Archive for the 'Wildlife' Category

Sunday Article: Vanishing species- Pygmy Hog

Sunday Article by Mohan Pai
Hello friends,

Good morning. A number of my readers wrote asking why the Sunday Articles had stopped.

Unfortunately, I had to undergo an emergency cardiac surgery and hence this long intervening gap.

This Sunday, it’s about the Pygmy Hog, a highly endangered species. In fact it is more endangered than the tiger ! Only about 150 animals survive in the wild only in Assam (Manas National Park).

When it comes to conservation, the flagship species like the tiger, rhino, etc. hog the limelight. The plight of the lesser vulnerable, critically endangered animals gets hardly any attention.

Very best wishes,

Mohan Pai

Pygmy Hog
Sus salvanius

The smallest pig in the world is also more endangered than the tiger !
Only 150 animals survive in Assam.

The Pygmy Hog is critically endangered with less than hundred and fifty thought to be left in the wild. Once native to India, Bhutan and Nepal, these little guys were thought extinct from the 1950s-60s, until a small population was discovered. They can now be found only in the northwest Assam region in India. The pygmy hog is notable as it is the only surviving member of the genus Porcula.

The pygmy hog is a small wild pig weighing about 8.5 kg (10 lb). It lives in dense, tall grassland, where it feeds on roots, tubers and other vegetable matter, as well as insects and other invertebrates. Nests are built and used by both sexes at all times of the year. The pygmy hog is apparently non-territorial. It lives in small family groups of about 4 – 5 individuals, comprised of one or more adult females and accompanying juveniles, and occasionally an adult male.

The pygmy hog formerly occurred throughout the Terai region of India, Bhutan and Nepal. It is now found only in northwest Assam, India. By 1993 it was reduced to only two known, isolated populations in northwest Assam – the Manas Wildlife Sanctuary and the Barnadi Wildlife Sanctuary.

The continuing decline of the pygmy hog is due to the modification and elimination of its limited habitat by human settlement, agricultural encroachment, overgrazing by domestic livestock, commercial forestry, flood control projects, and civil unrest among Assamese ethnic groups.
Pygmy Hogs are about 55 to 71 cm long and stand at 20-30 cm with a tail of 2.5 cm. They weigh 6.6 to 11.8 kilograms. Their skin is dark brownish black and the fur is dark. Piglets are born grayish-pink becoming brown with yellow stripes along the body length. The head is sharply tapered and they have a slight crest of hair on the forehead and on the back of the neck. Adult males have the upper canines visible on the sides of the mouth. They live for about 8 years, becoming sexually mature at 1-2 years. They breed seasonally before the monsoons giving birth to a litter of 3-6 after a gestation of 100 days. In the wild they make small nests by digging a small trench and lining it with vegetation. During the heat of the day they stay within these nests. They feed on roots, tubers, insects, rodents, and small reptiles.

The species was first described as the only member of the genus Porcula (Hodgson, 1847), but was then regarded as the closest relative of the Eurasian pig Sus scrofa and named Sus salvanius The resurrection of the original genus status and the species name Porcula salvania has been adopted by GenBank. The species name salvania is after the Sal forests where it was found.

Status

The pygmy hog is the sole representative of Porcula, making the conservation of this critically endangered species even more important as its extinction would result in the loss of a unique evolutionary branch of pigs. They used to be widespread in the tall, wet grasslands in the southern Himalayan foothills from Uttar Pradesh to Assam, through Nepal and north Bengal. However, human encroachment has largely destroyed the natural habitat of the pygmy hog by development, agriculture, domestic grazing and deliberate fires. Only one viable population remains in the Manas Tiger Reserve, but even there threats due to livestock grazing, poaching and fire persist. The total wild population has been estimated as less than 150 animals and the species is listed as “critically endangered” Their rarity contrasts greatly with the massive population of wild boars (Sus scrofa) in India.

Conservation

Conservation of the species has been hampered due to the lack of public support, unlike that for charismatic South Asian mammals like the Bengal Tiger or Indian Rhino. Local political unrest in the area has also severely hampered effective conservation efforts, but these conflicts have now ceased.

References: Wikipedia, Animal Kingdom, Zooillogix.

Sunday Article: Clouded Leopard

Sunday article by Mohan Pai
 
 Clouded Leopard
 
Neofelis nebulosa
 

Clouded leopard is not a leopard but a relative of the extinct saber toothed tiger.
 

