The tuneful but loud whistles of a Himalayan whistling-thrush woke me on my last morning in Almora. It was sitting in the balcony. The sun had not yet risen. I lay in bed enjoying the beautiful song of the bird. It used to be called the truant schoolboy once for its joyful whistling. The Family was in deep sleep, but I found that I was fully awake. I slipped on a jacket, and stepped into the balcony with my camera. The thrush was still whistling on a tree nearby. A great barbet called from far away, and in front of me plum-headed parakeets (Psittacula cyanocephala) wheeled in the sky, with their cheerful pinging calls.
I don’t see these birds very often. The male has a dark red-purple and the female a blue-grey head. The darker collar of the male and its red shoulder patch, the yellow neck of the female, the bright yellow upper beak, and the long blue tail with a yellow tip are other things to look for. The light was still fairly bad, but I took some photos anyway. They might not be there later. Taking photos disciplines my attention. I might not have caught the courtship feeding otherwise.
Since males and females are so easy to tell apart, even a casual observer like me can see a certain organization in the pack. First, the packs are mixed, but the sexes generally segregate when they come to rest. I wondered whether this is generally true, or even true of other species of parakeets. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find many studies of the social organization of parakeet flocks. The only paper I found was almost a century old and had studied pecking order in a different species of parakeets. The observations showed a lack of strict pecking hierarchy. It would be strange if no one is studying parakeet societies. When I look out of the window, they seem to be as intelligent and social as crows.
We drove a few hours from Kochi to Thattekad, and reached a home stay on the far side of the Periyar river. In the evening we crossed the river for a walk around Thattekad village. From the highway it looked like there was only a rain-forest nearby. Then I saw the little path worn away by regular use. As we followed the path, I realized that this was not a pristine rain-forest; it had been cleared for human use.
The Mimosa pudica, also called touch-me-not
A strikingly beautiful leaf
Banana leaves show that caterpillars have passed this way
Ferns growing on a tree
A speckled piculet (Picumnus innominatus) feeding
This flower is either edible or poisonous, I wish I could tell which
This flower is common around the village
Ants have herded these white aphids to colonize these plants
Ants swarm over these flowers, pollinating them as they harvest sugar
A beautiful flower whose name I do not know
A plum headed parakeet feeding upside down
The word ecosystem comes to mind as you walk around the village. The network of species is not as dense as it would be inside the protected forest, but you can see it here very easily.
A speckled piculet pecked away at a bare tree: there were clearly insects running up the trunk. I’d never seen a piculet before.
Ants swarmed over tiny yellow flowers which I didn’t recognize. They pollinate the flowers even as they harvest nectar. Elsewhere, a deeper food chain: aphid colonies have taken over a patch of bushes, and ants run up and down them, clipping their wings and harvesting the honey dew which they secrete.
There were flowers which I did not recognize. The one thing which I did was the touch-me-not, familiar from my childhood. Its leaves curl up if you touch them. This was the plant whose name, Mimosa pudica, first introduced me to Latin binomials.
Above us a plum-headed parakeet hung upside down, feeding on tiny fruits. Parakeets disperse seeds widely, and are key players in keeping a forest alive.
As soon as you get away from a city you begin to see the web of life which covers our planet.