Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Large pied wagtail: The Madrasi chidiya!!

Large pied wagtail, the specie name Motacilla madaraspatensisis is derived from the Indian city of Madras, which is now known as Chennai
, so happened Edward Buckley, a Madras-based surgeon drew and described 22 birds, he sent his sketches to England and this material was the source for the description of the Indian Pied Wagtail. By classification, the Pied Wagtail belongs to the Passerine (or perching) family of birds, characterized by the feet being adapted for perching on trees or on the ground, rather than for grasping, wading or swimming

The name "pied" comes from the bird's black-and-white coloration and "wagtail" from the perpetual "wagging" of its tail. The reason for wagging the tail of wagtail species is not much understood (motacilla means moving tail). It has been suggested that it may flush up prey, or that it may signal submissiveness to other wagtails. Recent studies have suggested instead that it is a signal of vigilance that may aid to deter potential predators. Large pied Wagtail resembles Magpie Robin a lot and few years back I used to confuse with it, the distinctive feature is its prominent white eyebrow (therefore also referred to as White browed Wagtail). This slender confiding bird is well adapted to urban habitat but prefers areas in vicinity to water; generally feeding on ground insects it could be seen darting around in gardens, probably the only resident wagtail in Indian plain. It’s a delight to watch this sprightly bird as it flits for insects, the black and white plumage gives it a neat formal look. Here an old Irish rhyme I came across in the net:

Wee Mister Wagtail, hopping on a rock,
Daddy says your pretty tail is like a Goblin's clock.
Wee Willie Wagtail, how I love to see,
Wee Willie Wagtail, wag his tail at me.
Wee Mister Wagtail, running by a pond,

Daddy says your pretty tail is like a Goblin's wand.

The painting here is from John Gould (1804-1881). Gould was an amazing man and was responsible for 3000odd exquisite hand colored lithographic plates of birds and animals. In his pursuit of new and different birds, John Gould traveled to Asia, Australia and the East Indies. John Gould produced in 1832, A Century of Birds from the Himalayan Mountains considered as pioneering step towards bird illustration. Later from 1850 till he died he produced magnificent six-volume Birds of Asia. His series of natural history plates is considered by many as the finest works of bird illustrations ever presented. His identification of the birds now nicknamed "Darwin's finches" was pivotal in the inception of Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection. Throughout his professional life John Gould had a strong interest in hummingbirds. He accumulated a collection of 320 species. The “Gould League”, founded in Australia in 1909, was named after him. This organization gave many Australians their first introduction to birds, along with more general environmental and ecological education.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

How the Woodpecker Knows

How the Woodpecker Knows

How does he know where to dig his hole,
The woodpecker there on the elm tree hole?
How does he know what kind of a limb
To use for a drum, and to burrow in?
How does he find where the young grubs grow -
I'd like to know?

The woodpecker flew to a maple limb,
And drummed a tattoo that was fun for him,
"No breakfast here! It's too hard for that."
He said, as down
on his tail he sat,
"Just listen to this: rrrr rat-rat-tat."

This is poem that seems to be quite popular and is there for ages, nobody knows who wrote it but fun to read, and yes it brings out the basic characteristic of woodpecker, have an ear for the furious rat-rat-rat by this spectacular looking busy bird. Woodpecker is one bird that is built for chiseling the tree. They have sharp tipped bill, special muscles that cushion the skull from the shock of constant hammering, extremely long sticky tongues with bristles that aid in grabbing and extracting insects deep within cervices of a tree, they also have tail that stiffens to support as it cling the tree to forage or probe beneath it. This usual posture of woodpecker is also helped by its strong broad, crooked claws and short feet that have four toes placed in pairs, two forward and two backward that help to grasp and walk the tree vertical defying gravity “…it was very wild, running on the trunks and limbs of trees with the agility peculiar to the family…” (Audubon 1837). Also a thickened nictating membrane protects eye and nostrils from flying debris as it digs. They are also known to communicate by drumming. The painting herein is of Pileated woodpecker by Audobun.

Woodpeckers are referred to as ‘core species’ because their presence is a fundamental requirement to the existence of a wide range of other species, cavity nesting birds are very much dependent on woodpecker holes (owls, hornbills, wrens, martins and so on).