It has long been known that the clouded leopard has the longest upper canine teeth for its skull size of any modern carnivore, causing some people to compare the cat with the extinct saber-toothed cat.

Recent research into the skull characteristics of both living and extinct cats has revealed that the clouded leopard has a skull unlike any other cat today. In a number of respects it bears distinctive resemblance to the primitive saber-toothed cats.
 
The Clouded Leopard is a medium-sized cat found in Southeast Asia. It has a tan or tawny coat, and is distinctively marked with large, irregularly-shaped, dark-edged ellipses which are said to be shaped like clouds. This unique appearance gave the mammal both its common and scientific species name (nebulosus is Latin for “cloudy”). The Clouded Leopard was confusing to scientists for a long time because of its appearance and skeleton. It seemed to be a cross between a big cat and a small cat. The scientific name of the genus, Neofelis, originates from neo, which means “new”, and felis, which means “small cat”, so it literally means new kind of small cat.
 
The average Clouded Leopard typically weighs between 15 and 23 kg (33 to 50 lb) and has a shoulder height of 25 to 40 centimeters (10 to 16 inches).This medium sized cat has a large build and, proportionately, the longest canine teeth (2 in, about the same as a tiger’s) of any living feline. These characteristics led early researchers to speculate that it preyed on large land-dwelling mammals. However, while remarkably little is known about the natural history and behavioral habits of this species in the wild, it is now thought that its primary prey includes arboreal and terrestrial mammals, particularly gibbons, macaques, and civets supplemented by other small mammals, deer, birds, porcupines, and domestic livestock.
 

 

 
Clouded leopard – Range map
 
As might be expected from the fact that some of its prey lives in trees, the Clouded Leopard is an excellent climber. Short, flexible legs, large paws, and sharp claws combine to make it very sure-footed in the canopy. The Clouded Leopard’s tail can be as long as its body, further aiding in balance giving it a squirrel-like agility similar to the Margay of South America. Surprisingly, this arboreal creature can climb while hanging upside-down under branches and descend tree trunks head-first.
 
Behavior
 
Like all wild cats, clouded leopards are carnivores. They are thought to hunt a variety of prey including birds, squirrels, monkeys, deer, and wild pigs. It was once thought that clouded leopards hunted while climbing. Current thought, however, is that while some hunting may occur in the trees, most likely takes place on the ground. Trees are thought to provide resting habitat during the day.

Virtually nothing is known of the social behavior of wild clouded leopards. They are likely solitary, like most cats, unless associated with a mate while breeding or accompanied by cubs. Likewise, activity patterns are virtually unknown. Once thought to be exclusively nocturnal, evidence suggests that they may show some periods of activity during the day as well.

Reproduction

Clouded leopards are sexually mature around the age of 2 years. Mating can occur in any month, but in captivity most breeding occurs between December and March. The gestation period is between 85 and 93 days with 1 to 5 cubs produced per litter. Cubs are independent at approximately 10 months of age. Females can produce a litter every year.
 
 
 


 
 
References, Wikipedia, S. H. Prater (The Book of Indian Animals), iloveindia.com
 
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Sunday Article: Pallas’s Cat

Sunday article by Mohan Pai
 
 Pallas’s Cat
 Octocolobus manul
 

 Pic courtesy: Edinburgh Zoo
 
An exotic and rare feline, Pallas’s cat is a small size predator of Central Asian mountains, found only in the Ladakh region in India.
 
It is named after the naturalist Peter Simon Pallas, a German zoologist and botanist who worked in Russia who first described the species in 1776. Pallas’s Cat is the oldest living species of the modern genus felis .
 
The pallas’s cat is a small, long tailed cat with a broad head, low forehead and short widely – separated ears. Pallas cat is small in size, weighing between 2 – 4.5 kg. and has a grey to ruddy grey coat. Its legs are short and striped. The forehead is spotted and the tail is bushy and striped. Pallas cats are adapted to cold, arid environments and have a wide distribution through Central Asia, but they are relatively specialized in their habitat requirements. Pallas cat is chiefly crepuscular and feeds mainly on pikes and rodents. Birds and insects also form part of its diet. Pallas cats are seasonal breeders, with most litters being born between April and May. Four to five kittens (sometimes up to 8) are born in a litter. Their gestation period is of 66 – 75 days. They are found in stony, alpine desert and grassland habitats but are generally absent from low land sandy desert basins except along river courses. They are found at altitudes up to 4,800 mts. Globally, its distribution spans the cold arid regions of the Central Asia. The northern cold desert region of Ladakh in India is its southernmost distribution
 
          Range map of Pallas’s cat                                                    
 
Pallas’s Cat is the oldest living species of a clade of felids that includes the modern genus Felis. This feline, along with the extinct Martelli’s Cat, were the first two modern cats to evolve from Pseudaelurus approximately 12 million years ago.
 

