When it comes to venomous vipers, popular perception is fueled by wildlife documentaries beamed via dish TV — of vipers biting their prey with humongous fangs and then waiting like vultures in the dark for the victim to writhe in agony, end movement, die and be ready for swallowing. On the other hand, we view non-venomous species such as a Rat snake lunging, grabbing and swallowing the prey. Keeping this perspective in mind, what seemed a “peculiar” feeding behaviour of the highly-venomous Russell’s viper came to the fore recently at the Fish Seed Farm near Sukhna Lake.
The animal husbandry and fisheries department nodal officer-cum-farm superintendent, Dr Kanwarjit Singh, witnessed a viper swallowing a squirrel alive without the viper having bitten it first and waiting for it to die. The viper was spotted in the open under a Peepul tree at the farm. The viper was aware that Dr Singh and his staff were watching. Suddenly, a squirrel passed by. The viper lunged forward like lightning and caught the squirrel head first, like a still lizard may snap up an unwary moth. The squirrel was swallowed in two to three minutes. The viper was then granted a safe passage at the behest of Dr Singh and it retreated to a nullah.
I consulted experts Rom Whitaker, Kedar Bhide and Vivek R Sharma.
Whitaker: “The viper reacted instinctively and grabbed the squirrel as it ran by. They, often, will swallow prey without waiting for it to die.”
Bhide: “Since the squirrel was a small prey, the viper started swallowing it straight away. It will inject venom into the squirrel while swallowing, as it aids digestion. It does not need to wait to subdue the prey as it is very small and in the right position, head inside first.”
Sharma: “This is not rare in nature. Maybe, vipers know the squirrel is arboreal and the bitten squirrel may stop movement only after reaching tree holes, where the viper will be unable to get it. Or, sometimes, snakes when acting in front of a crowd are quicker in the finishing process as they fear losing a feeding opportunity that came suddenly. Venomous snakes such as cobras and kraits also don’t wait for death of the prey and may immediately start swallowing. So, feeding peacefully or vigorously depends on the mood and surroundings.”
Evicting old tenants
Just as we have sealed our houses under the pretext of modern architecture and robbed House sparrows of traditional nesting sites, this time the doors slammed shut on a Barn owl. Award-winning wildlife conservationist Nikhil Sanger rescued last week an owl from Dr Mange Walia’s house in Nawanshahr’s Nayyar Colony.
The owl was nesting in a hollow in the balcony but Dr Walia wanted to seal it with tiles. Owls are also considered inauspicious by some.
The impatient doctor, on discovering the owl, wanted the creature evicted at once but in the process of removing the bird, it got injured. However, Sanger took it to his house, nursed it back to good health with constant care and midnight snacks of chicken scraps, and freed it in a grove close to the doctor’s house.
That was the logical culmination of the rescue effort as the rehab was in proximity to the owl’s original home range.
Sukhna’s foxy fish
The most wily of the big commercial fish at Sukhna Lake proved to be the Indian ‘Magur’ or Walking catfish (Clarius batrachus). Their ability to evade the nets deployed by professional fishing contractor, Shamsheed, was the buzz during the three-night netting in furtherance of the Sukhna’s ecological management. The carnivorous Magur gobble smaller fish/minnows.
Late at night as I accompanied the fishermen deploying nets, my attention was drawn to Magur swarming the regulatory-end gates. They were like Hollywood stars gliding at leisure and smugly exposing their lissom bodies at mansion pools, after having downed, say, a couple of Bloody Marys! But when fishermen deployed nets at this end on two nights, not a single Magur was landed at dawn when nets were collected. I sought an answer to this ‘Houdini-like’ creature from fishermen, animal husbandry and fisheries department field staffers Gurcharan and Ganeshan, and professor emeritus of fisheries MS Johal.
Magur have moustache-like barbels that act like powerful sensors. They turn back from lurking nets by feeling the watery depths ahead with the extended barbels whereas other ‘nonwhiskered’ fish plunge straight into the trap. Magurs can ‘grovel’ or ‘wriggle’ under nets and through the bottom mud like desperate prisoners of the Burail jail break! The Magur’s serrated pectoral fins can even cut through certain nets.
The flip side is that Magur are vulnerable to line-and-hook daily anglers deploying ‘atta’ or meatballs as they tend to get tempted quickly by food baits.