Moldy midweek

I woke up to the cascading sound of heavy rain and the whistling of wind through ventilators. The tide was beginning to recede, but it was still high enough that the rain water was not able to drain out of the lawns. There has been a flood alert down the coast. In the city it will be worst at high tide. Pent up at home this week, I began to look through my photos of past Augusts, and selected a few from the first year of the decade.

The jungle babblers are the quintessential angry birds, scolding each other in the low branches of trees and hopping about in the undergrowth. I haven’t heard them in my neck of the woods. They used to be common earlier. Have they moved away? It is quite likely that they are ecological refugees driven away by the recent heavy use of pesticides which has killed their source of food. Maybe I need to explore other parts of my neighbourhood next week. Perhaps a group or two still survives.

Butterflies are other sacrifices to the altar of the new insectivorous gods. A few years ago the gardens around me were full of butterflies, like the glossy specimen of the common crow (Euploea core) you see in this photo. This season I’ve seen a few flitting about, but they are not at the densities I was used to once. A twenty minute walk in the garden would give me twenty good photos of butterflies a decade ago, and good sightings of rarer ones like the blue in the featured photo which I haven’t identified yet. It is unfortunate that a knee-jerk response to viruses is to spray against insects. This is what man-animal conflict looks like.

Angry birds

The jungle babbler (Turdoides striata) is rather common. You can see them easily in any jungle or copse of trees near farmlands. They travel in flocks of several individuals which chatter constantly with each other. Listen to their constant calling, and you can follow the sound to see them hopping from branch to ground and back again, looking for insects to eat. They are supposed to have beautifully coloured eggs, but I’ve neither seen an egg, nor a nest.

The uniform grey specimens with yellow beaks which we saw in and around Pench National Park belong to the subspecies T. striata orientalis. These are the quintessential angry birds. They look so much like some of the birds in that game that I wonder if the creators took inspiration from these birds. Apparently they coexist with T. striata somervillei, which are a little darker and have a rufous rump and tail. I didn’t notice any, but they could have been around in Pench.

Jungle babbler in Pench National Park

I’ve most often seen these birds flit about in the semi-darkness beneath trees with a heavy canopy, making it hard to photograph them. I was lucky with these specimens. It seems that the more birds there are in a pack, the larger the area they commonly use for feeding. I saw the individuals in these photos perhaps just after their breeding season. A large fraction of the female chicks (but less of the males) usually leave the flock at the end of a year. As a result, flocks are a mixed group of related and unrelated individuals. The related birds would usually be the males. This means that territory is inherited by males within a flock!

The mixture of genetically related and unrelated birds in a flock would also make babblers an useful group for studying the spread of altruism. Indeed, non-breeding members of the group share time in incubating eggs, although they do not participate in the building of nests. Are these helpful non-breeders related to one of the breeding pair? I don’t know of a study.

Many such unanswered questions make the babblers an interesting group of birds for further study. DNA analysis indicates that the group as a whole may have evolved around 5 to 7 million years ago in the middle east. From here the group probably radiated out: one branch into Africa and another into southern Asia. Understanding the natural history of the evolution of families may eventually depend on our understanding babblers better. In fact, angry birds defending their eggs may not be such a bad metaphor for babblers.

%d bloggers like this: