Archive for May, 2009

Vanishing Species – Hispid Hare

An Article by Mohan Pai
The Hispid Hare or Assam Rabbit

(Caprolagus hispidius)


Hispid hare is a rare and endangered species
almost on the verge of extinction.

During the mid-1960s there was speculation that the Hispid Hare had gone extinct, however, the capture of a live specimen in 1971 in the Barnadi Wildlife Sanctuary, northwest Assam, confirmed that the species was persisting. Though there is no information available on exact number of individuals in any areas of the range of the Hispid Hare, little doubt exists that the species has experienced a dramatic decline due to habitat loss in recent years.

What we call in Hindi as Khargosh and Khargorkata in Assamese is not a rabbit but a hare. True rabbits (Oryctolagus) do not occur in the Indian subcontinent. Hispid Hare, also called Assam Rabbit distributed along the foothills of the Himalayas from Uttar Pradesh to Assam and is a is a rare and critically endangered species.
A large grassland logomorph it has black hair predominantly brown dorsal coat and white belly. It has shorter or more rounded ears, and smaller hind legs and a much shorter tail than the Indian Hare.

Very little is known of the habits of this species though it has been reported sporadically from the grass jungles of Terai and Duars in Assam..The Hispid Hare was formerly widely distributed but its habitat is much reduced and degraded by deforestation, cultivation, and human settlement, and now it is confined to isolated regions in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal and Assam.

The hispid hare is also called the “bristly rabbit” because it has coarse, dark brown hair. It’s ears are short, and its back legs are not much larger than the front legs. It weighs about 2.5 kg (5.5 lb). It prefers tall grass-scrub savanna, in flat, well-drained and thinly forested country. It is not gregarious, but sometimes lives in pairs. Its diet consists mainly of bark, shoots and roots of grasses, including thatch species, and occasionally crops.
The hispid hare was formerly found from Uttar Pradesh to Assam (India) along the Himalayan foothills, and south to Dacca in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). In 1964, it was feared by some to be extinct, or nearly so, but by 1966 it was thought still to exist in a few isolated parts of its range along the foothills of the Himalayas in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal and Assam. In 1990 the areas from which it had been recently recorded included Assam, northwest Bengal, northwest Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, and the Terai area of southern and southwest Nepal.
The main reasons for its decline include habitat (elephant grass land) loss, mainly for cultivation, forestry, grazing and the burning of thatch; human settlement; hunting for food and to protect crops; and predation by dogs. In addition, human-induced changes in seasonal flooding have favored the later stages of vegetation succession which the hispid hare does not prefer.
About Rabbits

0 The Hispid hare is one of the world’s rarest mammals.

0 The Hispid hare is actually a rabbit (see next item).

0 Rabbits (belonging to many different genera) vs. Hares (all in the genus Lepus):

The major differences between rabbits and hares include: 1.) their methods in avoiding predators (rabbits hide in dense vegetation or burrows; hares have longer legs and try to outrun predators), and 2.) the characteristics of their young at birth (newborn rabbits (“kittens”) are born naked and with their eyes closed; newborn hares (“leverets”) are better developed – their eyes are open and they can move around with some degree of coordination)

For an interesting and informative article of G. Maheswaran on the Hispid Hare (Sanctuary Feature) please log on to:http://www.sanctuaryasia.com/features/detailfeatures.php?id=258

 

References: Animal Info, IUCN Red List, “The Book of Indian Mammals” by S. H. Prater.

Vanishing Species – The Indian Tree Shrew (Madras Tree Shrew)

