chile. He was very popular in his country and when he died Dictator Pinochet (yes the same scoundrel who also happened to be personal friend of Thatcher) didn’t allow public funeral but people disobeyed the curfew. Few months after Allende was toppled (famously supported by US) when soldiers came to search his house he is famously have said “look around—there's only one thing of danger for you here—poetry”. I like that!!. To be fair one need add Neruda did slide into regressive form of communism (even praising Stalin at one point, nearly came to blow with Octavio Paz over this). A trivia about Neruda: he always wrote in green ink because it was the color of Esperanza (hope). His love poems had measure of eroticism, that was considered controversial (this blogger though liked it when I read it more than a decade back). Neruda was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 1971 (incidentally the year I was born!!). Neruda’s favorite poet was Whitman (anyone who reads Whitman will love him), so much so that he used to keep a framed photo of his!!. There is a mention by Borges "We did meet forty years ago. At that time we were both influenced by Whitman and I said, jokingly in part, 'I don't think anything can be done in Spanish, do you?' Neruda agreed, but we decided it was too late for us to write our verse in English!!”

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Sunbird the jewels in the forest

Sunbirds are tiny slender birds, feverishly active and fly so fast that it is photographer’s nightmare to get one. The above pic is that of Purple-rumped Sunbird that is no more than 10cms, the most common sunbird specie in the continent. This specie of sunbird is endemic to south Asia and usually found where there are abundant trees and shrubs. They prefer vicinity of human habitat and visit gardens and rarely seen in dense forests. As can be seen in the pic they don’t hover to forage nectar (as hummingbird or some other sunbirds), they perch and use long down-curved bills and tubular tongue adapted for these. They thus also help pollinating certain species of plants. These adorable little birds make quite a noise for its size, and are found merrily chirping most of time. I couldn’t help saying “oh come on that’s enough!!”, but the tiny bird doesn’t seem to give much damn.

While going through the Net I came across these lines from the poem ‘The Passage’ by one of the outstanding postcolonial English poet of Nigeria, indeed whole of Africa: Christopher Ifekandu Okigbo(1932–1967)

solitude invites,
a wagtail, to tell
the tangled-wood-tale;
a sunbird, to mourn
a mother on a spray.

I find these lines quite evocative. Chinua Achebe writes “For while other poets wrote good poems, Okigbo conjured up for us an amazing, haunting poetic firmament of a wild and violent beauty..”. Eliot was quite an influence on Okigbo “its casual references to German, French, Italian, Latin and Greek literatures in the original languages, its acquaintance with Bhagavad Gita, Dante, St. Augustine and the chants of Siberian shamans, its unsettling existential wit, its mastery of both expository and lyrical poetic forms, Eliot’s poetry both tranquilized the heart and stimulated Okigbo’s active emulation”. Another line I came across that I absolutely loved was

Silences are melodies
Heard in retrospect

These lines below reminded me of the programs one tend to watch in wildlife channels:

Gentle hunter

his tail plays on the ground

while he crushes the skull

Beautiful death

who puts on a spotted robe

when he goes to his victim.

Playful killer

whose loving embrace

splits the antelope’s heart.

I wrote the poem Beginning (posted in the blog yesterday morning, now as I read Okigbo I feel should dedicate the poem to him. Quite an amazing guy.

The stamp herein is of Purple throated Sunbird from Vietnam, below pic is of Purple Sunbird.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

There is something special about Little green bee eater bird

Little green bee eater bird is a delightful bird. This slender bird is a riot of colors predominately shades of green and a delicate elongated central tail feather. They eat insects and ants, constant nuisance if you are a bee keeper but then I am not a bee keeper and yes even if I am I wouldn’t mind!. These birds hunt from low perches and are ever active. The Collins Birds of India (Martin Woodwock) the one I carry has an amazingly accurate description about this bird “often seen perched on posts, where the birds line up side by side, constantly changing places as first one, then another launches out after an insect”. This is the just how I saw these birds!. The book is incredible, and quite handy. Strongly suggested for anyone venturing into bird watching. Bee-eater birds are diverse and abundantly found throughout Sub Sahara and Africa and Asia. They are usually seen in small groups but little green bee eaters are known to be solitary nesters, they nest in hollows in vertical mud banks. Their call is soft trill.

Do Little Green Bee-eater have theory of mind?
This is the question B. Smitha, Juilee Thakar and Milind Watve (of Department of Microbiology, Abasaheb Garware College and Life Research Foundation at Pune, India) delved upon in their research paper. It is an interesting piece of study and this is a paragraph from their paper, please read carefully it is an amazing understanding on these birds and shows how perceptive these tiny little birds are:
Theory of mind, or the ability to think about another individual’s mental states, is not widely known in animals. We describe in this paper a test for the theory of mind in birds and present suggestive evidence for theory of mind in the small green bee eater. Bee eaters were observed to hesitate entering their nest in the presence of a human observer. The hesitation was significantly reduced when the observer was unable to see the nest, although the bird could see the observer clearly and at a comparable distance. This suggests that the birds can appreciate the visual perspective of the observer and take a decision based on the observer’s vision. Further, if the observer had seen the nest before in the presence of the bird, the frequency of nest visits was observed to be less than that when the observer had not seen the nest, suggesting that the bird can probably differentiate what the observer knows and what he does not. Such a behavior needs a mental capacity so far only known in humans and a few other primates.

The pictures of the birds were taken at Auroville, Pondicherry, TN on my morning walks. There are many more I have clicked will put in subsequent blogs. Happy reading!!. Auroville is a great place to be in, calm and self contained, having really nothing to do with the world. I stayed in a cottage for 3to4 days (no news, no net was really a help, except once I had to visit the net few Km down, as part of my job as also thought of posting one silly poem I wrote in the train!). Auroville is spread across acres of pristine forest land. This blogger is a habitual morning walker except in cities (apart from pollution I dislike the sight of people walking as part of exercising). I love walking when the surrounding is agreeable. Indeed I walked about 10km from the main road to the Auroville visiting centre with my heavy bag (a decade back too I did the same thing, this time though I had t
he camera with new lens). Auroville is bird watchers delight, I though was expecting to find a book on Birds at Auroville but couldn’t.

The Stamp herein is fro
m Jordan and the painting by Neville Cayley (1886-1950). Cayley was the chief painter of Australian birds. His most distinctive and influential work was done through the medium of books. The first of these was What Bird is That? (1931), in which every Australian bird was illustrated in colour and which ran to many editions. Cayley's other chief works were Finches in Bush and Aviary (1932), Budgerigars in Bush and Aviary (1933), Australian Parrots (1938), and The Fairy Wrens of Australia (1949). In addition, Cayley executed the colour drawings for G. A Waterhouse's What Butterfly is That? (1932) and also the figures in E. Troughton's Furred Animals of Australia (1941).