Wild buzz: Cooperative of scavengers

  • Vikramjit Singh, Hindustan Times, Chandigarh
  • Updated: Feb 07, 2016 09:58 IST
A Steppe eagle having a piece of flesh in its claws was confronted by dogs at the Jodbeed carcass dump, Bikaner, Rajasthan. One dog challenged the eagle but did not dare come close as the bird spread its wings in a show of intimidation. But a couple of minutes after this dramatic encounter, the dogs attacked as a group and the eagle had to give up and fly away. (Photo credit: Mohit Verma)

Wildlife watchers have observed feral dogs (commonly referred to as stray/village dogs) chase away vultures and migratory eagles from carcasses.

On certain occasions, the tables are turned and a plucky bird or a group may ward off the challenge of dogs. On February 2, we observed an estimated 200 Himalayan griffon vultures and a Steppe eagle feast in phases on a buffalo carcass that lay 20 feet down the hillside on the Morni-Raipurrani road (Haryana). Smaller birds such as crows and ravens were also part of the scavenging as were Red-billed blue magpies picking morsels torn from the carcass by larger scavengers. Dogs were dominating and when they left, jackals arrived and pulled the carcass down the hillside and out of sight. But there was no sign of acrimony in this motley bunch of scavengers.

I asked Dr Vibhu Prakash if the exploding population of dogs posed a threat to feed sources of avian scavengers.

He heads the pioneering Jatayu Conservation and Breeding Centre at Pinjore and as a field scientist conducted studies on raptors at Bharatpur in the 1980s and 1990s.

This juvenile Eastern Imperial eagle was feeding on a carcass near Tal Chhapper wildlife sanctuary in Churu, Rajasthan. A dog came charging at the eagle but the bird opened its wings and so frightened it that the latter ran away within a few seconds of the encounter. (PHOTO: Dr INDERJIT SINGH)

Dr Prakash said that what we see actually at work is a ‘cooperative of scavengers’. Dogs, no doubt, posed a threat to human health and to wild mammalians and other ground-nesting birds but not to avian scavengers, said Dr Prakash.

“Scavengers like dogs and jackals are important for vultures/eagles because they help these birds locate a carcass. In fact, adult vultures will not descend to a carcass till dogs and crows have started to eat. Dogs and jackals cannot eat more than 5% of their body weight at a time and get satiated. This is when vultures get an opportunity. If food is plentiful, vultures can eat as much as their body weight at a time, i.e., 5-6 kg, and get so gorged that they sometimes sleep on the ground and are unable to move. The fact that migratory eagles frequent carcass dumps where dogs are present shows that despite confrontation, eagles do manage to get food,’’ explained Dr Prakash, adding that when baits and traps are set to capture vultures for conservation and captive-breeding purposes, dogs play a crucial role in luring these birds.

Of sons and sparrows

Painter Jaspreet Singh may not have won a prize at the Annual Art Exhibition of the Punjab Lalit Kala Akademi, which concluded at the Punjab Kala Bhawan, Chandigarh, on February 6. But his startling depiction of a mother’s ‘doomed wait’ for her son using birds to symbolise the ruptured relationship captures the less-acknowledged predicament many women face.

Jaspreet’s painting was on display at Punjab Kala Bhawan. (Vikram Jit Singh)

Our society fosters in such women an identity anchored on devotion to hearth, husband and kids, as also an acute emphasis upon feminine beauty. As age advances, they face a loss of the self. All such attributes of existence or meaning to their lives are shed like autumnal leaves; an augury of long days of an odour-attended physical decay, loneliness and the mocking dance of a flaming pyre. Depression and a dangerous melancholia are attendant maladies, sometimes resulting in suicidal tendencies. Till such day as a pensive, worn face from some obscure corner of humanity surfaces for the last bow in an obituary column.

Jaspreet (27) migrated from Akkanwali village near Mansa (Punjab) to Chandigarh in 2007 to study at the Government College for Art. He is currently a faculty member at the Chitkara University. His painting titled, ‘A Mother’s Mystery’, is in rich blue symbolising dark clouds of melancholia. The lady, with a wool yarn idle and unraveling from the confines of layers of clothes, looks askance at the horizon for a sign of her son, who has flown the village coop in search of a job. A crow at the painting’s bottom right symbolises this. Village folklore holds that when a crow sits on the terrace and calls, a visitor may be in the offing. A female bird feeding two chicks on the top left symbolises universal motherhood. The glowing light within the mother bird symbolises that for her children, she is a godly figure. A sparrow-like bird at the top right symbolises the son, who looks adoringly at his wilting mother and pines for her. Like sons, Jaspreet’s painting conveys that sparrows, too, are disappearing from villages.

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