An article by Mohan Pai

Indian Tree Shrew
(Also called Madras Tree Shrew)
Anathana ellioti

Pic courtesy: S. Karthikeyan

Is it a primate or a rodent ?
An enigmatic and evolutionarily an unique creature, Madras Tree Shrew is endemic to peninsular India.
There exists a great controversy as to whether Tree Shrews (family Tupaiidae) should be placed in an order with primates or whether they are insectivores.
These creatures are mammals mostly found in south-east Asia. All tree shrews share some common characteristics: relatively small body mass, generally omnivorous (eating arthropods and fruit), the skeleton has an unspecialized placental mammalian pattern, all digits have claws, and the hands and feet are not prehensile. Not all of tree shrews are arboreal, some are mostly terrestrial, and the rest of the subspecies are probably best described as being semi-arboreal. Most tree shrews share many behavioral characteristics with squirrels, so much so that the Malay word tupai is used for both tree-shrews and squirrels.
Tree shrews are also included in the same order with primates by some. Now the characteristics that are shared between tree shrews and primates have been noted as to being primitive amongst placental mammals. Until more evidence can be found the status of where to place the tree-shrew will remain unresolved, so it can not be definitively said that tree shrews are primates. Taxonomists have now assigned it to a separate order – Scandentia.
The Madras Tree shrew (Anathana ellioti), also known as the Indian Tree shrew, is a small mammal that lives in the hilly forests of southern India. The Madras Tree shrew is omnivorous, and has the same kind of unspecified molars as the other Tree shrews in the order Scandentia. They resemble most other tree shrews, however have larger ears, and also are speckled brown, yellow or black over their fur. The main body of fur usually has a reddish tinge and the ventral area is white most of the time – although all these colorations will vary from individual to individual. They are usually 16-18 centimeters in length (6-7 inches) and the tail is usually that same length making the total length about 32-36 (13-17 inches long). On an average they will weigh about 160 grams (5 and a half ounces) although larger specimens have been recorded.
The habitat of the Madras Tree shrew is that of a partially moist to very moist forest habitat, with deciduous trees and shrubs making up the forest floor. However, they can also be found in the southern India slopes, and ravines, along with cultivated fields or pastures. They have proven to adapt to surrounding if the conditions are right and feast on the abundance of insect life in their chosen areas. They eat caterpillars, ants, butterflies, moths, and anything else that will satisfy – they also eat berries and seeds, and have been known to eat the fruit of the Lantana Camara, a very thorny but common shrub. Shrews are mainly nocturnal, but their high metabolic rates can lead to a daily food intake of up to their body weight or more, so they are in constant search of food.
Although the Madras Tree shrew has the word tree in its name, it is in fact uncommon to see one climb a tree, and when they do climb a tree it is usually a means of escape, or of play with younger Tree shrews, and maybe the rare exception of a safe place to self-groom – and to do this they will climb the tree, and then slide down it stretched out. They will repeat this at every angle until they feel sufficiently groomed. The majority of time is spent hidden on the forest floors, travelling under the bush, and inspecting their territories or looking for some insects or seeds to eat.
Madras Trees Shrews also like to build night shelters between soft ground and stones, which can be very complex or very simple. They rarely house more than one, as the tree shrew in general is a solitary species, with the Madras Tree shrew being one that is paired only during certain times of the year if at all. The behavior in regards to mating is not well known, however due to studies of their biology it is assumed that they can produce up to five young at a time. If they are at all similar to other tree shrews they may only spend a short time with their young, and their young will mature rapidly, leaving the nest in three to five months.

A few facts about the Madras Tree shrews
The Madras Tree shrew can be seen as similar to the squirrel, however a difference is that the tree shrew will walk with its tail in an upward curve and a curl that continues but curls the opposite direction.The name Anathana ellioti in which Anathana is the genus comes from the Tamil words Moongil Anathaan, which means â ˜Bamboo Squirrel” while ellioti, the species name, comes from the man who first documented the species – Sir Walter Elliot. The Madras Tree shrew mostly forages in the morning, rather than the evening, as an advantage over other foragers who start later in the day. The Madras tree shrew is listed as Near Threatened (Near Threatened (NT), is close to qualifying for or is likely to qualify for a threatened category in the near future, or LR/nt), is close to qualifying for or is likely to qualify for a threatened category in the near future, on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
References: “A Field Guide to Indian Mammals” by Vivek Menon, Wikipedia.

 

Vanishing Species – The Indian Flying Fox

An article by Mohan Pai

 
 
The Indian Flying Fox
Pteropus giganteus

The world’s only true, largest flying mammal with a sustained flight who feeds only on ripe fruits.
 
