A Love Story in Grass

There are a handful of resources we covet – cold clear air, mountain-side rock and river-bank sand that we can shape into construction material, soil for agriculture, marble to lay temple and hospital floors.

For wildlife, the list is much more rustic. Wild animals build houses and covet their real estate too—in exactly the kind of places we may look down upon. Mynas and Rose-ringed parakeets will tussle over holes in old or dead trees, where they nest. A termite mound, built with turrets and tunnels on the stump of a tree by the ants will have a monitor lizard moving in. A Coppersmith Barbet will spend days carving holes in soft-wooded trees, which may get stolen by another bird. Homes are made, and homes are lost.

Baya M F
A female (L) and male (R) Baya weaver near their nesting sites

But more than anything—a bird, that industrious creature that builds its own home—needs grass. Unless it is a lawn mowed to perfection, grass is not valued by us. Lawns are coveted because they are within our control; we tend to condescend all that looks unruly, thorny or uncontrolled. Carpet grass is loved, and wild grass is rooted out. Yet, wild grass is the mainstay of the nest enterprise. It can be a driver of a species persisting, or going locally extinct. With the rains hitting the earth, and long tendrils of grass emerging above soil, this is the time to witness a natural wonder.

That natural wonder is a little, mango-yellow and grassy-brown bird busy at creating marvels. This is the male baya weaver. He has enviable building skills, and perhaps even some lessons on consent. The little, sparrow-sized bird will build nests from grass and leaves during the monsoon. These are woven in intricate, gravity-defying patterns, and the nests hang, rather than rest. They look something like slender-throated urns suspended from a branch, the bottom designed with an opening which can be entered without disemboweling nest contents. The baya builds several nests on one tree, and then waits for a female to come and inspect them. If she likes the property, she moves in. If she doesn’t, she moves on.

This bird-built architecture is an iconic marker of the Indian countryside. A single tree may have many weaver bird nests; as more than one bird may settle in the same tree. The trees they choose are usually thorny, to prevent predators. The male has patches of bright yellow during the monsoon— decked specially in breeding plumage (he will be brown at other times of the year). He is often spotted sitting on a frond of grass. Monsoonal winds make the plants sway, and his bright-yellow body flickers like lights in the green-and-gold grasses. Traditional ecological knowledge is also aware that a suite of baya weaver nests means that water is nearby. Most often, the bayas choose trees that are spiny and next to a water body—this is another level of protection from predators.

Baya nest
A bright-yellow Baya weaver bird near his nests

But this is not entirely a happy story. From most local birding records, it seems weaver birds are on the decline. The world is not kind to animals with specific needs. We do cherish our quirks in taste—tea from a particular Darjeeling hill, a preference for a home in the less moist parts of the Himalayas, a holiday on a beach with the right amount of seclusion, or a car with a sunroof for Vitamin D in winters.

In the wild though, habitat specialists are doing badly; while creatures that can live in a very large variety of habitats are doing better (examples would be crows, mynahs, and indeed, people). The baya is a citizen of grass; and its thorny tree, swathes of grass and a waterbody—just a handful of naturally occurring things—are disappearing. More broadly, birds of grassland are hanging by a veritable blade of grass.

Read the whole piece in BloombergQuint here.

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