Peccavi

Major General Charles James Napier is famously said to have sent this single word telegram to Delhi when he occupied Sindh instead of merely guaranteeing taxes as he had been commanded to do. This Latin pun on “I have sinned” was actually written for the magazine Punch by Catherine Winkworth. Whatever its origin, after a close examination of some photos I took a couple of weeks ago, I can jump out of my bathtub shouting “Peccavi”. Because I do have photos of a Sind sparrow (Passer pyrrhonotus) among those I took in Jorbeer.

In this north western corner of Rajasthan one can see mixed flocks of House sparrows (Passer domesticus), Spanish sparrows (Passer hispaniolensis) and Sind sparrows. In this season, and in this part of India, one can see three subspecies of House sparrows, the dominant (P. d. indicus), the Afghan sparrow (P. d. bactrianus) and the Parkini (P. d. parkini). You can also be confounded here by the yellow-throated sparrow (Gymnoris xanthocollis, aka chestnut-shouldered petronia). I’d seen all of them before except the Sind sparrow. Instead of patiently scanning a flock through binoculars as real birders do, I began to take group photos of flocks, meaning to scan them at leisure. This technique works on crowded lakes where many species of ducks swim together, so why not here? You can tell the males apart by the amount of black on the chin and the bib. The photo above shows a definite identification of the Sind sparrow on the road between Chhapar village and Bikaner. That’s what the running through the streets, shouting “Peccavi! Peccavi!” is all about.

But the greybeards of birding begged to differ. “You have to see the front and the back,” one said. Another said “Hmm, maybe.” The next morning we set off for the Jorbeer Vulture Sanctuary where there was one tree which was known to have held a couple of nests of Sind sparrows the previous winter. This special tree disappointed us. We saw only yellow-throated sparrows there. But as we were leaving, the most experienced of the birders said “I can hear a different call.” I didn’t know the difference, but later I could compare the call of the Indicus with the pyrrhonotus.

We followed the sound and found a nesting pair. Photographing them was a merry chase. But it was a cool morning, and we had the time on our hands. Here was a little sparrow which anyone would have completely missed if they hadn’t looked closely at it. It was worth the long waits for the flighty birds to come back and perch in good positions around us. Both the male and the female have strongly patterned backs. The female has more white above the eye (the supercilium). The male has a grey nape rather than chestnut. But the biggest difference is the extremely short black bib, just a touch below the chin. It was worth the wait to get a closer look.

The odd ends of a desert

The edge of the Asian desert announces itself in little ways. Little odds and ends which you notice all add up to the feel of this dry region. For example, there are not many places where water birds congregate, nor do you find the fruit eaters. But if you are on the lookout you see lots of small birds everywhere. Some are seed eaters like larks, but many are sparrows out to raid humans. I heard a quarrelsome sparrow scream itself hoarse at a roadside eatery. Looking around, I saw it was a house sparrow (Passer domesticus) in a war with its own image in a mirror. Every escalation was met with an equal response, and the quarrel spiralled out of control until the bird was exhausted.

These birds are not weaklings. A female was hopping about on top of a wall. I watched it closely. This region sees three species and several subspecies of sparrows. The males are quite distinct, but it takes me a lot of effort to tell the females apart. As I took a shot, the female jumped from a standing start on the wall to a perch on the bush above it. This was a hop of four to five times its body length. For a human it would be a standing hop of eight to ten meters! Note to Marvel/Disney: Sparrow Man would be quite a superhero.

There’s a large number of ships of the desert beached here at its edge. We walked through a camel research center (trigger warning: don’t waste your money on it) to look at the animals resting in a corral. This madonna and her daughter gave me curious looks, but went back to bonding. The research center is more innocuous than it sounds. The main line of work is to try to make camel’s milk (very salty) more palatable to people. The other is to process camel wool to make it more acceptable in the market.

In these parts camels (technically the dromedary, Camelus dromedarius) replace cattle as the primary domestic animals. We passed herds of camels trudging by the highway, their long stride makes them quite fast even when they move without any haste. There are odd carts hitched to them. The carts are extremely short, and always balance on a single axle with truck tires on them. Why are the carts so short? Does the camel give less traction, or is it just that shorter carts are more maneuverable in sandy terrain?

Rather late in my recent wanderings around this desert I began to wonder why this biome seems to have only prickly plants. The prickly pear (Opuntia stricta) by the side of the road began to flower as I pondered this question. Thorns of cacti are modified leaves which are adapted to prevent loss of water, but even the leafy plants in this region have spiky branches. There has to be a reason for this convergent evolution of thorns in many different families of plants which grow in this region. Is it that growth is so difficult in this place that plants need to defend themselves better against passing foragers? I wish I could think of some way to test this idea.

This thorny nightshade (Solanum virginianum) is another typical dry area plant, with its vicious prickles being a deterrent to most passing browsers. I like its attractive flowers, and always stop to take photos when I notice them. The plant is full of potentially harmful chemicals, which is why extracts from this nightshade are often used in folk medicine. The poisons are concentrated even further in its yellow berries, to deter potential predators (remember, this dry biome has no fruit-eating birds).

These dry areas are hard for many kinds of animals and plants, especially the ones we like to have around us. As a result, the inhabitants are often strange creatures, bound into a strange ecology, into food webs which are unfamiliar to me. Also, because of the same reason, worldwide there is a tendency to call them wastelands, and not mind at all if “development” destroys these webs and wipes out these gene pools.

Arouraios

People tend to be sentimental about things which look “cute”. What do you think makes something cute? Small and soft? Glossy may be termed beautiful, but not cute. Colour, taste, and smell seem to play no role. No gross behaviour perhaps? House sparrows (Passer domesticus) seem to pass all these tests. They are smalle. Their feathers look soft (if you feel a shed feather, then it is no softer than a crow’s). They don’t mess up your house like pigeons. They don’t shatter your eardrums like a crow. Even their food habits seem to be acceptable to all: grain eaters. Most people wrongly think they are vegan. Because they are cute, people are concerned about the decline in their population. They build houses and bird feeders for them.

The reality could not be more different. P. domesticus are aggressive, invasive, territorial, and omnivorous descendants of dinosaurs. They may prefer grains and seeds, but they will take the occasional frog, lizard, or insect too. They may be monogamous, but do not disdain a few extramarital flings. They are social of course, but like all social birds, rapidly establish a pecking order. They are aggressive, and drive away larger birds like jays and woodpeckers, or better singers like wrens and martins. They descend in flocks on farms, eating up grains as they ripen, vegetables, and then attack hen houses for their bird feed. They are an invasive species, and don’t need our help to survive (of course they aren’t going to tell us that, they are greedy for the extra food we give them). Their population decline has been traced to the decline of agriculture in the US and what used to be USSR. I’m all for their numbers to decline to the level it was before they discovered that humans had discovered agriculture. They are truly the rats of the skies. The Greeks have a word for them: arouraios.

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.