A bat is the only mammal with wings, the only mammal which can really fly. There are mammals like the flying squirrels, and flying lemurs, which glide through the air supported by parachute-like extensions of skins on their bodies and allow it only a prolonged glide. Whereas with bats there is true and sustained flight effected by an upward and downward beat of their wings. Fruit bats are larger than the carnivore bats and the Flying Fox is the largest. The wing span of the Flying Fox is about 4 ft.
 
The Flight clearly distinguishes bats from all the other mammals. Not just jumping, or gliding, but actually being able to fly – like the birds. The entire bone structure of bats is modified for flight, and as we should expect, this is most noticeable in the arms. As the name “Chiroptera” (“hand wing”) translates, the wings are formed by a stretched membrane across elongated finger bones to the sides of the body and all the way down enclosing the legs and tail. The wing membrane is naked, although in some species the body fur may grow somewhat out onto the wing. When the wing is not extended the membrane folds up along countless creases more efficiently than an umbrella.
 
The world’s only true flying mammals, bats are all gathered into one order, Chiroptera. They probably developed from arboreal insectivores, possibly tree-dwelling animals, 70,000,000 years ago, and possibly as far back as 100,000,000 years. Their species number almost 1000, second only to the Rodents. Bats are found in every part of the world except the polar regions and far out across the ocean. The order is clearly divisible into two very distinct suborders: the Megachiroptera, consisting of 173 species of flying foxes and other large fruit bats; and the Microchiroptera, which contains all the other smaller, generally insectivorous, bats. So diverse are the small bats that they have been sorted into 16 separate families, while the fruit bats are all contained in a single family. The large bats inhabit the tropics and subtropics of Africa and Australia and Asia, while the small bats are found worldwide. Rather than displaying quick maneuvers, flying foxes have a powerful and steady type of flight. They use their acute vision, even when flying at night. The small bats have reasonably good eyesight but do not depend upon it in flight. Instead they have developed a remarkable sense of hearing and guide themselves by echolocation, or sonar. This type of bat constantly emits high-frequency clicking sounds, up to 200 per second, and outside the highest range of human hearing. When the sound waves strike objects in their path an echo is returned to the bat. It can then judge distances between itself and an object, such as a stone wall or a tiny insect, and so it literally hears its way around. Since bats in flight perceive insects in this manner, this accounts for their sudden darting twists, turns, and dives while in pursuit. If bats are indeed evolved from insectivores, then echolocation as a means of finding flying insects in the dark probably developed very early on. Bats eat all types of nocturnal insects, but beetles and moths probably top the list. Yet some species of small bats have forsaken a diet of insects, and feed on ripe fruit, while others feed on nectar and pollen.
 
The Indian Flying-fox (Pteropus giganteus) is a species of bat in the Pteropodidae family. It is found in Bangladesh, China, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. The Greater Indian Fruit Bat lives in mainly forests. It is a very large bat with a wing span of around 80 centimeters. It is nocturnal and feeds mainly on ripe fruits such as mangoes and bananas and nectar. This bat is gregarious and lives in colonies which can number a few hundred. Their offspring has no specific name besides ‘young’. They reproduce sexually and give live birth. They have one to two young.
 
Range and Habitat: Pakistan, India, Myanmar and Sri Lanka. They roost in trees (especially banyans, figs and tamarinds) or clumps of bamboo. Habits and Adaptations: Flying foxes live in colonies of several hundred to several thousand individuals. Each bat has a specific resting place. There is a rank structure among males based on size and strength. No male-female bonds are formed. The bats fly to their feeding sites shortly after sundown. They spend most of the night feeding, returning to the roost at about 4 a.m. During the day sleep is interrupted by short periods of watchfulness. The colony is never completely still. Flying foxes do not echo-locate, like insectivorous bats. They fly entirely by sight. During hot weather these bats fan themselves with their wings and spread saliva over their bodies to help keep cool. Diet: Almost exclusively juice from fruits, including mangos, bananas, papayas, figs, sapotes and guaras. The pulp and seeds are usually spit out. Blossoms and nectar are also eaten.
Breeding and Maturation: Courtship consists of the male shrieking shrilly into the female’s ear until she allows copulation. Flying foxes are seasonal breeders, with young being born when food is most plentiful. The time of birth varies from January, in parts of India, to June in Sri Lanka. The single young is born after a 140-150 day gestation. The young weigh about 75 g. at birth. They first begin to hang by themselves at about three weeks. They begin to fly when around 11 weeks old, and are weaned by five months. Sexual maturity occurs at about 18 months.
Miscellaneous: Bats, due to their nocturnal nature, are high in spook hierarchy of folk tales and horror films. According to Indian folk medicine, a wing bone from a flying fox tied to the ankle with a tail hair from a black cow results in painless childbirth. The captive longevity record is 31 years.
 
