Sunday read | Wild buzz: Tyrants of terra firma

A sheaf of still, fluffy feathers at dawn betrayed the concealed vulnerability of that sliver of flesh, too frail for cleaver, canine jaws.

punjab Updated: Jul 23, 2017 11:17 IST
terra firma,Wild buzz,wildlife
The injured cuckoo after rescue in a basket. Image in the centre shows the cuckoo’s back bitten through by a stray dog. (Vikram Jit Singh)

This little bird had packed all the promise to blossom into a booming avian tenor of the moonlit hours in a few weeks. It was an immature Common hawk cuckoo, popularly known as the ‘papeeha’, and one prone to as an adult to emit the iconic call that rises to a feverish crescendo. Its manic pitch even led British rulers to christen this “bathroom singer of the avian asylums” as the Brain-fever bird.

When I came across this little bird last week, it emitted a feeble, ‘ke-ke’ call, an admission of acute disorientation and unbearable pain. The bird was bitten through by a stray bitch, herself rearing four pups, in one of Chandigarh’s sprawling bungalow gardens. The birdie, rescued by the kind householders and placed in a fruit basket, did not last the night despite best efforts. A sheaf of still, fluffy feathers at dawn betrayed the concealed vulnerability of that sliver of flesh, too frail for cleaver, canine jaws. A future song of joy, love and ecstatic flight belonging to the azure skies, was nipped in bloodied bud.

Stray dogs are the bane of birds feeding on the ground or nesting on terra firma as they constantly harass and hound feathered denizens. Though the ‘papeeha’ lays eggs in tree nests of Jungle babblers, heaven help a chick that falls to the ground. An immature bird attempting a reckless first flight may find itself marooned on terra firma and at the mercy of umpteen roving hounds. Stray dogs are conveniently termed “part of nature” by dog advocacy groups. But the fact of the matter is that they are commensals of humans. They are not found deep in jungles as part of the natural food chain, such as Corbett National Park, but in peripheral jungles where they are concomitant to human intrusion.

Neither are the true wild dogs or dholes found in our bungalow gardens. So, just who are these impostors in the natural order? If stray dogs are a part of nature, would it then be right to rescue bird chicks from the jaws of a hungry bitch, who has pups to feed? At the same time, there is much sentimental despair and indignation if a hawk (rightfully) seizes a pigeon chick gurgling in the washroom window nest. Where should birds of the ground or flight-testing juveniles go, if terra firma is to be ceded to dogs sustained on human garbage and assured food flung by charitable souls?

PILGRIMS OF EVOLUTION

Specimens of an Earwig and (right) a Tiger beetle collected from Siswan jungle. (Kritish De)

If trees are silent witnesses to generations of humans, the earwig hailing from the insect order, Dermaptera, goes even further back. The Dermaptera order has evolved from the Late Triassic and Middle Jurassic eras. The earwig was one of the fascinating insects found during the five-day survey earlier this month by the Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun, at the Siswan Dam jungles, lying in the tricity’s hinterland and flanking the road to Baddi. The survey led by professor VP Uniyal found 150 insect species at Siswan. So, the next time you see an earwig, just let your imagination spin back millions of years as embodied in this doughty little pilgrim of evolution.

Just as the night deepens, star by star creeping out of the crevices of the cosmos, the earwigs, too, slither out of their daytime shelters. They are nocturnal feeders, preying on other insects and devouring foliage. “Earwigs are found in areas of humus or decomposition of leaf litter and foliage that form organic component of soils. The presence of earwigs indicates abundance of humus in the ecosystem,” said Uniyal.

Of the other Siswan notables was the Tiger beetle, not named because it has colour or stripes resembling a tiger, but simply because this beetle devours other insects. It is a pure carnivore of the kingdom of creepy-crawlies. Even the larvae of this beetle sit in ambush in holes in the ground and devour unsuspecting passers-by such as small ants or their larvae! The preferred habitat of the Tiger beetle is riverine areas such as the Siswan jungles anchored on a perennial wetland and feeder, seasonal rivulets. “Our research shows that the presence of Tiger beetles in an ecosystem is in a way correlated with flourishing bird and butterfly diversity,” said Uniyal.

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First Published: Jul 23, 2017 11:17 IST