Category Archives: Species

The Hand-winged Animal

We don’t yet know the precise role of bats in the Nipah outbreak

Most bats fly high/ Swooping only/ To take some insect on the wing; But there’s a bat I know/ Who flies so low/ He skims the floor; He does not enter at the window/ But flies in at the door. In his poem, ‘The Bat’, Ruskin Bond recounts the tale of a ‘crazy’ bat — albeit a fairly benign one — that made itself cosy at the foot of his bed on a lonely night in Mussoorie.

But ‘benign’ is certainly not the reputation bats have: superstition has them down as bad omens; science has proven they are carriers of disease — they are linked to the spread of SARS in China, MERS in Saudi Arabia, Ebola in Africa, and most recently debated as the possible cause of the Nipah outbreak in Kerala; the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, lists them largely as vermin. And blood-drinking Dracula hasn’t helped the creature’s cause.

The bat is something of a chimera: it has wings like a bird, the furry face of a mouse, it often flies zigzag or flits giddily like a moth. It belongs to the taxonomic order ‘Chiroptera’, derived aptly from the Greek words for ‘hand’ and ‘wing’.

Thinning dwellings

I’ve been spooked by bats too, mostly because their movements are so inscrutable. While looking for a white barn owl perched on a lamp-post in Delhi one night, I was startled by a large flying fox that swooped down from the sky, it’s membranous wings translucent against the street light. I was convinced it was coming for my face, though of course, the frugivore was headed for a fig tree behind me.

India has no less than 128 species of bats — yet very little is known about their population status, their behaviour, or their role in the spread of zoonotic disease. Most species are listed as ‘data deficient’ in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. What we do know, however, is that many species are likely under enormous threat.

A colony of flying foxes in Odisha’s Badagaon.

A colony of flying foxes in Odisha’s Badagaon.   | Photo Credit: Lingaraj Panda

For instance, found in just one cave in a Karnataka village, the Kolar leaf-nosed bat is threatened by granite mining. Because of its very small range and a population of 200 or less, it has a high risk of extinction and is classified as critically endangered in the Red List. Salim Ali’s fruit bat, which also has a very small range in the tropical forests of the Western Ghats, is classified as endangered.

Research has shown that bat diversity has reduced in Delhi. Species once found in the crevasses of old buildings and in the Humayun’s Tomb complex are no longer found there. Humayun’s Tomb used to be known for its colony of Megaderma lyra, or the greater false vampire bat, distinguished by its long ears. And once found in several old buildings was the Tadarida aegyptiaca or the Egyptian free-tailed bat, which feeds on insects while in flight or while crawling on the ground with equal ease.

“Neither species is easily spotted in Delhi anymore,” says Sumit Dookia, Assistant Professor, University School of Environment Management, Guru Govind Singh Indraprastha University. Today, there are only four generalist bat species that remain in Delhi, he says: the fruit-eating Indian flying fox and the Leschenault’s rousette; and the insectivorous greater Asiatic yellow bat and the least pipistrelle bat.

Apart from habitat loss, bats are also prone to fatally colliding with wind turbine blades — and several wind power projects are coming up in India, particularly in Gujarat and in the Western Ghats. Greater mouse-tailed bats have been reportedly killed by wind turbines in Kutch. Concerns have also been raised about turbines impacting the movement or local migration of bat flocks.

Natural history has largely overlooked bats. As for the Wildlife Act, it names just two bat species for protection — Salim Ali’s fruit bat and Wroughton’s free-tailed bat. The Act does not name other bat species except the generic ‘fruit bats’, which are listed in Schedule V, where they find themselves in the company of ‘vermin’ such as common crows, mice and rats — species that can be legally removed or killed. Fortunately though, as bats are considered ‘wild’ animals, they must, at least in protected areas, remain protected and cannot be driven out, unlike feral dogs or buffaloes.

The only instance the animal got its due in terms of formal conservation was when Karnataka declared the Bhimgad forest a sanctuary to protect Wroughton’s free-tailed bat.