Painting of the Flying Fox by Bhawani Das of Patna, circa 1778-82 on sale at Christies’s last year. Estimated price $ 3,32,114.
 

References:
“The Book of Indian Animals” by S. H. Prater, Wikipedia, Minnesota Zoo – Animals, America Zoo
 

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Vanishing Species – Indian Owls

An article by Mohan Pai

 
The Indian Owls


Owls are considered Demon Birds and attract foreboding and superstitious epithets. Their nocturnal nature, their devil-like horns, their sudden screeching from ancient tree-hollows in cemeteries or their piercing lidless stare – all of these have long earned them pride of place, along with the bat, in the spook hierarchy of folk tales and horror films.
Added to this are the tantriks and medicine men, who use them in black magic rituals and ‘miracle cures’ for their gullible clientele. The most common purpose is witchcraft. As the vehicle of Goddess Lakshmi, the owl is associated with wealth. So, those who hope to strike it rich with the help of the occult visit tantriks around the festive seasons of Dipavali and Durga Puja. The tantriks perform owl sacrifices, anoint their clients with sacrificial owl blood and give them an owl claw, guaranteed to bring in a massive fortune! Even educate, urbane citizens of Mumbai, Ahmedabad, Delhi and Kolkatta indulge in this gruesome ritual.
Clients are willing to fork out up to Rs eight lakh for a gold-and grey barn owl or a great horned owl (Eurasian Eagle Owl) and these are endangered species and hard to find. The owl trade is tough to trace now. Owls are procured specifically on request and kept well out of sight.
Owls are also used in street performances, ‘blessing’ amulets for onlookers to purchase.
In South Indian cities, however, owls are not so welcome due to prevalent superstitious beliefs. But word of growing demand for the owls and the astronomical prices they can fetch has made its way down south. Trappers are descending into forests and grasslands, and coming out with sackfuls of Great Horned Owls, Barn Owls and Scops Owl to be trafficked to the north, according to recent reports from Kerala. Trappers are active in Chennai too.
Indian Eagle Owl
– Bubo bengalensis
Also known as Rock Eagle Owl, Bengal Eagle Owl.
The Rock Eagle Owl also called the Indian Eagle Owl or Bengal Eagle Owl, Bubo bengalensis is a species of large horned owl found in South Asia. They were earlier treated as a subspecies of the Eurasian Eagle Owl. They are found in hilly and rocky scrub forests, and are usually seen in pairs. They have a deep resonant booming call that may be heard at dawn and dusk. They are typically large owls, and have “tufts” on their heads. They are splashed with brown, and gray and have a white throat patch with black small stripes.They are seen in scrub and light to medium forests but are especially seen near rocky places. Humid evergreen forest and pure desert are avoided. Bush covered rocky hillocks and ravines, and steep, scored banks of rivers and streams are favourite haunts. It spends the day under the shelter of a bush or rocky projection, or in a large mango or similar thickly foliaged tree near villages. Their diet consists of mice and any small rodents and mammals, and sometimes birds.The deep resonant two note calls are characteristic and males deliver these “long calls” mainly during dusk in the breeding season. The peak calling intensity is noticed in February. Young birds produce clicks, hisses and open up their wings to appear larger than they are. Nesting adults will fly in zig zag patterns and mob any potential predators (including humans) who approach the nest. When feeding on rodents, they tear up the prey rather than swallow them whole. The nesting season is November to April. The eggs number three to four and are creamy white, broad roundish ovals with a smooth texture. They are laid on bare soil in a natural recess in an earth bank, on the ledge of a cliff, or under the shelter of a bush on level ground.
The Indian Eagle Owl is confined to peninsular India, Sind in Pakistan and Marakan in Burma (where it may now be extinct), it faces a high risk of total extinction in the near future (conservative estimates put the country-wide population of breeding birds at less than 2,000 pairs).Endangered condition An inhabitant of the deeply scored ravines and gullies, it clings to a precarious existence as human pressure drives it out of its preferred habitat (land development activities,using ravines and gullies as sewage dumps, the rock faces are intensely mined for slowly but steadily fills up the canyons). The indiscriminate use of pesticides in the environment, which steadily build up in the tissues of this bird, rendering it infertile (adding to its mortality), is another apparently insurmountable problem. Add to this local mythical beliefs (which consider owls as creatures of ill omen and harbingers of death) and the general apathy towards the plight of this species by environmentalists themselves, and their future looks very bleak indeed.Peculiar ‘who-whooo’ call It spends the day sitting motionless in a cleft in a rock face or under a bush, relying on its cryptically coloured plumage for camouflage. At dusk it sets out from its hiding place, preceded and accompanied by its peculiar and distinctive ‘who-whooo’ call, which though not loud, has a curious far-carrying quality.
Predatory nature
The various species of rodents found in these parts (gerbils, mice, mole rats and rats) constitute the prey base of ‘Bubo bubo’ (a single owl has been known to consume nearly 300 rodents in a year), and the predatory nature of the species keeps their numbers in check. At times other birds, snakes, lizards, frogs and even other owls are consumed.
Breeding habits
The breeding period in these parts of its range is from December to April. Sometimes three, but more commonly two, eggs are laid on the ground in a sheltered spot among the rocky cliffs (no nest is made) at staggered intervals. After an incubation period of approximately 45 days, the eggs hatch, again at irregular intervals, so much so that when the last chick emerges the eldest is 15 days old and capable of feeding by itself. Usually only one chick survives (cannibalism is all too frequent – the larger chick killing and eating its younger nest mates). The survivor matures rapidly, and is capable of flying in less than 45 days. Unfortunately, most details concerning the natural history of this bird remain unknown and shrouded in myth.
What used to be called the Great Horned Owl (Bubo Bubo Bengalensis) in Salim Ali, is now sometimes merged with The Eurasian Eagle-Owl (Bubo Bubo) (Grimmett). However, some others (Grewal) maintain the subspecies distinction between and bengalensis and hemachalana, calling the first Eurasian Eagle owl (this is the Himalayan race), and the latter the Rock Eagle Owl. One characteristic is that the Rock Eagle Owl has streaks on the neck going down to the belly – which this bird seems to have.
Short-eared Owl
– Asio flammeus