Woodpeckers also help in controlling pests (like bugs, ants or termites) but in recent time copious use of pesticides has seriously imbalanced the ecosystem. The reason why organic farming is significant, such agro-ecological practices go a long way in sustainable development. So unlike reported in media (BBC may have their own reason) there is more to organic farming than taste or nutrients. There are about 200 hundreds species of woodpecker, forest clearing has also reduced many population and some face extinction. Ivory billed woodpecker is thought to be extinct.

Does this blogger have a problem with Hume’s pheasant?

In one of my blog I expressed displeasure with birds named after colonialists, but all were not same some of them were very much into birds and their contributions have been immense and any bird named after them is a matter of pride and cause to celebrate. I guess most of us have read about AO Hume, he was the founder of Indian National Congress- that played a very significant role in freedom movement as also in nation building of independent India. Incidentally the present union government is headed by INC under the president ship of Sonia Gandhi who was born in Italy (another woman of foreign origin who held the highest post in INC was venerable Annie Beasent, this blogger has visited Theosophical society in Chennai). What is not known about AO Hume is that he was an ardent ornithologist (some even gave him the title of father of ornithology in India, this blogger though would like that title for none but Salim Ali. Period).

Hume made many expeditions to collect birds both when he was on health leave and as and where his work took him. As the Commissioner of Inland Customs Hume was responsible for the control of 2,500 miles of coast from near Peshawar in the northwest to Cuttack on the Bay of Bengal. During his travels he made a number of notes on various bird species. His expedition to the Indus area was one of the largest. In 1873, he visited the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in the Bay of Bengal, the Lakshadeep Islands in 1875, and in 1881 he made his last ornithological expedition to Manipur. Hume started the quarterly journal Stray Feathers - A journal of ornithology for India and dependencies in 1872. Twelve volumes were produced, the last of which was in 1888. He used the journal to publish descriptions of his new discoveries, such as Hume's Owl, Hume's Wheatear and Hume's Whitethroat. He wrote extensively on his own observations as well as writing critical reviews of all the ornithological works of the time. Hume built up a network of ornithologists reporting from various parts of India. Hume co-authored with C H T Marshall Game Birds of India, Burma and Ceylon (1879-1881).This three-volume work was made using contributions and notes from a network of 200 or more correspondents. Nests and Eggs of Indian Birds (1883) was another major work by Hume (above para taken from net).

Hume kept a detailed writing on the birds, this massive collection of manuscript was unfortunately sold by a servant as waste paper!!. What a tragedy, this blogger understands the pain to even loose a paragraph of writing, it is wrenching. Understandably Hume started to loose interest and donated all his remaining collections to British museum. There are many birds named after Hume and his wife. Cheers to that Hume’s pheasant is actually Mrs. Hume’s pheasant; this bird incidentally is the state bird of Manipur and Mizoram.

Other Britishers who actively contributed to ornithology in the subcontinent during 18th to early 20th century include Andrew Leith Adams, Horace Alexander, E C S Stuart Baker, Valentine Ball, Henry Edwin Barnes, R S P Bates, R C Beavan’s , F N Betts, W T Blanford, Edward Blyth, W E Brooks, W. S. Millard (it was this man who was the secretary at BHNS when young Salim Ali came with yellow throated Swallow, the photo is of him), E A Butler, Douglas Dewar, Edward Hamilton Aitken (popularly known as EHA, he was the founding member of Bombay Natural History Society ), Frank Finn, Thomas B Fletcher, James Franklin, N F Frome, H H Godwin-Austen, John Gould, Brian Hodgson, C M Inglis, Capt. Surgeon T C Jerdon (the most authoritative book The Birds of India), N B Kinnear, Walter Norman Koelz, Frank Ludlow, C H T Marshall, G F L Marshall, John McClelland, Richard Meinertzhagen, James A Murray, E W Oates, Arthur Edward Osmaston, Bertram Beresford Osmaston, Sir Arthur Purves Phayre, Wardlaw Ramsay, Dr Sidney Dillon Ripley, B E Smythies, J K Stanford, Ferdinand Stoliczka, Colonel W H Sykes, Charles Swinhoe, Robert Swinhoe, C B Ticehurst, Col. Robert C Tytler , Hugh Whistler.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Ibis walks like an Egyptian !!