 
This cat has several features which distinguish it from other felines. Most strikingly, it has round pupils. Its legs are short, its rump is rather bulky, and its fur long and thick. The combination of its stocky posture and thick fur makes it appear especially stout and plushy. Its coat changes with the seasons: the winter coat is greyer and less patterned than the summer coat. The ears are set low and give the cat a somewhat owl-like appearance. Because of its relatively flat face, it was once thought that Pallas’s Cat was the ancestor of the Persian cat breed.
 
Pallas’s Cat inhabits the Asian steppes up to heights of 4000 m (13,000 ft). They are thought to be crepuscular hunters and feed on small rodents, pikas and birds.
 
The Pallas’ cat is similar in size to a housecat. A thick coat of shaggy fur and a long, bushy tail help combat extreme temperatures that reach lows nearing -60°F. Pallas’ cats take shelter in marmot burrows, caves, and rock crevices. 
 
Fact File

Length: 1.5 to 2 ft Weight:2-4.5 kg Lifespan: 8 to 10 yrs in wild Habitat: Mountain regions, including grassland, woodland, and semi-desert Diet: Pikas, hares, and small rodents such as gerbils, voles, and young marmots Status: Species at Risk (IUCN—Lower risk/near threatened )
 
 


 
Pic courtesy: Zurich Zoo
 
 
References: Wikipedia.
 
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Sunday Article: Nilgai

Sunday article by Mohan Pai
 
 
 
Nilgai
 Boselaphus tragocamaelus
 

 
 

 

India’s largest antelope
 

Hindi word Neelgai (Nilgai) refers to the bluish color of the adult male, and therefore Blue Bull is another name for the animal. Neelgai probably evolved in open, dry Indian forests during the Tertiary geological period. Nilgai are classified as bovids (family Bovidae), and with their close relative, the Four-horned Antelope Tetracerus quadricornis, are the only living representatives of the tribe Boselaphini.
 

Neelgai is the largest of the Asiatic antelopes. They have a life expectancy of 20 -30 years, most of which they prefer to spend in open jungles and scrubby grasslands. Adult bulls weigh about 220 kg, while the cows weigh about 180 kg and calves about 7 kg at birth. The blue-gray adult bulls have black legs, and some may be brown-tinged, particularly younger bulls. Cows and calves are fawn or pale brown. All have similar dark and white markings on their ears and legs. Only the males have horns, which are black-coloured, short (about 18 cm), sharp, and bi-curved. The hair of adults is thin in density, wiry, and somewhat oily. Their skin is thick, particularly on the chest and neck of the bulls, where it forms a dermal shield. The eyesight and hearing of Neelgai is quite good but their sense of smell less acute. They have good speed and endurance.

Neelgai make several low-volume vocalizations, including a short, guttural “bwooah” when alerted. Calves may bawl and may make a grunting sound while nursing. In India, Nilgai occurs from the foothills of the Himalayas southward to Mysore. They live on a variety of land types from hillsides to level ground with scattered grass steppes, trees, and cultivated areas, but not in thick forests. Their habitats are characterized by paths, water holes, defecation sites, and resting cover. Neelgai were common in India during
the 1880s and were hunted for sport by the British. Besides man, the tiger is their main predator. In the 1980s Neelgai had drastically declined because of shooting and loss of habitat.

Neelgai segregate into male and female groups except during the breeding season. Bulls do not maintain a fixed territory but defend a space around themselves. Fighting occurs between dominant bulls, and serious injury or death sometimes results. Neelgai make dung piles by defecating repeatedly on the same sites. The social and territorial significance of this habit is not known. Some breeding takes place year-round. At that time breeding groups of one dominant bull and one to several cows are found. The peak calving period is September through November. Neelgai breed at age two to three years, whereas males may not mature until their fourth year. The gestation period is approximately 245 days. Twins are common, and triplets occur occasionally.