Short-eared Owl (Asio flammeus) is a medium-sized owl that frequently flies during daylight, especially at dusk and dawn, as it forages for rodents. This owl is usually found in grasslands, shrub lands, and other open habitats. It is nomadic, often choosing a new breeding site each year, depending on local rodent densities. During the day, they may be found roosting on the ground or on open, low perches. The population of Short-eared Owl is declining throughout most of its range.
Identification:
Short-eared Owls are so named for the erect but barely visible ear tufts atop their heads. As the most aerial of all owls, this tawny-colored owl can be mistaken for the Northern Harrier at a distance. At 38 cm, these owls are medium-sized, with long, narrow wings. Tawny overall, they are spotted above and boldly streaked below, although streaking fades on the paler belly. Dark eye-patches offset the large golden eyes that adorn their broad facial disks. In flight, their outstretched wings expose the buffy patches above and black wrist-marks below. Their easy, wavering flight is characterized by stiff, erratic wingbeats and is very moth-like in appearance.
Calls: Silent except in the nesting season, the male Short-eared Owl gives a muffled “poo, poo, poo” in short series. When alarmed, both sexes bark out high, raspy, nasal notes “cheef, cheef, cheewaay”. Nests: Short-eared Owl nests beginning in April on the ground in a small depression excavated by the female and sometimes in ground burrows. Females select the nest site and only sparsely line it (if at all) with grasses, weeds and occasionally feathers. Often concealed by low vegetation, the nest is safe haven for the 4-14, 39 mm, creamy white, unmarked eggs of the clutch. The number of eggs laid is said to be dependant on the abundance of rodents. While the female alone incubates the clutch for 25-28 days, the male feeds her during this time. Young birds hatch asynchronously producing variously sized siblings in the nest. Both parents rear the young birds and fledging occurs in 31-36 days post-hatching
Food:
Although Short-eared Owls predominantly hunt small mammals, they also consume small birds and insects. These owls hunt at dusk and dawn and may hunt communally when prey is abundant. The primary feathers of their wings are modified to eliminate the noise of airflow, creating virtually silent flight for hunting. Soaring low over open country, these owls swoop down from the air or their perches (hawking) to snatch-up their victims with their sharp talons.