More than spooks

But much remains to be done. Bats, after all, provide huge ecological and economic services, says bat biologist Rohit Chakravarty. “Without insectivorous bats, farmers would lose billions to pest insects. Fruit bats are also important pollinators and seed dispersers in tropical forests. For example, the durian is mostly pollinated by bats.”

Chakravarty, like many others, believes that bats must be removed from the vermin list, because their populations could take time to recover from losses. “Bats are long-lived, slow-breeding species. A small 5 gm insectivorous bat is capable of living up to 30 years and gives birth to one or two pups a year. So, killing them indiscriminately can wipe out large chunks of their populations.”

Several organisations have recently asked for environmental impact assessments of wind energy projects, with a focus on impact on bats. Chakravarty adds, however, that we also need to find an urgent, cost-effective solution to mitigating fruit damage by fruit bats in orchards.

It is not yet clear if bats are responsible for the Nipah outbreak. While some bats have been tested — and found free of infection — those were insectivorous bats, not fruit bats. Further testing, and a greater understanding of the movement history of infected people, should bring clarity.

In his 1902 book The World of Animal Life, Fred Smith describes bats as ‘hand-winged animals’, ‘rendering good services to farmers’ by eating pests. It is a 117-year-old reminder that bats are in dire need of conservation focus; and that they deserve adjectives far better than ‘spooky’.

Fruit Bat Bhawani Das
Flying Fox, attributed to Bhawani Das or follower.

This first appeared in The Hindu, here.

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Snapshots of Summer.

It’s terribly hot. The heat is like a net you have to walk through: you can’t really see it, or escape it, but it leaves marks on your skin, and a feeling of being trapped.

But there are some things which add colour, life, and cock a snook at the unbearable heat. Wildlife is courting. Birds are calling. The arena of life drums on, beautiful, unaffected and resonating. Here are some snapshots from May:

Blackbucks.

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Blackbucks are courting in the sizzling heat.
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Blackbucks in Haryana

Blackbucks

 

Barbets.

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The Coppersmith Barbet Calling. When it calls, it makes a sonorous sound in its throat (you can see the action here), without opening its mouth.
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When birds feel hot, they often open their beaks like this, something like a panting dog.
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Coppersmith Barbet in Delhi.

 

Dressing to Impress.

While the Sunbirds have finished courting, the lizards are just emerging in their finery:

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Garden Lizard in breeding colours: what an orange that is! Haryana.
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What an embellishment on the tree!

 

Endemic birds you must know about!

If you were to describe native things about India, you could talk about the particular texture of hand-pounded coconut chutney, the inky vegetable dye splash of kalamkari, art deco buildings merging with Mughal style domes which merge with glass-fronted malls. You may speak of food, fabric, folklore, festivals.

To this, I will add: what makes India a very particular and special place is endemism in wildlife. We have over 100 bird species found only in India, and more than another 100 that are native to South Asia.

Species evolve differently owing in part to unique landscapes – for instance, the Palghat gap, a valley in the Western Ghats, has helped create endemic species like Sholicola Ashambuensis, a Shortwing bird. The small but ecologically significant Thar desert holds a breeding population of the Great Indian Bustard, a large bird found only in the Indian subcontinent – and now believed to be found only in India.

The remoteness of the Andaman and Nicobar islands have created birds that are very much Andaman and Nicobar versions. Endemics include Andaman wood-pigeon, Andaman Woodpecker, Andaman Bulbul, Nicobar Pigeon, Nicobar Bulbul, Nicobar Sparrowhawk, and many more.

