MALLARD IN A QUILT
As winter sets in and granny’s teeth rattle and chatter like a typewriter, the tricity’s media is flush with stories about how animals and birds at Chhatbir zoo are provisioned for winter by way of special foods and protection covers. In the wilderness, too, birds, bees and beasts find natural shelters. The icy winds and dour mists shrouding the Sukhna Lake on January 17 were the flavour of the week just gone by. Some of the migratory Mallards occupied niche spaces to subvert the wind chill factor. The local wild boars, too, could be discerned holing up deep in the bushes and reeds as it keeps them dry and breaks the wind chill like a light, Eiderdown jacket. At the Sukhna’s rowing canal, a few Mallard pairs waded into tall vegetation standing in water. I observed them through January 17 and found the couples were loath to leave those snug spaces, curling up like one of the 9-foot pythons at Chhatbir’s reptile house, who has not shown himself/herself from under a blanket for several weeks this winter!
Shrouded in tall reeds, the Mallard drakes looked more like miserable, shriveled beggars braving a cold wave in desolate, unfriendly ‘gallis’. But otherwise, on a sunny day, the drake ranks high in the migratory world’s pecking order of elegance: head-neck glowing in metallic dark green and two upcurled central tail feathers that crown its glory to the rear, too.
KI PUCHHDE HAAL FAKIRAN DA
Not all youngsters of Punjab’s villages heed the wisdom of their elders or care to listen to the tales of yore they yearn to narrate. If they did so, the youngsters would think twice before selling off their lands to colonisers and builders, who have wiped out marshes, wetlands, village “birs” (common jungles) and village ponds to set up “societies and flats” where occupation is so low as to attract the remark steeped in irony: “Ithe uloo bolde han.” Such youngsters care two hoots for the generations of toil and passion that nurtured their family soil. The youth is instead swayed by the bags of easy cash the canny colonisers dump in village homes --- like a pestilence --- from the cavernous ‘dickys’ of their ‘awsum’ SUVs.
Village ponds or “tobaas” performed essential functions for the local ecology such as re-charge of groundwater, a perennial sweet water supply for livestock and people, attracted stately trees like the peepul and ‘bargad/bohar’ on the banks and migratory birds in winter. So life-inspiring were these trees that they grew expansively into repositories of biodiversity: 20 bird species could be counted over a year’s passage in a great peepul while snakes, spiders and other creatures dwelt in the benevolent spread and tangles of the roots. Village elders could sit under the tree’s shade in summer and secure a desert cooler’s respite. Some of these ponds have disappeared from Punjab’s countryside --- like elders elbowed out of homes and dusty lanes --- while other water bodies are polluted by discharge from nearby towns/industry.
Piranha-like diseases course through the veins of this fabled land of milk, water and hot blood. “Even the milk of our cows, goats and buffaloes does not taste the same any more,” laments Darshan Singh Sidhu, a keen-eyed photographer of Punjab’s mutating landscapes and resident of Kharar’s Desumajra village.
BEE AUR BIWI
We love our flowers and the bees that nestle deep in them and look so adorable. We also like clicking pictures of such harmony and posting them on social media. But the other day, a Giant honey bee (Apis dorsata) managed to sting my wife, Hemani, on the shoulder. Her passion for the manicured nature of our gardens evaporated and mutated into a raging annoyance as the envenomated tissue swelled and ached. She directed me to stamp the “guilty” bee out of existence. I assured her there was no need for me to deliver “retribution” as the writhing bee would soon perish of its own accord. The positive side of the accident with the bee was that my prompt medical assistance rid my wife of the hangover of a lingering tiff! We later eased the dead bee into a golden sunset by dropping it into our little yellow sea of calendulas, chrysanthemums, marigolds and California poppies.
Worker bees are ordained by natural selection to perish when they release the sting in defense of the hive. They are in a sense ‘expendable’ in the pursuit of the hive’s larger interests. I asked Dr Neelima R Kumar of the Panjab University’s Zoology department to throw light on this sacrificial trait or to paraphrase Shakespeare: To bee, or not to be! “When a worker bee releases the sting from the lower abdomen, it leads to a rupture. The bee loses body fluids and dies as a result of the ‘bleeding’. The Queen bee also possesses a sting but this mechanism is used to trigger the process of egg-laying or, rarely, to kill a rival queen. However, the queen does not die when she uses the sting because she is able to cover the rupture with her ‘skin’ and prevent fluid loss. Her preservation is essential for the hive,” said Dr Kumar, who has been researching honey bees for 12 years.