Spotted Eagle Owl
-(Bubo africanus)
The Spotted Eagle Owl is one of the smallest of the Eagle Owls. On average they weigh around one quarter of the weight of the largest of the Eagle Owl family, the Eurasian Eagle Owl. The Spotted Eagle Owl is found throughout most Africa south of the Sahara, with the exception of very dense forests. Up until 1999, it was considered that there were two subspecies of Spotted Eagle Owl found in Africa, but one of the subspecies, (Bubo africanus cinerascens), is now treated as a separate species, the Vermiculated Eagle Owl (Bubo cinerascens). In Africa there is now only one subspecies, (Bubo africanus africanus), and there is a second subspecies, (Bubo africanus milesi), is that is found found in the southern western parts of Arabian peninsula. The Spotted Eagle Owls hunt predominantly at dusk, spending most of the day concealed in trees, on rock ledges or even in burrows of other animals. They will take a large variety of prey, from small mammals, birds in flight, reptiles, scorpions, crabs, frogs, bats & insects. They are often seen hunting around streetlights in towns, which is where insects, & consequently bats hunting insects, tend to congregate at dusk. When preying on insects, it is necessary for the owls to eat a very large number, as they are quite small & take a lot of effort & energy to catch. Despite this, many Spotted Eagle Owls live on a diet of predominantly insects. When preying on mammals, the Spotted Eagle Owls will usually use the technique of still hunting, often catching the prey on the ground with a single steep swoop from their perch. If the prey is energetic, the Spotted Eagle Owls will often chase the prey for considerable distances. Investigations into the birds that the Spotted Eagle Owls prey on show a large variety, including terns, hornbills & even Lanner Falcons (Falco biarmicus). Basically, the Spotted Eagle Owls are very versatile when it comes to prey, feeding off anything they are able to catch, which enables them to survive fluctuations in prey populations. Spotted Eagle Owls usually mate for life. They usually nest on the ground or in disused nests in trees, though they have also been known to lay eggs on window ledges of large buildings. When nesting & incubating the eggs, most of the defence of the nest site is done mainly vocally, rather than by attacking. Their breeding season starts in July and lasts until late January or early February (as they live in the Southern Hemisphere, this corresponds to late winter/early summer breeding seasons of the owls in the Northern Hemisphere). 2 to 4 eggs are normally laid, and the female does all of the incubation, rarely leaving the nest, except to feed on prey brought to it by the male. Incubation takes around 30 to 32 days. At around 7 weeks from hatching, the young are able to fly competently, often following their parents calling loudly for food. The young are dependant on their parents for up to 5 weeks after learning to fly.

Given sufficient food in their territory, Spotted Eagle Owls may start breeding at 1 year old. As with all of the birds of prey, they suffer fairly high mortality rates in their first year of life, but if they survive that first year, then they are likely to live around 11-12 years in the wild.. Spotted Eagle Owls do not have a tendency to avoid populated areas, and many of their deaths are as a consequence. Quite a lot of their hunting is done by the sides of roads & many are killed by collisions with vehicles. Another cause of deaths is flying into, or becoming trapped by, fences & overhead cables. But by far the largest cause of deaths of Spotted Eagle Owls in Africa is pesticides, many of which are banned in Europe and America, such as DDT. Their natural predators include amongst other things, is the Osprey.

