Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Spotted Munia's nest-building: Dont save only the Tiger

An article in Nature (Krebs et al vol 400 August 1888) on The Second Silent Spring begins with this sentence:-
The drive to squeeze ever more food from the land has sent Europe’s farmland wildlife into a precipitous decline.

The birds in the picture above must have felt like Colerdige's Ancient Mariner
Food, food everywhere, not a grain to eat

The authors then ask the question How can agricultural policy be reformed so that we have fewer grain mountains and more skylarks?

How and Why, indeed?

Some would say, Ours is not to reason why. Should Monsanto also die?

I am not a great bird-watcher, even if I may have been a great bird-fanatsizer at my appropriate age many decades ago.

There is no special reason for me to write a blog on birds except that two members of this particular bird species started building a nest on the kitchen window sill of our apartment in this very bird-unfriendly, twin eleven storey apartment complex. The builder of this apartment complex had started his french-wise unique Mont Vert complex hoping to entice otherwise french-ignorant and many other-ignorant self-fancied elite middle class with image of green hills.

Why I noticed these birds was that they had built their nest on the neighbour's window the last year and left, what I thought, an ugly nest behind. It did not have the compactness of the sparrow's nest even if the bird at first ignorant glance may have registered itself as a sparrow in your mind. The nighbours had change and a newly married couple rented out the apartment and probably cleaned out the nest as it was being built.

We already had our paint brushes and varnishes and other painting equipment on the sill. I had every intention to paint our kitchen shelfthe very next day for the last three months or so. What my preparations for painting did was that we did not notice the nest being built till it was almost ready.
Then one morning (2nd August the nest-building time) when making my porridge I noticed the bird with a leaf several times its size with its beak. My attempts to get an appropriate still photograph failed and so I took a video. It recorded an interesting event. There is a mechanical pendulum clock hung on the kitchen wall and it provided the tick-tock of the back-ground noise.

This activity progressed with a leaf being brought every ten minites or so. Maybe they had to go some distance, avoid other predator birds and nuisance men and children. A second video two hours later saw a partner bird emerging after some nest-building activity within the nest and sorting out again. The squawking background noise towards the end in the video is not that of a crow, or goose,or peacock or donkey having fun or a pig being slaughtered but that of the electronic warning noise of a car backing out of its parking space below.

A few days later the nature of the grass being brought had changed. The stalk of the grass was thinner (Fig 1 left and video below) and the top of the stalk had dried grass flowers probably to provide a softer wall-lining.

The camera was not with me for the next month or so, having gone to the Himalayas with Vasishta. When I got back to using it, it was near the middle of August. The green grass of the nest had dried to straw colour (Fig 1 middle and right)

The next day I saw a bird examining the rear end of the nest (Fig 3 left). Within an hour some thick-leafed new grass had appeared (Fig 3 middle)and very soon there was a couple examining the rear (Fig 3 right) with more grass being added.

I could not understand the appearance of fresh grass at the back of the nest. I thought that maybe the babies were having some problems and they had to build an antechamber to expand their nest. These birds were supposed to lay several eggs and if all qhe eggs were hatched, the space would certainly have been too small.

I got some angry looks (Fig 4 left) from the birds but the building of the nests continued with thick grass leaves (Fig 4 middle) more than a month after the first nest building. Within two days a sizeable nest had formed (Fig 4 right).

The next day the nest towards the end had been completed (Fig 5 left).I had thought that there were four birds but photographing them together proved elusive. I finally got them together in somewhat acceptable focus hanging from a broadband cable (Fig 5 right). They could have made a better picture. They looked, however of the same adult size. They actually looked like two pairs and the second pair had built the new addition to the nest.

The next day (17th september) quite late in the evening I think I saw the baby birds out of their nest (Fig 6 left and middle). I did not see these birds for the next few days while the other pair continued busily with their new nest-building. Three days later I thought I saw the the baby birds briefly getting into their nests for the evening (Fig 6 right). The bird seemed to have grown to its full responsibility. Only time will tell.

It is nice to see now five or six birds fly out of the nest into the world. I have not figured out just how many little ones there are. This morning I think I saw at least three among the birds that flew out. A last young one was a little late when she (she must have been a she) scurried out of the nest on seeing my approaching shadow, ruffling a few of her feathers and tripping on the wire-net.


I know that Munia is a common nickname in Bengal and I know at least two nieces who are called munia. I dont think that the name munia is associated with the span style="font-style:italic;">Lonchura punctulata species is derived from any Indian language.

A 2007 blog by one Fahima Bintee Jamal (a muslim) nicknamed munia because of her father's fondness for the bird, has some nice secular things to say:-
One of the interesting things about my name (Munia), was that it was always unique in the British and American standard schools abroad, no one could definitely say whether I was Hindu, Muslim or Christian! Then of course there was the downside, most of my classmates would repeatedly inquire: "You are named after a BIRD????' (emphasis on the 'bird'). If only they'd ever met my maternal uncles. One of them is called 'Golap' (Bangla for 'rose', yes, the one that's a flower), while another distant uncle is called 'Angur' (Bangla for 'grape'-the fruit.). Sometimes I can't help wondering whether their parents gave them such names out of love, or malice. I mean, why name a guy after a flower, or worse, a fruit???