Neelgai eats mainly woody plants supplemented by agricultural crops. Their diet includes herbs and plant parts (flowers, seeds, fruit, leaves, stem tips). In the absence of preferred food they readily alter their diet. In India they share certain diseases with livestock and wildlife. Perhaps the most universal of these are foot-and-mouth disease and malignant catarrhal fever. 
  Nilgai pursued by dholes, as drawn by Robert Armitage Sterndale in Denizens of the Jungles, 1886
 

Status 
 
Nilgai antelope has been listed in the ‘Low Risk’ category by the IUCN. The estimated population of Nilgai in India is approximately 100,000. The main threat to the Neelgai is from the destruction of its habitat to accommodate the ever-swelling human population.
 
Tidbits
 Blue bulls generally come to the same place to deposit their droppings.
Blue bull can survive for a long period of time without water.
Nilgai was introduced in Texas in 1920’s.

In India, it is believed that the Nilgai antelope is a sacred animal (precisely a cow) and it is protected against hunting.
 


 
References: Wikipedia, iloveindia.com
 
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Sunday Article: Indian Jackal

Sunday article by Mohan Pai
 
 The Indian Jackal
 Canis aureus
 

  Photo coutesy: S. Das
 
Tabaqui of Kipling’s Jungle book with an eerie howl.
 
Tabaqui, the jackal (Gidur-log) in Kipling’s Jungle Book is an opportunistic associate of Sher Khan, the lame tiger and he is also a mischief maker. Also known as Golden jackal, this animal features in many fables (Panchatantra, Hitopadesha, Jataka Tales) and generally projected as a sometimes conceited, sometimes foolish and sometimes greedy, cunning and shrewd creature.
 
Jackal’s long-drawn eerie howls at dusk or just before dawn are characteristic of the Indian countryside and jungle and has been subject of superstition about death and evil spirits. The other characteristics which makes the jackal infamous is the rabid jackal attacks on people. Just last month (November, 2009) jackals attacked over 50 people in Bargama and other villages of Samastipur, Bihar.
Fredrick Forsythe’s popular book “The Day of the Jackal” where Carlos is the professional assasin has also endowed this animal with some popularity.

Description:

Golden Jackal are 70- 85 cm long and weigh around 8 -10 kg. They are golden yellowish in colour with a reddish tail having a black tip. The tail itself measures upto 9 -14 inches. It has white mark on its throat and the back of the ears is darker in colour. Males are usually larger than the females.
 
 
 


 
Tabaqui’ of the Jungle Book
 
Distribution:

Golden Jackal are found throughout India. Jackals live in almost any environment, in humid forest country, or in dry open plains, or desert. They are found at higher altitudes in the Himalayas but greater number lives in the lowlands about towns, villages and cultivation. In Kodagu and Nilgiris their population appears to be declining. The total estimated population in India is around 80,000.

Diet : Golden Jackal are omnivorous. They feed on small mammals, insects, hares, fish, birds and fruits.

Reproduction: Gestation period rests for nine weeks. Females give birth to 3-6 pubs. During pregnancy males go out in search of food and the females rest at home. They weigh around 200 -250 g at birth. They open their eyes in about ten days. They are weaned in 4- 6 weeks. The females are sexually mature than in less than a year, the males closer to the two years.

Conservation status : Not threatened

Life span : Golden Jackal lives up to 14-16 years of age. 
  
 

 Anubis, the jackal-headed god of the dead

For centuries, golden jackals have made an impression on Middle Eastern civilisations. They feature in many fables, are referred to in the Bible several times, and Anubis, a god of ancient Egypt, was depicted as a man with the head of a jackal.

References: Wikipedia, Jungle Book, The Book of Indian Animals, S. H. Prater.

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Sunday Article: Peacock

Sunday article by Mohan Pai
 
 
PEACOCK
 Pavo cristatus
 
  
 
The icon of beauty, love & romance
 
The male Indian peafowl is commonly called Peacock. This gorgeous and majestic bird Peacock, Pavo cristatus is the national bird of India. It’s a symbol of beauty, joy, grace and love. Indian tradition is full of references to this glamourous bird and it has been repeatedly used as popular art motif. Due to its close proximity to humans for thousands of years, the peacock is featured in ancient Indian stories, songs and poems as symbol of beauty & pose. In two epic poems of Kalidasa (Meghadutam and Kumarasambhava) the beauty of the peacock has been used as an ornate literary tool. The peacock is a prominent motif both in Rajasthani & Mughal schools of paintings. The lovelorn, pining Nayikas in Rajasthani miniatures have the peacock as a companion. The Jataka tales Mahamayur Jataka describes the earlier birth of Bhagavan Buddha as a golden peacock. 
 