Today (May 5) is Endemic Bird day. Here are six endemics you must know about:

The Indian Peafowl

It’s nice to find a total showstopper, looking like it has a hundred eyes on its tail, dancing in forests and also sitting on a roadside tree in the National Capital. In times of political turmoil, diminishing species, and conflict between communities, one national symbol still remains national in range and occurrence.

peacocksemal-2_050518020032.jpgThe Indian peafowl [Photo courtesy: Neha Sinha]

The Indian peafowl, a South Asia endemic, is not a bird shy of drama. Greek myth says the peacock was a watchman for Hera – with a hundred eyes on its tail. This bird doesn’t just shine, it glitters.

The tail of the peacock is effortlessly glamorous, and its dancing to attract females is the stuff of lore. It also manages to strut its stuff in the oddest, most protocol-ridden places. There was a peafowl nest in India International Centre, which the staff nurtured, rather than destroyed. There are peacocks at Rashtrapati Bhavan.

peacocksemal17mar_050518020102.jpgA peacock with its effortlessly glamorous tail. [Photo courtesy: Neha Sinha]

There are peafowl in crop fields and near old monuments. But we don’t know how many peafowl we have in India, and we should start counting, because peafowl regularly die in crop fields after pesticide poisoning. Peafowl is also being poached.

peacock-wooing-1_050518020126.jpgPeacock trying to woo potential mates [Photo courtesy: Neha Sinha]

The Great Indian Bustard

The thing about a species being named after India is that you expect to be able to see this bird. Sadly, for the GIB, its magnificence has not granted it protection. Found in Thar desert, scrub land, grassland and crop fields, the GIB is close to extinction, a death by a thousand cuts. At the time that India became independent, the GIB was found in a range of states – Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh and others. Today, the only significant populations are in Rajasthan and Gujarat.

The bird has lost out on habitat – farmlands are laced with poison, and skies are full of wires, and grasslands are taken over. This large, heavy bird collides with wires and dies instantly, with wires being a new, urgent threat.

Upcoming solar farms and intensifying lattice of transmission wires in the Thar desert and the Kutch area have killed several GIB in the recent past. India may be the last country on earth to hold the GIB – some were found in Pakistan, but their status now is unknown. It would be a chronicle of a death foretold if this critically endangered species, down a global population of a paltry 150 birds, went extinct.

There are plans for captive breeding, and stopping habitat loss. While the plans continue to get made, the bird is in shock – and disappearing because of it.

Indian Pitta

Native to South Asia, the Indian Pitta is a truly beautiful bird. “Pitta” doesn’t describe the bird the way its Hindi moniker, “navrang”, does. This forest bird has nine colours, and a presence that ricochets through the forest. It likes a thick understory, and has a distinctive, sweet, two-note whistling call. Usually, you won’t find the Pitta in open areas. The bird is also a marker for good forest cover, and with forests getting diverted everyday, you won’t find it in every forest.

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indian-pitta-2-1_050518020159.jpgIndian Pitta, a bird many may never have heard of. [Photo courtesy: Neha Sinha]

The colours of the pitta are emblematic of the kind of hues associated with India – a deep yellow, a flaming orange, turquoise, emerald green – bold, unapologetic colours, the sort you’d find on the houses of village walls, and saree pallus. The Pitta calls with its head up towards the sky, often together or in pairs, charming the woods with sweet music.

Green Avadavat

You may never have heard of this little bird. If you see it though, you won’t forget it. The Green Avadavat is in big trouble, partly because it is good-looking. It has a crayon-red, perfectly triangular beak, zebra like stripes on its flanks, a green upper body, and a yellow lower body. The bird is a part of the illegal cage trade, which has pushed this bird to being listed as a species vulnerable to extinction. This is a shame, because this bird breeds only in India, and is a true Indian endemic.

It lives in scrubland and grassland, which development projects also like. The future of the bird lies in India and we must hasten to protect it, before desire wipes it out. A caged avadavat will not sing, and does not have much of a future.

Nicobar Megapode and Narcondam Hornbill

Of the many island endemics, there are two every Indian should know of, chiefly because ill-conceived plans threaten their existence.  The Narcondam Hornbill is found only on the tiny, wind-swept island of Narcondam in the Andaman sea. This island is all of 7sqkm. The bird has nowhere to go, and no other place to hide. The government has given permission to make a radar station and a power station on Narcondam island.

If construction does happen, this further imperils the bird, already facing the threat of invasive species like rats and goats, which have been introduced by policemen residing on the island. The Nicobar Megapode is considered related to the chicken. It has a major breeding population on Tillanchong island. Here, of all things, the government is making a missile firing station. One can hardly think of a more negligent way to deal with birds that India calls its own. As this headline says, the government has put bombs before birds.

India’s locales, mountains, islands, shrubs and forest have contributed, painstakingly, century after century, feather by feather, to create these species.

Let’s be mindful, let’s be proud. Let’s learn our endemic names. And let’s learn to protect them.

This first appeared in my DailyO column. 

Flamebacks Forever!

The heat is killing, and you are convinced all the wild animals are sleeping in the forest. Then, like the beat of a little drum, like the sound of a very precise hammer on a very particular nail, you hear it.

Tak, tak, tak, takk..

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A doctor chiseling away at a tree, a sculptor, an artist. Flamebacks are woodpeckers who weave holes in trees to prise off insects. I say weave, as they often leave patterns on the wood. They start from the bottom and make their way up, in spirals.

Like a golden gyre, which you can see only if you are quick enough, conscious enough, of the ways of Treeland.

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Flameback on a mature tree. Pench.

And sometimes, very rarely, you will find a woodpecker on the forest floor!

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Sunbird Series

Sunbirds are tiny, but mighty. Always on the move, ever on the look out for larger predators. The male glitters like stardust, and the female is like a pixie. Here’s my little pictorial ode to a Sunbird couple in Delhi.

Sunbirds

Sunshine, starbright,

Bedazzling glitter.

Iridiscent, Stardust-

You must stay forever,

In Delhi’s unworthy dust.

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A jewel on my Hibiscus!
Sunbird Treepie
A Rufous-Tree Pie flies past a Purple Sunbird. Notice the size difference!
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Purple Sunbird on my Hibiscus
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Female Sunbird on Aparajita flowers
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Female Sunbird poised expertly on Tecoma flowers!
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The tiny Purple Sunbird on a Semal tree!
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A slightly different view of a singing Sunbird!
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The Sunbird’s beak looks like a well-aimed spear in this one!

2018. All photos by Neha Sinha

Please do not use without permission.

Semal in the city: A month of Semal!

For the month of March 2018, I photographed and observed a Semal (Silk Cotton tree). What a looker this tree is. It had bright red flowers, lots of birds, and plenty of little dramas. All down here!

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Only once a year, a tall tree with thorny bark bursts dramatically into blossom. In red, orange and yellow variants, the flowers seem to be on a cheerful rebellion against Air Quality Indexes above 200, apathy and road-widening stresses. The Silk cotton or Semal tree defies the expectations you would normally have of a tree in the city. Not only is this native tree doing wellin struggling, dry Delhi, it heralds spring – through the annual phenology of its blossoms – bringing scores of birds out and about.

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Tailorbird on Semal: tinier than the flowers!

Once the tree is done with flowering, it breaks out into cotton pods, which waft magically in the clogged air. If a large flowering tree is a keystone in the ecosystem, equally it can be a harbinger of a sense of place.

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Grey Hornbill on Semal.
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A flock of riotous Rose-ringed Parakeets!

I took pictures of a semal tree in Vasant Kunj for over fifteen days at the same time each day –between 6:30 to 9:30 AM. The tree I chose was a representative of Delhi – growing upright in a human-dominated, nutrient-poor environment. The findings confirm what I thought as a child – the semal has an effervescent quality of attracting not just human admirers but also several birds and insects. Observing the semal is also understanding ecology and inter-relationships – I spotted more than ten bird species, but I also saw interactions between different bird species.

