Domesticated ignorance

  • Vikram Jit Singh, Hindustan Times, Chandigarh
  • Updated: Oct 19, 2014 07:51 IST

These peculiar-looking ducks dabbling and basking at the Sukhna Lake have mystified even the leading lights of the tricity’s birding brigade. One of these was photographed last December amid a flock of migratory Ruddy shelducks by a birder, who thought it was a juvenile of the migratory Common shelduck. This premature jubilation was dampened by a British ornithologist and author who correctly identified it as a domestic duck with a very mixed parentage with possible strains of the Magpie and Crested domestic ducks. (The Common shelduck is a rare vagrant at the lake and an authentic record is from Sanjay Kaushal who photographed three of these migratory ducks during the return migration of February 2001.)

Domestic ducks at Sukhna Lake. PHOTO: VIKRAM JIT SINGH

Another accomplished wildlife photographer saw these domestic ducks in a flock recently at the lake, of which some displayed a wild Mallard’s distant ancestral genes. Though he correctly identified them as not a pure wild species, he was mystified as they would seem to suddenly appear at the lake and then disappear. He presumed these were flying in from some nearby area for a sojourn at the lake. However, a closer examination of the domestic ducks revealed they could not fly.

A possible explanation for the presence of these ducks at the lake is that these were reared for eggs and meat like poultry at a nearby village or farm and have since either escaped to the lake or even been dumped here by the owner, who found no further use for them (Domestic ducks are bred in large numbers in Kashmir’s villages, especially around the Wullar Lake).

Though these domestic ducks are residing in wilderness, we cannot term them a ‘feral’ species. Explains zoologist Dr Surya Prakash: “We use the term ‘feral’ as a prefix for dogs and cats in and around our surroundings but scientific nomenclature refers to them as Canis domesticus and Felis domesticus as they are associated with humans whether we take care of them or not. But we know their genetic constitution. In the case of the lake’s domestic ducks, we don’t know about their genomics despite the ducks roaming freely. It would thus be inappropriate to term these ducks as feral.”

Kids are brought up on tales that imbibe the lesson: it does not pay to steal. Well, the tricity’s snake rescue expert, Salim Khan, has a delightful story to further this moral science. Sixteen years back when Khan was learning the art of catching snakes stranded in human habitation, he caught a Checkered keelback in Sitarganj, Uttarakhand. Though non-venomous, the keelback can be aggressive when troubled, inflates a pseudo-cobra hood to intimidate the adversary, and bites so hard that it can leave its fangs in the handler’s flesh. Being young and mischievous at that time, Khan conceived a devilish prank.

He slipped the keelback into a ‘mithai’ box of a renowned ‘halwai’, punctured small holes through it, tied it loosely with a string, slipped it into an open paper bag, and placed it on a tank that fed the taps at a public drinking water facility. People would place their belongings on this tank before they drank water. Meanwhile, Khan hid nearby.

As luck would have it, an old Sikh gentleman came along to drink water. His eyes fell on the mithai box and he thought that someone had forgotten it there. Khan recounts that the fellow spent 10-15 minutes at the spot, wringing and combing his beard with his hands as if drying water droplets that had seeped into the facial hair. But it was a ploy to wait and see whether the ‘mithai’ box’s owner came back. When no one came, the gentleman tucked the box under his armpit and walked to a shady grove corner away from the public gaze. He then proceeded to open the box, his mouth drooling at the prospects ahead. Out sprang the keelback like the proverbial genie. The snake, thoroughly fed up by this time, bolted from the spot. The gentleman fell down. Khan very slyly walked up to him and asked him in all innocence the reason for his devastated state.

Quaking with fear, the gentleman told Khan that he had committed the sin of theft and God had punished him. Khan expressed his disapproval by clicking his tongue and pouring scorn on his weak morals. Overcome with shame and fear of a public expose, the distraught gentleman caught his own ears like a schoolboy and vowed on the life of his grandchildren that he would never again cast an evil eye on another human’s possessions!

Big bird days are becoming increasingly popular in Indian cities, including Chandigarh. It is a competition for teams to race against each other and count maximum bird species in a day. The world record stood at 331 species since 1982 and was held by the late Ted Parker of the Louisiana State University’s (LSU) Museum of Natural Science and Scott Robinson of Princeton University. This record was tallied at a single site, the Cocha Cashu Biological Station in Manu National Park, Peru.

LSU team searching for birds at night. PHOTO:

However, working from midnight on Tuesday, a determined LSU’s Tigrisomas team comprising Michael Harvey, Glenn Seeholzer and Dan Lane along with Peru native Fernando Angulo broke this record on October 14 by running up 354 species in the North-Central Peruvian Andes. Many birds were identified on the basis of sounds and calls and Tigrisomas was armed with audio equipment, cameras, spotting scopes et al worth thousands of dollars.

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