Tolstoy may have forgotten to write “Bee eaters are all alike.” But that’s why it was not hard to tell that the birds playing possum in sand banks were bee eaters. Finally, after two days of search we saw the blue-cheeked bee eaters (Merops persicus). On the basis of genetics, it seems that bee eaters can be divided into two main clades. One consists mainly of species which nest in Africa, and the other of species that nest in Europe and Asia. The latter are mostly migratory. Climate change may be affecting these patterns (some European bee eaters, M. apiaster now breed in South Africa), but the patterns hold for most species. M. persicus is a borderline case, what Tolstoy may have called an unhappy bee eater. One subspecies breeds in north Africa (Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia) but migrates to west Africa (Mauritania, Gambia, Guinea, Sierra Leone etc) in winter. Another may be called Central Asian (since it breeds in an arc from Kyrgyztan in the north to Turkey, Greece, and Egypt in the south) and winters in east and south Africa. This was the subspecies that we had gone to Kutch to see.
There is an increasing appreciation of the European bee eater as an ecosystem engineer, since it nests in deep burrows. These serve to change the characteristics of the soil, and provides space for nesting to secondary species. In addition, their foraging provides controls insect population and provides food to other species. But these characteristics are all true of both the blue cheeked bee eater (M. persicus) and the little green bee eater (M. orientalis). A little reading convinces me that there is a case to be made for this whole genus to have similar nesting and feeding habits. So it is possible that all bee eaters could be ecosystem engineers. Certainly, studies should give interesting results. Due to their conflicts with humans in areas where bees are cultivated, this might be quite an important topic.
Having seen migrants arriving and leaving together, often flying in formation, I’d begun to think that migration must involve gregarious birds. But just the day before I’d come across a long-distance migratory bird, the rufous-tailed scrub robin, which was territorial, even for rest breaks during its migration. The bee eaters, however, are communal. A large flock was sitting on electrical wires, acacia trees, and flying down to a nearby sand bank for a sand bath. Do they fly together? I don’t know. Although seeing them taking sand baths cheek by jowl, I would think they might. They are such unlikely travellers. When you see them flying, they are on short flights, usually to catch food before returning to their perch. Here they seemed to be having fun hopping down for a communal sand bath, behaving a bit like a group of children at a swimming pool.
The whole bunch of birds had their beaks open, tongues out. Seeing one such bird supine on the ground, The Family had come to the conclusion that it was dead, and was very surprised when it flew up to a nearby tree. I didn’t notice much sound from the group, so the open mouths and wagging tongues were not producing calls. I suspect that this was their way of cooling off, much as a dog will pant to cool down. I initially thought that the dust bath was also part of their attempt to cool down. It may have been partly that, but it is more likely that this for the usual reasons: getting rid of parasites and cleaning the feathers. I haven’t noticed this behaviour amongst our resident M. orientalis, but I must look more carefully at them. Thinking of all the bee eaters I’ve seen, I think Tolstoy missed a great opportunity by not writing a sentence about the genus Merops to rival the opening of Anna Karenina.