I learnt from the net that in Arabic Munia means "great anticipation". I also learnt that "... the term municipality is derived from municeps and must be formed from munia (sing. muni) the basic meaning of which is obligations or duties … the root meaning of munus was gift ...

The name munni is the common name for girl (munna for boy) made perhaps unnecessary sinful by the vulgarly (in the sense of commonly) exotic item (implying sizzling) dance routine Munni badnaam hui, darling tere liyeSee (see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YpnohT_a-2I for example) that could probably come from an ancient culture (I am not talking about Vedic culture, but rather the adivasi culture that gave buddha?) that cradled the kamasutra!

I like the name munia to mean a simple little girl when I think of the munia variety of birds. My knowledge of birds is less than minimal. I love listening to birds and give them in my mind fancy names that I have read about and that I do not recognise. I love the names such as finch and warbler and thrush and lark and the munia and the chidiya and the kuruvi. Given my awareness of the birds, I guess I can be forgiven if the lark and the munia belong to the same species (see figure below) in my imagery, even if the lark, I am told is nearly twice bigger than the spotted munia.

It seems a pity that while it is fashionable to save the tiger like NDTV claims 24x7 it is doing with the help of such great crowd-pullers as cricket-playing Dhoni. One does not think cricket the game eliminates crickets the Gryllidae along with their cricketing noise (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K8E_zMLCRNg&feature=related; see also Nityananada and Balakrishnan's article inhttp://www.springerlink.com/content/r546277030258771/) from bushes that gave way to levelled playing fields and were replaced by beer-swelled IT-invigorated mobs and other otherwise limp (microsoft) human imitators (see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IBUB2k9A5II&NR=1).

The tiger can only remain if the cricket and the swallow and the munia are allowed to survive.
These creatures in turn depend on the survival of other species. We know that but we do not care (?). Such "other species" include the invertebrates such as earthworm, which depend on wet clay-like soil preferably under a canopy of forest trees with its own ecology. We need trees and animal shit and creepers and insects.
So save the tiger if you want but please save the frogs also.
Maybe you should also save the septic tanks!?

Rohini Balakrishnan writes "The dawn chorus of birds, owls swooping down on their prey in total darkness, military formations of ants moving their eggs and larvae to new locations, bees foraging for nectar in brightly coloured flowers, hawks hovering overhead looking for prey that freeze into immobility on detecting them:..." This is poetry. She cites ethologist's views:- "Every behaviour of every individual of any species is brought about by causal physiological processes that may be influenced by the current and immediate environment, the ontogenetic history of that individual, its evolutionary history and by the survival or adaptive value of that behaviour."

She and other learned communities are then constrained by eliciting "... the science of animal behavior

In the meanwhile, it seems that the populaion of these bird species has reduced to 10-40% of what it was 30 years ago.

What has happened in the last thirty years to have caused such a decline?

India and China have become richer adding to population/food pressure
microwave communication devices have increased throughout the world

Parsee-eating vultures have become extinct

Fertility of IT and computer-related professionas have decreased.

Consumption/Cultivation of seedless fruits and vegetables has increased. One seed produces another?

Globalisation has changed food eating and cultivation patterns

Exceessive chemical fertilizers have reduced the number of earthworms in the soil; these invertebrates serve as food for the early birdlings so that reduction in population may be due to the loss in the survival rate.

There seems to be a seven-fold increase in the use of chemical fertilizers as compared to the use of organic fertilizers in the last thirty yars. The decrease in bird population would correlate statistically well with the decrease in use of organic fertilizers.

Grain spillage after harvesting has reduced.

Monsanto and related families entered the scene aggressively

Has anybody recorded the reduction in the number of grandchildren for people above sixty?

Is there a necessity to stop the invasion of IT culture and its parasite, the mass-media advertisements, to eventually save the tiger?

In his Ode to a lark Shelley has written the unforgettable lines that make you feel like soaring

Higher still and higher
From the earth thou springest,
Like a cloud of fire;
The blue deep thou wingest,
And singing still dost soar, and soaring ever singest.

During my Anglo-Indian school days when I first heard this poem, I thought as a school child that the British were superior because they had thee larks and they soared like them.

Shelley would continue
What objects are the fountains
Of thy happy strain?
What fields, or waves, or mountains?
What shapes of sky or plain?
What love of thine own kind? what ignorance of pain?

The sparrows would have been happy as a lark in those days.

They would also have bebn happy in Tagore's times when Tagore wrote in his Stray Birds:-

The sparrow is sorry for the peacock at the burden of its tail.

Do we now require being more alert in saving the s sparrow and the munia and the earthworm if we have to save the Tiger.