Indian Scops Owl
– Otus lettia


Small to medium sized owl, with distinctive ear tufts. Upper-parts light sandy brown marked with black and buff, under-parts grey (gray) or rufous buff, with darker arrowhead streaks and fine vermiculations. Distinct pale collar, and dark eyes.

References: Wikipedia, Shruti Ravindran in Outlook, www.aranya@auroville.org.in, www.birding.in, www.owlpages.com

Vanishing Species – The Painted Stork

An article by Mohan Pai

 

The Painted Storks of Veerapuram & Kaggaladu

Pic by Geeta Shankar

These migratory birds are endangered species who find a haven in the understanding and caring villagers.

Last week April 22-23), we made a trip to two heronries of painted stork near Tumkur. The first site we visited was Kaggaladu village near Sira and the second nesting site, a village called Veerapuram, just across the border in Andhra Pradesh. Karnataka (Kokrebellur, Rangantitthu, Kaggaladu etc.) and Andhra Pradesh ( Kolleru Lake, Pulicat, Neelapatu, Veerapuram, etc.} have sizeable colonies of these migratory birds.

These birds are thought to have migrated originally from the Great Russian ice desert in Siberia. They went south towards Asia, seeking warmer and more comfortable places of the world like India, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Malaysia. However, they seemed especially drawn to the Indian Peninsula. They come to breed in and around large bodies of water and coastal areas.

Standing from a distance, heronries of painted storks look like cluttered dirty blobs of white on the tree tops. One really has to strain his eyes to make out what exactly the entire scene represents. A closer look brings in view spectacular ‘hunched up’ colony of large birds. Built on tree one might find as many as 10-20 nests on a single tree, almost touching each other.
Painted Stork is a massive bird with a yellow, long and heavy bill, slightly curved near the tip. The plumage is white and closely barred, marked with glistening black above and with a black band across the breast.

Veerapuram

Statue of two painted storks adorn the entrance to Veerapuram Village – Pic by Geeta Shankar

It’s wonderful but difficult to understand the bond between the painted storks from Siberia and Veerapuram, a tiny remote village in Anantapura district, about 140 km from Bangalore. The Painted Storks have settled down in Veeepuram for more than a century now. The chemistry of love between the storks and Veerapuram is unfathomable as the birds are found nestled only on the trees within the village and not even on the outskirts.

Idyllic scene – Veerapuram Village – pic by Geeta Shankar

The villagers claim it is their “love for the guest birds” which keeps them in the village. Though the village has a small water body (a tank) it dries up by the time the guests arrive in the village or it doesn’t get the water at all due to the poor rainfall in the area. Nestled in the village the male birds fly even up to a couple of hundred km every night to fetch food from the water bodies. However, they return to the nests by dawn. The painted storks from Siberia and Algeria fly across the seas and mainland for about 6,000 km to reach Veerapuram. The migration starts from December and ends in May-June when the birds return to their homelands along with their new borns.

They start hatching immediately after reaching the tropical areas. After a gap of four years, an estimated 2,500 birds have migrated to the village last year. The villagers see the war in Afghanistan and severe drought conditions in the district for the last four years as the reason for the absence of the guests in the recent years.

The young chicks often fall down to the ground from their nests and are injured. The caring villagers have set aside a nursing hut for these injured birds. A vet is called in to treat the sick.

Chicks fallen to the ground are being nursed by the villagers – pic by Mohan Pai

It is amazing to see and know that these birds have chosen this village as their breeding centre. It is presumed that because these villagers take care of the birds by not harming them, they repeatedly come every year. The Care and concern shown to these birds by very enthusiastic children and the old of the village was very evident. We saw a big net which was tied under the trees to safeguard the eggs from falling onto the road.

