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Wild buzz: A strange friend for Miss Peregrine

For the best part of a decade, the Chhatbir zoo has in vain searched high and low, across the inflamed borders, and even the grey market, to acquire falcons/goshawks. Lo and behold, a specimen lands up in the zoo’s lap under novel circumstances.

punjab Updated: Apr 03, 2016 10:20 IST
Vikram Jit Singh
Vikram Jit Singh
Hindustan Times
Wild buzz,Chhatbir zoo,Wildlife
The hen burrows under the Peregrine at Chhatbir zoo. (Vikram Jit Singh )

For the best part of a decade, the Chhatbir zoo has in vain searched high and low, across the inflamed borders, and even the grey market, to acquire falcons/goshawks. Lo and behold, a specimen lands up in the zoo’s lap under novel circumstances. Last week, two journalists from Derabassi brought to the zoo, what they thought, was a Shikra with a broken right wing. The raptor, they claimed, had been found outside the Derabassi civil hospital. When the zoo officials saw it, they were delighted as they recognised the injured bird to be either a migratory Peregrine falcon or its resident race, the Shaheen falcon. The zoo has since dispatched feather follicles of the injured falcon to the Hyderabad-based Centre for Cellular & Molecular Biology for DNA tests and precise identification.

I solicited an opinion from the acclaimed raptor photographer, Nirav Bhatt, who is based in Wadhwan (Gujarat). Bhatt, upon seeing the photographs I sent him, identified the bird as an adult, female Peregrine falcon, which was probably returning to its summer habitat in the Eurasian Arctic. Bhatt was excited at the recovery of a Peregrine in Punjab but doubly intrigued at the spectacle of a hen burrowing under the falcon.

I explained to Nirav that the Peregrine was being fed poultry chicks and a hen in the recuperative enclosure of the zoo hospital. While the Peregrine gobbles the chicks - three at a go - the hen has been spared and has become very chummy with the ace hunter. Both cling to each other in the enclosure. One can imagine the horrors permeating the hen’s mind when seeing her ‘’saheli’’ (friend) decapitating chicks in front of her. The hen must be thinking a bit of old-fashioned capitulation to the queen of hunters will save her skin. But the Peregrine may well be biding her time and using the hen’s comforting servility to overcome the trauma of injury, captivity and strange humans.

Nirav remarked that the bonhomie may not last long: ‘’Let the Peregrine recover again and get freely flying.

It will easily pick up the hen. It needs more space around it to kill it. A Peregrine can take (prey) double the size of that hen.’’

What lends the Peregrine a glamour quotient and hence a prized acquisition for the zoo? This bird is one of the most widely distributed species with 17-19 races worldwide. The Peregrine attains the highest speed among any species when it dives or stoops to kill other birds in mid-air. A trained female Peregrine, named ‘Frightful’, was clocked at 242 mph in the US! Rishad Naoroji, an authority on the sub-continent’s raptors, describes the Peregrine thus: ‘’Since ancient times associated with man, prized for falconry, a symbol of prestige among royalty and the wealthy. One of the most widely studied of birds.’’

Our friends, in wrong places

(Left) A dog taking off after killing a leopard cat in the Suntikoppa, Coorg, coffee estates of Karnataka; (right) after the photographer chased the dog, it dropped the dead cat, which had been grievously bitten by it in the chest. (Hrishikesh Sagar)

For nature lovers of the tricity, a most charming odyssey is afforded by the 5.5 km Siswan trail. This comfortable walking track developed by the Punjab government from Siswan dam to Mirzapur dam traverses high ridges and dense jungles of the Shivaliks. However, a ghastly scene is unfolding as summer advances. Packs of free-ranging domestic dogs have sensed the deepening water shortage and laid siege to Siswan dam’s backwaters/mudflats. The dogs, while lounging in the shade, wait for sambar fawns to emerge from the thickets to quench their thirst. Even after killing a sambar, the dogs do not let other animals/birds drink in peace. Birds living and nesting along the shore are under threat. Even male peacocks, who would display their breeding plumage at the mudflats at dusk, in a leisured manner, now sneak to the water from the sides like timid shrews and return quickly because of blood-thirsty dogs. What shocked me is a pack of six dogs, which has taken to patrolling along the high-winding Siswan trail and scampers down steep, forested nallahs to hound sambars during peak heat hours.

Such dogs are not to be confused with wild dogs or ‘dholes’. Nor should it be presumed that village dogs have gone ‘’wild’’, returned to their ‘’natural habitat’’ and are gobbling their ‘’rightful shares’’ in the ‘’food chain’’. These dogs are actually common commensals of humans. Domestic dogs have matched pace with the human intrusion into jungles and fragmentation of wild habitats. Emboldened by human protection and garbage/food availability, domestic dogs intrude into peripheral jungles to savage native wild species. Just as poachers and the timber mafia slaughter, say tigers and trees.

This predation by dogs is a widespread phenomenon. In a first-ever national survey sourcing data from 200 respondents, researchers Dr Abi T Vanak, Yash Veer Bhatnagar and Chandrima Home have come up with preliminary findings that show dogs to be an under-reported source of mortality for a range of wildlife.

Their ongoing study, ‘Friends in the wrong places’, identifies dogs as sources of disease transmission, predation on wildlife and facilitators of hunting/poaching.

The study used data from 291 locations and 363 records of attacks by dogs on wildlife. The survey found that dogs were preying and attacking mammals, birds, reptiles etc, including the Red panda, Indian wolf and other endangered species.

Of the 363 dog attack records, 81 per cent were found unaccompanied by humans.

Warning that dogs in jungles could ‘’lead to potentially large-scale ecosystem-wide impacts’’, and that ‘’dog population management should be

given importance for wild species conservation’’, the study sought opinion on possible solutions. The trap-neuter-release with immunisation approach was recommended by 14% of respondents, translocation to dog shelters (7%) and efforts to reduce food availability (2%). However, 58% opted for multiple methods of dog population control.

In practise, wildlife managers - hamstrung by prevalent laws - are known to quietly bump off dogs intruding into protected areas. Legally wrong, yes. But a right thing to do?


First Published: Apr 03, 2016 10:19 IST