The picture here is of Black headed Ibis, one of the Ibis specie that is found quite abundantly without being common in South and South East Asia. Ibis is a long-legged wading bird found mostly in marshy wetlands inland and on the coast, where it feeds on various fish, water creatures, as well as on insects. They have long down curved bills, white plumage with black bald head, the neck and legs. The word ibis comes from Greek, originally borrowed from Ancient Egyptian hîb and also followed from the root. For ancient Egyptians ibis was sacred Ibis and so ibis referred to as Nile bird. The Egyptians say its white plumage symbolizes the light of the sun, and its black neck the shadow of the moon, its body a heart, and its legs a triangle. It was said to drink only the purest of water, and its feathers to scare or even kill the crocodile. No wonder the most significant god of ancient Egypt was ibis headed!!

Ibis-headed Egyptian God of learning: different civilizations had their own conception of God, interestingly Egyptians found Ibis headed god: Thoth as their important deity. Thoth was considered one of the most important deities of the Egyptian pantheon. He was associated by the Egyptians with speech, literature, arts, learning. Thoth became credited by the ancient Egyptians as the inventor of writing, and alphabets (ie. hieroglyphs) themselves. Thoth was the 'One who Made Calculations Concerning the Heavens, the Stars and the Earth', the 'Reckoner of Times and of Seasons', the one who 'Measured out the Heavens and Planned the Earth'. He was 'He who Balances', the 'God of the Equilibrium' and 'Master of the Balance'. 'The Lord of the Divine Body', 'Scribe of the Company of the Gods', the 'Voice of Ra', the 'Author of Every Work on Every Branch of Knowledge, Both Human and Divine', he who understood 'all that is hidden under the heavenly vault'. Thoth was not just a scribe and friend to the gods, but central to order. He was 'He who Reckons the Heavens, the Counter of the Stars and the Measurer of the Earth'. Phew!!

An incident in Kenzeburo Oe’s life: continuing with my main blog on Kenzeburo Oe ( it need be noted that Oe’s highly regarded work is semi autobiographical “A Personal matter”. Incredibly the protagonist is named ‘Bird’. Birds have an important reference point in his life there is a poignant incident that he quotes:

Until my son was four or five years old, he didn't do anything to communicate with us. We thought that he cannot have any sense of the family. So he looked very, very isolated -- a pebble in the grass. But one day, he was interested in the voice of a bird from the radio. So I bought disks of the wild birds of Japan. I made a tape of fifty specimens of birds -- bird calls. There are the bird calls and a very flat voice, a woman announcer, says the names of the birds. "Tada-dada," then: "Nightingale." "Tada-da." "Sparrow." "This is nightingale; this is sparrow." We continued to listen to that tape for three years. During those three years, when we played the birds' songs, my son became very quiet. So it was needed to make him quiet. My wife must do her work, and I must do my work. So with the bird voices we three lived on.

In the summer when he was six years old, I went to our mountain house, and while my wife was cleaning our small house, I was in the small forest with my son on my shoulders. Nearby there is a small lake. A bird sang, [one of a pair]. Suddenly a clear, flat voice said, "It is a water rail." Then I shook. Utter silence in the forest. We were silent for five minutes and I prayed for something, there on my head. I prayed, "Please, the next voice of that bird and please next the remarks of my son, if that was not my phantom or dream." Then after five minutes, the wife of that bird sang. Then my son said "It's a water rail." Then I returned to my house with my son and talked to my wife.

For a long time, we waited for another voice, but there was not any voice during the night. We didn't sleep. But in the early morning, a small sparrow came to a small tree in front of our window. He made a small sound, and my son said, "It's a sparrow." Then everything began, and we played the sound of a bird, and my son would answer. We made many recordings of birds, even the birds of the U.S.A. and Europe. My son answered very quietly and very correctly if he listened to the name of a bird two or three times. We began to communicate by the word.

"Pooh-chan," -- my son was called Pooh-chan, from Winnie the Pooh -- "what is the bird?" [He would answer after I played the tape.] "Sparrow." "Pooh-chan, what do you want to listen to?" He thinks, [and says,] "Water rail." "Nightingale." Then I would play it.

Then, we began to communicate…”