Birds of a feather

I neglected my fitness regime to lean out of a window at sunset and enjoy the golden light. At this time of the day the skies are dominated by two combative gangs: the parakeets and the crows. Fifteen parakeets sat on one tree, or is it sixteen? Sixteen crows were in another. When I saw them, I remembered reading something about how intelligence and complex social structures evolve together. I hadn’t read about birds and their cognitive abilities much, except for tidbits about how crows can recognize human faces, songbirds can learn from others, and that pigeons can follow roads. So I looked up what is known of the brains of birds and was surprised out of my neocortex. Apparently birds have incredibly complex brains, which are organized completely differently from ours. An article gave a nice analogy, mammalian brains are organized like a club sandwich, in layers, but birds’ brains are organized like a pepperoni pizza, with different bits sitting next to each other. Most surprising of all, apparently the language learning part of our brains is functionally similar to that of parrots and songbirds, who also learn from hearing each other.

But the biggest surprise of all was a paper published just a couple of months ago. It seems that someone has measured brain to body ratios in a large sample of birds, and from fossils of avian and non-avian dinosaurs. The complex brains of birds began evolving when their bodies they became smaller than those of their saurian ancestors, but their brains did not change in size. After that some have evolved larger brains by growing big in both body and brain sizes, but with more rapid growth in brains. Of these, it seems that parrots and crows have the largest brain to body ratios, and they are right in the same ballpark as us. We’ve all heard about the fabulous ability of parrots to memorize phrases and say them back to us. I didn’t know that they rank with the crows in their ability to recognize human faces, and tell them apart. It’s more than I can do with parakeets. There are even claims that they can recognize that their companions can reason just like them.

There is a crow which sits on my window as I sip my tea in the morning and read the newspaper. Sometimes I’ve caught it craning its neck as if it was trying to read the paper. Maybe it was!

One hundred days of parakeets

Between a post-travel quarantine and the lockdown, I’ve not left the gates of our housing complex for a hundred days today. Sitting at home, I think I’ve got more tuned to the natural world. I’ve noticed the seasons passing: vasant and grishma are over, and now we are in varsha (think of it as spring, hot season, and monsoon). On the 99th day I leaned out the window in the evening to catch the watery golden light of sunset filtering through monsoon clouds.

The air was full of the chattering and scolding of rose ringed parakeets. I looked at the canopy of trees just below me: such a variety of greens there. The parakeets seem to avoid the gul mohar tree for some reason. They would have been spectacular otherwise; imagine their green against the red of those flowers.

Why was this parakeet rubbing its beak along the bare branch it was sitting on? Was it cleaning its beak? I looked for other parakeets sitting down. There were many. Yes, and many of them seemed to be rubbing their beaks along bare branches, quite vigorously.

Could this be a search for food? Unlikely, I thought. There was enough other food available for them to be wasting the last minutes of daylight looking for insects under the bark of trees. It turns out that their beaks grow all through life, and have to be rubbed down constantly to prevent them from becoming too large. I hadn’t noticed this behaviour before,

I had to go and pare down my ever-growing stomach. But before that I tried to take a few photos of the birds launching off from their perches. It turned out not to be so easy. They seem to have planned out a route through branches and leaves before letting go of the perch: they twist and turn very fast, before coming to horizontal flight. The light was fading, and I’ll leave this exercise for the next hundred days.

Puffer fish

On a walk in the intertidal region of the Marine National Park at Narara reef in Gujarat, I saw a live puffer fish (family Tetraodontidae) for the first time. I’d only seen it in restaurants in Japan, where it is called fugu. It is famously poisonous. One of these small fish contains enough tetrodotoxin to kill about 30 adults! But the neurotoxin is not genetically programmed into the fish, apparently the protective poison is accumulated from its diet.

The tiny thing was swimming at a leisurely pace. Our guide picked it up, and it came up almost as big as his hand. I was amazed by its big eyes; apparently puffer fish have very good vision. Inflating rapidly by ingesting water seems to be its main defense mechanism. It deflated to normal size and swam away as soon as it was released. Which of the over hundred species was it? An inventory of this region mistakenly calls it Tetraodon lineatus. It doesn’t look like this purely African species. Distribution maps and pictures eventually led me to the conclusion that this is the Takifugu oblongus.

Rare mustard

The ghosts of Junes past reminded me of a walk near the beach in the Asilomar state park of California. This is a nature reserve on a lovely beach near Pacific Grove in Monterey county. My attention was caught by a straggling little plant covered in wire mesh (featured photo). That led me to the discovery that this area was a protected micro-ecology, and that this tiny plant was a rare species on which protection effort is focused.

The four-petaled flowers belong to the Menzies wallflower (Erysimum menziesii). I saw it in its typical habitat: bare beach sand over which the salt sea spray would land now and then. I was lucky to see the flowers; they usually flower earlier. I could already see the fruits; the long flat bean-like things that surround the flowers. There are a lot of seeds there, so it is not clear why it is endangered. The answer comes in two parts. Most of the seeds are unable to grow into mature plants, and therefore they are out-competed by invasive plants. The conservation effort focuses on removing trampling hazard (for example by placing wire mesh over it) and by removing invasive plants by hand.

This is an enormous human effort, and brought home to me how skewed the global conservation effort is. A few hectares of California coastline probably get more economic and human help than parts of the Amazon basin which went up in flames last year. There are structural factors at play, and we should perhaps think about that as we decide which charity to donate to.