The collective noun for crows is murder. Murders of crows were regularly spotted, but despite their snarky reputations, the crows did not harangue other birds – like various kinds of mynas, pigeons and barbets. There were several types of starlings or mynas on the semal – common mynas (with a bandit like yellow band on their eyes), brahminy mynas (named after the ‘choti’ or tuft of hair they have, similar to the one some male brahmins keep), pied mynas (black and white with orange bills) and rosy starlings (rosy pink, white and black), who migrate to India from Europe. There were two types of barbets – the brown-headed barbet and the coppersmith barbet, and two types of pigeon – the yellow-footed green pigeon (a tree-loving bird) and the blue rock pigeon (which nests closer to people, and usually on buildings). Grey hornbills, rose-ringed parakeets, oriental magpie-robins, paradise flycatchers and rufous treepies also visited. The size range of birds the semal supports is wide – from the tiny purple sunbird and oriental white-eye (8 centimetres long) to the huge peafowl. While several birds fed on the semal flowers, others used the crown of the tree as cover, while negotiating their way through the built landscape.

For me, the semal is a sense of place, which is otherwise marred by a shifting baseline. While certain remnants of ecological heritage and knowledge remain in Delhi – such as people selling coconut cream and water and cooling ‘chiks’ on the side of the road – most other ‘natural’ recollections are now just memories. Growing up in Delhi, I saw vultures which have now completely disappeared, and sparrows that have sharply reduced in numbers. Studies have confirmed the worst suspicions – we are witnessing several local extinctions and plummeting populations of species. In the houses I grew up in, wasps made white nests in plug points, crickets and termites flew giddily inside our rooms after monsoons. I don’t see crickets, blister beetles, and the wasp and ant diversity that I saw as a child. One thing that has remained though, is the semal.

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The iridiscent Purple Sunbird on Semal.

Grey hornbills dart in and out of the semal in the ancient Humayun’s tomb complex. In central verges and road dividers exhibiting Delhi’s plummeting Air Quality Index and Respirable Particulate Matter, the semal manages to grow – and thrive. In places where trees branches have been carelessly lopped off – to make way for signboards, lampposts or red lights – it survives. It may not outlive all of Delhi’s infrastructure plans though. Close on the heels of a contested proposal for ‘redeveloping’ Pragati Maidan, which will involve cutting hundreds of trees, more road-development projects are being executed. Citizens have fought to save old trees on Aurobindo Marg which the government wants to cut for road-widening, a proposal which may still come through. Another plan is in the offing is to cut over 2,000 trees – including the cheerful semal – between Dhaula Kuan and the international airport. Still, as planners hasten to widen roads, the semal shelters an arboreal arena of life.

As agencies claim repeatedly that they will plant “ten times” the numbers of trees they cut in Delhi, one wonders whether these forests will just be on paper. Or perhaps, just in memory, like nostalgia-tinted mental postcards of vultures in Central Delhi.

The semal means so much to many species. An important source of food and sustenance as the days get hotter. Yet it may be just another trunk to be cut for road-widening projects or another statistic for ‘compensatory plantation.’ As agencies claim repeatedly that they will plant “ten times” the numbers of trees they cut in Delhi, one wonders whether these forests will just be on paper. Or perhaps, just in memory, like nostalgia-tinted mental postcards of vultures in Central Delhi.

This post first appeared here.

All photos by Neha Sinha. Please do not use without permission.

The things a Purple Sunbird has to do to get a Lady

I’ve been watching this courting pair of Purple sunbirds over Spring in Delhi. Here’s the male with his bright red and gold shoulder patches, which he eventually dropped.

This image is from March 10. Notice the bright, unmissable embellishments!

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On March 23, the shoulder patches are noticeably less bright:Sunbird Shoulder Patch

Image from earlier today, March 30. The patches seem to be gone.

Sunbird on Semal Mar 30

And that’s because… drumroll.. he’s found his girl! Presenting the female sunbird!

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And here’s one last image of the Sunbird singing his heart out:

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All photos by Neha Sinha. Please do not use without permission.