Archive for » July, 2015 «

Courting koels

A wonderful event occurred outside my window, some minutes ago. The sound of a heavy bird settling on a ‘cherry’ tree, just two yards from me, drew my attention.  It was a lady koel. And soon thereafter came a gentleman koel. It hopped on to a branch near the lady and she responded by lowering herself submissively.  The gentleman flitted from twig to twig, I thought looking for leverage to mount her. And all of the lady’s posturings indicated to my non-koel eyes that she wanted him to proceed with things. But after a few moves, he left her to pick an inviting red cherry fruit. The lure of food, I imagined, had proven stronger than that of sex.

In a few seconds he was back, with the fruit in his beak. And he offered the juicy little delicacy to the lady, who happily accepted the gift. It was so reminiscent of birds feeding their nestlings that I imagined for a moment that the gentleman was a parent feeding a young one. With another species, this possibility could not have been easily discounted. But not with koels, who hand over child upbringing to crows. So this was clearly a prelude to sex, a post-coital gift or simply an expression of love. I had never seen or heard of such gift-giving.

All too soon, the romantic interaction was interrupted by two screeching bulbuls, who kept diving at the couple. Koels aren’t particularly worried about bulbul attacks and usually ravage their nests even as the parents shriek and dive. But in this instance, the couple flew away – probably because the bulbul insistence was too strong a deterrence to intimacy. The whole episode was over in less than two minutes. But it left me relieved that even our few remaining birds are able to provide unmatched spectacle.

I am so glad I don’t have a camera on my phone.

SRI LANKA TRAGEDY, 2015

A rambutan tree I know produced well over 5000 fruits in the 2014 season. This year it managed to produce probably half that number. Oddly though, there were more fruits to eat and to share this year. This is as strange as tobacco company profits increasing despite cigarette sales declining – a phenomenon we’ve seen over the last 5 years or so.

In the case of the tobacco company profits, the explanation is simply that the then government quietly reduced the amount it levied as excise tax. The levy was adjusted, at every price increase, to favour the tobacco company hugely. So, the trade was allowed an increasing percentage of the turnover, to more than compensate for the diminishing sales. The bureaucrats and politicians of the time sacrificed state revenue, to allow the tobacco trade to garner increasing profits, despite the drop in cigarette sales.

So the rise in revenue of the tobacco company, despite its sales declining, was because the politicians and officials of the Ministry of Finance were either inept or corrupt. But how do we explain the increased harvest from that rambutan tree this year, despite the smaller yield? The mechanism is similar to the one underlying the tobacco profit paradox. More fruits were available this year because birds were taking a smaller share. I had failed to notice what was visible in plain sight. Parakeets or parrots constantly inhabited this tree last year. Having decided to count their numbers this year, we discovered that there were none. The flock that habitually descended last year had evaporated within 12 months.

Associated with this tragedy are other things that have now become evident, on more careful observation. Bird song, especially at dawn, has diminished – narrowed in variety and reduced in size of chorus. No more barbets, orioles and drongos. These species are gone altogether or far reduced in number this year. Visitors to a bird-bath are down dramatically. The calls of the lapwing no longer pierce the Battaramulla night. Where have all our local birds gone? Or are they still here, hiding somewhere, no longer given to song? A few species do remain: crows, koels, doves and the red-vented ‘konda-kurullas’.  The habitat here has not changed as far as I can see. Are we experiencing the local reflection of a global event, as reported on BBC at http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-33209548?

Earth ‘entering new extinction phase’

 The Earth has entered a new period of extinction, a study by three US universities has concluded, and humans could be among the first casualties.

The report, led by the universities of Stanford, Princeton and Berkeley, said vertebrates were disappearing at a rate 114 times faster than normal.

The findings echo those in a report published by Duke University last year.

One of the new study‘s authors said: “We are now entering the sixth great mass extinction event.”

The last such event was 65 million years ago, when dinosaurs were wiped out, in all likelihood by a large meteor hitting Earth.

 

I am upset that I had failed to notice such a dramatic drop in the bird population until the rambutan mystery led me to it. Having noticed, what can I do? The immediate impulse is to rouse concern. The internet calls. So I must get messages sent through Facebook. I can also share my findings, through electronic links, with likely concerned others. I can try to create an internet-based response, to save our parakeets, orioles, barbets and drongos – and urge everybody to join in preventing these helpless birds disappearing altogether from our district.

We are made to feel engaged and empowered through our internet links. But will my connectivity make a difference to the drongos? I wonder whether our personal media access and internet-empowered capabilities have quietly made us even less capable of influencing our world than before.