 
Hindu mythology describes the peacock is to be the vahan or the vehicle for Karthikeya also called Murugan, the brother of Ganesha, the goddess Saraswati, and the goddess Mahamayuri. Indian Peacock (called Mayura in Sanskrit) has enjoyed a fabled place in India since ancient times. In imagery Lord Krishna is always represented wearing a peacock feather tucked in his headband. Peacocks often live in proximity to humans. Ancient kings in India were said to have gardens to raise peacocks where guests were invited to see the famous male peacock dance during the mating season. Due to this close proximity to humans for thousands of years, they have entered ancient Indian stories, songs and poems as symbols of beauty and poise. As the mating season coincides with the onset of monsoon rains and the month of Shravan in the Hindu calendar, many songs of rains have peacock-dance mentioned in them. One possible origins of the name of the famous Maurya dynasty of ancient India is probably derived from the word Mayura as the ancestors of the Mauryas are thought to be peacock-keepers of a royal court in eastern India.
 

 
 The main figure of the Kurdish religion Yezidism, Melek Taus, is most commonly depicted as a peacock. The Yezidi’s claim Indian origins.
 

 
This colourful bird has a fan-shaped crest on its head, a white patch under its eye and a long-slender neck. The male of species is more beautiful with a gleaming blue breast and an iridescent blue-green coloured plumage. The train feathers have a series of eyes and are best seen when the elongated tail is fanned. When displaying to a female, the peacock erects this train into spectacular fan, presenting the ocelli(eye-spots) to their best advantage.
 
Physical Features

The peacock, is one of the most recognisable birds in the world. These large, brightly colored birds have a distinctive crest and an unmistakable ornamental train. The train (1.4-1.6 meters in length) accounts for more than 60% of their total body length (2.3 meters). Combined with a large wingspan (1.4-1.6 meters), this train makes the male peafowl one of the largest flying birds in the world. The train is formed by 100-150 highly specialized uppertail-coverts. Each of these feathers sports an ornamental ocellus, or eye-spot, and has long disintegrated barbs, giving the feathers a loose, fluffy look. When displaying to a female, the peacock erects this train into a spectacular fan, presenting the ocelli to their best advantage.

The more subtly coloured female Peafowl is mostly brown above with a white belly. Her ornamentation is limited to a prominent crest and green neck feathers. Though females (2.75-4.0 kg) weigh nearly as much as the males (4.0-6.0 kg), they rarely exceed 1.0 meter in total body length.
 
Plumage

The male (peacock) Indian Peafowl has iridescent blue-green or green coloured plumage. The so-called “tail” of the peacock, also termed the “train,” is not the tail quill feathers but highly elongated upper tail coverts. The train feathers have a series of eyes that are best seen when the tail is fanned. Both species have a crest atop the head.

The female (peahen) Indian Peafowl has a mixture of dull green, brown, and grey in her plumage. She lacks the long upper tail coverts of the male but has a crest. The female can also display her plumage to ward off female competition or danger to her young.

The Green Peafowl is different in appearance to the Indian Peafowl. The male has green and gold plumage and has an erect crest. The wings are black with a sheen of blue.
 
Social Characteristics

Peacock or peafowl Large bird belonging to the pheasant family, in East Asia being its native region. The crested common peacock during courtship displays his elongated upper tail which converts into a magnificent green and gold erectile train adorned with green blue ” eyes ” before the duller plumaged peahen. The peacock is a ornamental bird and is of quarrelsome nature and does not mix well with other domestic animals.

Habitat & Diet

They are omnivorous, obtaining most of their food by scratching the leaf litter with their strong feet. Indian Peafowl do most of their foraging in the early morning and shortly before sunset. They retreat to the shade and security of the forest for the hottest portion of the day. Foods include grains, insects, small reptiles, small mammals, berries, drupes, wild figs, and some cultivated crops.

Peacock distribution

The peacock is widely found in the Indian sub-continent from the south and east of the Indus river, Jammu and Kashmir, east Assam, south Mizoram and the whole of the Indian peninsula. The peacock enjoys immense protection. It is fully protected under the Indian Wildlife Protection) Act, 1972.
 
Peacock Throne
 
The legendary ‘Peacock Throne’ (also known as Takht-e-Tavous) of Ml Emperor Shah Jahan is a wonder of Mughal Art. It was yet another example of Shah Jahan’s unparallel aesthetic sense and love of art. This is counted as the costliest single treasure crafted in the last thousand years. In fact, the Peacock Throne was twice as costly as the total cost of the Taj Mahal. The original Peacock Throne was built in the 17th century and it was placed in Delhi’s royal court known as Diwan-i-Aam.
 