Water world

A few winters ago, I spent a week in one of the smaller islands of the Andaman archipelago. Some mornings I could walk most of the way around the island, at the edge where land and sea meet. The green wall of trees on one side would loom over the mysterious blue depths on the other. Our world is a water world; almost three quarters of its surface is ocean, over half the life on earth is oceanic. What do we know about it?

A recent read (partly hidden behind a paywall) overturned everything that I though I knew about the earth. It seems that plants make up less than 10% of the biomass of the oceans (they make up 95% of the biomass on land). The waters of our world are dominated by animals, bacteria, and complex single-celled creatures collectively called protists. These three groups make up 80% of the biomass of the oceans (on land, these groups make up 2% of the biomass). In the oceans fast growing primary producers make up about 15% of the biomass, whereas consumers, with a slow lifecycle, make up the rest. There are two different worlds sharing this planet of ours!

More tales from the pumpkin patch

What I say thrice is true, the Bellman said. And I’m not one to question. So let me leave you with these images of invaders in my mother’s pumpkin patch from this week many years ago.

Now I softly and silently vanish away. The cyclone that is passing over me right at this moment is no boojum, but I have to take care of a few things.

A moth and a butterfly in my mother’s garden

Intrigued my the insect I couldn’t identify in my photo yesterday, I looked at other photos I’d taken around that day, and found that the insect was indeed a moth. I saw it laying eggs quite indiscriminately on pumpkin leaves and sunflower petals. Why am I now sure that it wasn’t a beetle? Because the antennae were not segmented, like a beetle’s. Moth identification is hard, and I have no idea what kind of moth it is.

I remember that the tiny black eggs confused me for a while. Were they insects too small for my eyes or camera to properly resolve. I’d owned a low power microscope when I was a child, but it had long ago been given away to some one else. I have a memory of never resolving (!) this problem. But now, looking at the association between the moth and these shiny black ovoids in several photos, I think they are eggs.

It was in my mother’s garden that I first started to try and identify butterflies. This is so much easier! The featured photo shows a common butterfly with a memorable name: the Forget-me-not (Catochrysops strabo).

Vegetable memories

We tend to think of memories in a fixed way; as pictures in our minds, snatches of sounds, less often smell and taste, or touch. So we are fascinated by stories of other species who share such long term memories, for example, that crows remember human faces. But we also have memories of another kind, which we are not aware of. Our immune system remembers past encounters with invasive proteins, and reacts to them. This is the basis of vaccines. Some of these immune memories last a lifetime, others disappear, and have to be reinforced from time to time.

I was fascinated to find that there is now a whole new branch of science which deals with memories in plants. Plants lack a nervous system, and have no adaptive immune system like ours. Still, gardeners and farmers have noticed for long that trees seem to be able to adapt to fighting off recurrent invasions of fungi, or recover faster from those insect infestations which occur over and over. Apparently plants can also remember extreme weather (at least cold, I haven’t seen anything about the more important adaptation to hot weather). It turns out that these memories are directly coded into each cell. Plants have arranged to use a whole set of ways of triggering or silencing genes in response to environment and other stresses to enable them to respond faster in future. It would be really interesting to know whether they can learn to adapt to heat, in response to our mistakes with the environment.

Hot Days

In other years May would be a good time to travel to tigerland. In this hottest part of the year, with temperatures often in excess of 40 Celsius, leaves and small patches of water dry up, and animals come to a few larger ponds and water holes to drink several times a day. That is when you see tigers. Even if you don’t, these burning months of grishma are a good time to travel to jungles. You see flowers blooming in abundance and wildlife of many different varieties.

Whatever doesn’t come out for a drink stays home to avoid heat. A couple of years ago, we spent three days in Pench National Park, near Nagpur. We passed this Indian Scops owl (Otus bakkamoena) several times as it peered out of its hole. I recognize it by the fact that it is the only dark-eyed owl in central India. I like how the head and ear tufts perfectly camouflage it against the broken bark of the tree. The nuchal collar, ie, the ruff around its face, has a noticeable brown edging. This is another way to identify the bird.

This is also nesting time for many birds, like this Oriental Honey Buzzard (Pernis ptilorhynchus). I find it amazing that larger birds make these untidy nests of large twigs, whereas smaller birds can make some amazingly beautiful structures. These simpler nests perch on supporting branches, I suppose because it is hard to make hanging structures which can take the weight of these birds. This simple idea of gets support (couldn’t help the pun) from the fact that larger birds like this buzzard nest at the junction of the trunk and large branches (as in the photo), whereas slightly smaller birds, like crows, find smaller junctions between branches.

Collarwali with her cubs, cooling off in Pench National Park

On some of these trips you get superlatively lucky. Either you have multiple sightings of tigers, or you have wonderful views of family groups resting in water holes. If you want to see something like this, then mark down this uncomfortable month for travel through the hottest parts of India.

How do you drink water

Waiting at a rooftop restaurant for an alu paratha is a good reason to watch parrots trying to drink water at a fountain. Most of the birds perch at the end of the bowl below the fountain and drink from it. This one looked puzzled. How do you get at the water. Do you pick at it?

That wasn’t very successful. So it flew up to the top of the fountain and sat on the jet. Squirt? Hmm, not very efficient. Perch on it and bend to drink? Might as well join the band below if I do this. Hop up and down? Not very filling. Ah! Hover over the jet and drink from it! This one was a true Rube Goldberg of rose-ringed parakeets.