Enthusiastic youngsters of Veerapuram

There are some 20 tamarind trees full of painted storks. But we also found a nest (above) in a gulmohar tree! – pic by Geeta Shankar

Feeding ground – A lake near Veerapuram Pic: Mohan Pai

Kaggaladu

Kaggaladu village near Sira, about 128 km from Bangalore, has become a potential bird sanctuary. The birds first started nesting here about 12 years ago. Around 10-12 tamarind trees turn into home for the painted storks from November to May every year. The painted storks come here in November from far away Pakistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan and Sri Lanka. Kaggaladu Village – pic by Geeta Shankar

The villagers treat the birds as family members and never pluck the tamarind as it would disturb the nest. Every villager has turned into an ornithologist and they have a good account of the life-style of the birds. Adding to the presence of the painted storks there is a sizeable population of grey herons. There are also some Spot billed pelicans around.

However, Kaggaladu is in need of serious sustainable conservation effort to maintain itself as one of the most important breeding sites for Painted Stork.These large beautiful birds prefer Tamarind trees for nesting, completely avoiding all other trees. Probably the strong stunted branches of Tamarind provide an easy landing for these heavy birds. More over, having no dense foliage, tamarind trees offer relatively lower resistance against stiff wind, which is prevalent in this part of Karnataka. This makes the nesting places safe from dangerous sway. Even though we could see many tamarind trees in the village, the storks choose only 10 of them for reasons completely unknown. Apart from the fact that the villagers take care of the trees, there is no coordinated effort to protect them. Four of the five nesting trees are on government land, by the road and the other one is on private land. We have seen private buses irresponsibly honk their horn loudly and race through the village road directly below the nests.

Painted stork colony in tamarind tree – pic by Geeta Shankar

The tank and its vicinity however, had gone dry in the last four years due to incessant drought in the area. It was yet another reason why nesting activity had come to halt. Birds used to come and leave soon after noticing the dry tank. The tank received some water during the rainfall in September-October year before.

Physical Traits

The Painted stork of India is a tall and slim bird, which grows to a height of 95 to 100 cm. The bird is mostly white in color, with the exception of its wings and chest feathers that have black and white markings. The color of the lower back, along with the legs, is light pink. The head of the Painted storks is only partly covered with feathers and is orange in color.
The bill is long, yellow in color and curves towards the end. The female Painted stork is a little smaller than the male. The young ones are brownish in color when they hatch. Only after they become three years old, do they get adult feathers or plumage. Full maturity comes around the age of four years.

Diet

Painted storks of India prefer to eat fish, which also forms a major portion of their diet. However, at times, they consume frogs and snails also. When hunting, the stork puts its head inside the water, with its bill being partly open. The bird keeps swinging its head back and forth in the water, till it catches a prey.

Natural Habitat

Painted storks are seen occupying Indian freshwater marshes, ponds and flooded fields. Apart from India, the bird is found in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, eastern China, Kampuchea and Vietnam. A small population of the Painted stork lives in Thailand also.

Status

Painted stork bird of India has a place in the list of protected species, at the moment.

Predators

The predators of Painted stork of India include tigers, leopards, jungle cats, hyenas and crocodiles. Some villagers also kill them for their meet.

Behavior

Painted Storks are found mostly in large colonies and stay near water. The nests, made up of sticks and leaves, are built close to the edge of the water. One can see other stork species, like herons, ibises, cormorants and spoonbills, sharing the habitat with Painted storks. Till 18 months of age, the young ones can make loud calls to attract their parents. However, after this, they lose their speech and use other signals to convey something to their fellow birds.

Mating Behavior

The breeding season of the Painted stork starts towards the end of the rainy season. The mating period is the time for the male storks to perform ritualistic displays and attract females. After mating, the nest is built and the female lays around 3 to 5 eggs. The incubation period is between 27 and 32 days and the responsibility is shared by the both the parents. The young ones become fully matured when they attain four years of age.

Senses

The most important as well as the most developed senses of the Painted stork comprise of its eyesight and hearing. The young ones communicate through loud hoarse call. However, after attaining 18 moths of age, the style of communication changes to clattering of large bills or hissing or bowing to each other or spreading the wings, etc.

References: Wikipedia, Deccan Herald, Hindu, Indian Express.

Acknowledgements: My grateful thanks to Mrs. Geeta Shankar, Mr.Chandrappa, RFO, Sira Division, and Mr. Gurumurthy of Karnataka Forest Dept.


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