Dancing in the breeze

After three weeks of traveling on work and sitting in day-long meetings, it was nice to take a long weekend off to sit in the sun and watch grass flowers fluttering and dancing in the breeze. These are no daffodils, but in the cool breeze of interior Karnataka’s winter, they managed to fill my heart with pleasure.

When The Family decided to plan a break in Hampi, combining history, art, and architecture with nature and bird watching, I thought it might get a little overwhelming. But the weather turned out to be wonderful, if you were in the shade. Hampi is a small town near a nature sanctuary. A five minute drive takes you into a countryside full of scrub forests. The bird life you see here is not as rich as that in the coastal rainforests, but there are scrubland species which are hard to see elsewhere. I will post about that later.

For the moment, I just show you a simple video of house sparrows (Passer domesticus), Indian silverbills (Euodice malabarica, white throated munia), and scaly breasted munia (Lonchura punctulata) feeding together. I liked the commotion as they peck at grains. The sound is mainly due to the silverbills, which like to flock together and chirp to make sure that they are in contact. All three species are seed eaters, and therefore able to survive across a range of ecologies, including the dry scrublands of the interior of India.

Breakfast with birds

We got in a little late after our morning’s excursion, but the breakfast was still on. After decanting some carbohydrates, cholesterol, protein, and fibre into ourselves, we relaxed with some tea. It was time to turn our attention to our surroundings, and the birds that they contained. I learnt in Spain to pay close attention to sparrows; they are not always as mundane as you think they are. Here I was disappointed; they were only house sparrows (Passer domesticus). The featured photo shows one enjoying the sun.

There were many weavers around. I recognized one which I’d seen in Nairobi, the Reichenowi subspecies of the Baglafecht’s weaver (Ploceus baglafechti reichenowi). The dark bird behind it is another common resident of Africa, a sooty chat (Myrmecocichla nigra), which is found all across East Africa. The male would have had a patch of white on the wings, so this is a female.

What was this other bird sitting on another branch of the same tree? After a little hesitation, and a close look at the field guide, I think this is the Stuhlmanni subspecies of Baglafecht’s weaver (Ploceus baglafechti stuhlmanni). The difference is the olive crown this one wears. The Stuhlmanni subspecies is said to occur in north-western Tanzania. We were practically there. This must be one of the contact zones between the two subspecies, and since they can interbreed, they probably do so here. It would have been nice to spend some time here looking for the results of such interbreeding.

And finally there was a bird that I could almost recognize: this one was clearly a bulbul, chattering away in the usual querulous bulbulish tone. The yellow vent was new to me. This happens to be the commonest of African bulbuls, and has been saddled with the utterly un-inventive name common bulbul (Pycnonotus barbatus). It seems to be common enough to be reported from almost everywhere in Africa, including in parts of the Sahara. There were several of them flying around, keeping up quite a lively chatter. This was a lifer for us, and one whose identification fortunately we didn’t have to worry much about.

These were four common birds of Africa, but all rather new to us. I was happy to wander about the resort and get used to seeing these species.

House sparrow

I had time before catching my train. I sat down in the cavernous central hall of Paris Gare Montparnasse for a petit dejeuner. It was not to be complet, because a bunch of fearless sparrows descended on my croissant and picked it to pieces. It was a small price to pay for the photos. These Parisian Passer domesticus were perhaps the most fearless that I have seen, although I’d grown up watching sparrows steal grains of rice from my grandmother as she cleaned it for lunch.

I remembered these photos when I read a report about the genetic mutations which separate P. domesticus from its nearest cousins. The comparison of genomes of different species of sparrows showed two kinds of mutations: one which affects gross structure, and a subtle biochemical change. About 11,000 years ago, about when humans were busy inventing agriculture, the domestic sparrow separated out from its nearest cousins by changing its skull shape to give its beak the power to break the hard-to-shatter grains which humans were developing. At the same time, it developed the ability to digest starches, just as dogs did.

The house sparrow is not a domesticated species. It is a wild animal which has learnt to live around humans, like the peacock. And now we are beginning to learn how deeply we have changed the living world around us.