Afghan sparrow

I never really learn to pay attention. Long ago, a very competitive bird watcher had challenged me to tell whether a nearby sparrow was male or female, and I vamped my way through the test. Males of birds are generally more colourful, and the bird we were looking at was pale and mousy. I guessed female, and although I was correct, I did not win the argument. Also, I didn’t go back and look carefully at the description of an Indian house sparrow (Passer domesticus indicus). Otherwise, when I saw the bird in the featured photo, I would have known instantly (by the lack of a black bib covering its chin, neck, and chest) that it was not your garden variety house sparrow. This is a the only migratory subspecies, the Aghan sparrow (Passer domesticus bactrianus).

Quiet mornings

With the physical distancing of people in full swing, it seems that we are all beginning to find new connections to the world around us. I get up in the morning and hear a wonderful natural concert put up by the birds around us. There are familiar calls, as well as new ones I’m learning to recognize. You make a lot of new friends when you give them some time. The sun comes over the nearby rooftops as I put away the drying and make a tea. The concert in raga Lalit gives way to the long Bhairavi of the morning as I sit down with my tea. This is the new soundtrack of my mornings.

Among the most distinctive voices in the earliest raga are Coppersmith Barbets (Psilopogon haemacephalus, recorded by Tushar Bhagwat). They hang around the garden all the year round. Their monotonous call is a constant background to every morning’s concert. Even in ordinary times I hear them more often than I see them.

Grey hornbill in Mumbai

A pair of Indian Grey Hornbills (Ocyceros birostris, recorded by Tushar Bhagwat) visit the garden every year to nest, and bring up a new brood. Their arrival is a sure sign of the end of winter. I took the photo here a couple of years ago, in October, some time before they left the garden.

The call of the Asian Koel (Eudynamys scolopaceus, recorded by Paul Bourdin) is another sure sign of spring. The call of the koel has been part of the cultural landscape across India for centuries. There is even a 15th century poem by Uddanda Shastri about a koel who carries a message from a lost man to his lover, modelled after Kalidasa’s Meghdoot.

In the past I paid more attention to the spectacular colours of the Indian Golden Oriole (Oriolus kundoo, recordings by Frank Lambert and Peter Boesman) than to its call. Now, as I try to tease apart the content of the mornings’ symphony, I am beginning to recognize it by its voice. How does the same bird have such a harsh call, and a beautiful singing voice?

The Green Bee-eater (Merops orientalis recorded by Conrad Pinto) is such a beautiful bird that I’ve spent a lot of time photographing them, and I know its call fairly well too. But disentangling its voice from the morning’s background score is still a little difficult for me.

The lively chirping of House Sparrows (Passer domesticus, recorded by Peter Boesman) starts later in the morning. I wonder whether they wake up late, or whether they are too busy foraging in the morning to vocalize much. Does anyone know? In any case, the sparrows’ chirps are a transitional point. After that the Lalit raga, the raga of dawn, dies down and there is a transition to the Bhairavi raga of the day.

This is the time of the Rose-ringed Parakeet (Psittacula krameri, recorded by Rajagopal Patil). These gaudily coloured and combative birds have free reign of the airspace around trees during the day, and fly about with their constant screeches. Portunately they are gregarious, and when they congregate on a far spot, other birds can still be heard in my neighbourhood.

I have a suspicion that there is a Purple Sunbird (Cinnyris asiaticus, recording by Peter Boesman) somewhere in the garden. In the middle of the morning I think I’ve heard the chirping of this bird. During normal days we wouldn’t be paying attention to birds at that time, so neither The Family nor I am sure whether we have seen one. After we can move freely, we will keep a watch for it.

The Red-vented Bulbul (Pycnonotus cafer, recording by Conrad Pinto) is a common bird, whose call I know from childhood. There are a few of them in the neighbourhood. I hear them intermittently during the day, and late in the afternoon, when I go for a walk, I pass a tree which seems to be a favourite hang out for a bunch of these loudmouths.

Perhaps the most annoying bird is the common myna (Acridotheres tristis, recorded by Peter Boesman). Their call is sweet enough, if heard from far. But one of them has decided that my shower is its day room. It sits on the window sill and lets off a full throated taan. This would also be wonderful, but due to some peculiarity, the space around the window acts as an amplifier which sends an incredibly loud version of the song through the aparment. I would give him a wonderful reference if he is seeking a position elsewhere; I really want to get rid of him.

There is little to be said for the Blue Rock Pigeon (Columba livia, recorded by Mike Nelson) except that it brings a certain gravitas to the daytime ragas. The cooing is often interrupted by the noisy beating of wings that you hear in the recording, as it takes flight from the slightest perceived danger.

No description of the sounds of an Indian city can be complete without including the House Crow (Corvus splendens, recorded by Peter Boesman), whose social behaviour, aggression, and intelligence are keys to their survival against much larger raptors. The typical raucous call that you hear in this recording is by far the most common vocalization of the crow. It has many others, including a throaty croak that sounds a little like it is trying to say nevermore while clearing its throat.

I suppose if I’m stuck at home for much longer I can produce a blog post with the birds that I hear less often. For now a dozen is enough.

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.