 
It acquired its name from its unique shape. It had the figures of two peacocks standing behind it, their tails being expanded and the whole was inlaid with sapphires, rubies, emeralds, pearls and other precious stones of appropriate colors so as to represent life. As described by the French jeweler Jean Baptiste Tavernier, who visited Delhi in 1665, the throne as of the shape of a bed (a “takhta” i.e. platform), 6 ft. by 4 ft., supported by four golden feet, 20 to 25 in. high, from the bars above which rose twelve columns to support the canopy; the bars were decorated with crosses of rubies and emeralds, and also with diamonds and pearls. There were 108 large rubies on the throne, and 116 emeralds. The twelve columns supporting the canopy were decorated with rows of splendid pearls, and according to Tavernier, these were the most valuable part of the throne. Among the historical diamonds decorating it were the famous Kohinoor (186 carats), the Akbar Shah (95 carats), the Shah (88.77 carats), the Jehangir (83 carats) and the second largest spinel ruby in the world — the Timur ruby (283 carats). A-20 couplet poem by the Mughal poet-laureate Qudsi, praising the Emperor, was embedded in the throne in emerald letters.
 
Delhi was invaded by Nader Shah in 1738 and the priceless Peacock Throne was one of the rare treasures he plundered from India. The legendary throne was carried to Iran. It glorified the palace of Iran till it was destroyed in the chaos following the assassination of Nader Shah in 1747.
 
 References: Wikipedia, wildlife-tour-india.com
 
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Sunday Article: The House Crow

Sunday article by Mohan Pai
 
The House Crow
Corvus splendens

Photo courtesy: J. M. Garg
 
In India, the crow is considered a spirit of the ancestors. During Shraddha or death ceremony pinda (food) is offered and is considered accepted only if a crow arrives and eats it.
 
The house crow is a widespread resident of India and has a special place in Hindu society. During death ceremonies (shraddha) and Pitru Paksha, the practice of offering food or pinda to crows is still in vogue since crows are believed to represent our ancestors.
 
The House Crow, also known as the Colombo Crow is a common bird of the Crow family that is of Asian origin but now found in many parts of the world, where they arrived assisted by shipping. It is between the Jackdaw and the Carrion Crow in size (40 cm in length) but is relatively slimmer than either. The forehead, crown, throat and upper breast are a richly glossed black, whilst the neck and breast are a lighter grey-brown in colour. The wings, tail and legs are black. There are regional variations in the thickness of the bill and the depth of colour in areas of the plumage.
 
Distribution and habitat
It has a widespread distribution in southern Asia, being native to Nepal, Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Maldives and Laccadive Islands, South West Thailand and coastal southern Iran. It has been introduced to East Africa around Zanzibar (around 1897[3]) and Port Sudan, and arrived in Australia via ship but has up to now been exterminated. Recently it has made its arrival in Europe, and has been breeding in the Hook of Holland since 1998. It is associated with human settlements in all of its range, from small villages to large cities.

Due to a human population explosion in the areas it inhabits, this species has also proportionately multiplied. Being an omnivorous scavenger has enabled it to thrive in such circumstances.
 
 

House Crow – distribution
The invasive potential for the species is great all over the tropics. It has as yet not established in the New World. This species is able to make use of resources with great flexibility and appears to be associated with humans and no populations are known to exist independently of human
 
Size: 42 cm Weight: 250-350 gm
Identification: Plumage is glossy black, except for the nape, sides of the head, upper back and breast, which are grey. Bill, legs, and feet also black. Sexes alike.

Food: Omnivorous. Diet includes seeds, fruit, grain, nectar, berries, bird’s eggs, nestlings, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, fish, insects, wide range of carrion.It is a highly opportunistic bird and given its omnivorus diet, it can survive on anything that is edible.

Call: Normal call a harsh qua qua or a nasal kaan kaan. It also has a couple of softer calls when resting or during courtship.

Habits: Highly vocal, gregarious birds, seemingly unafraid of humans. Aggressive, will attack and chase off any large bird of prey. Birds have been reported taking food from school children and killing chicks of domestic fowls. Breeding pairs will repeatedly dive bomb humans near the nest.

Habitat: Wholly dependent on human habitation; consequently found in villages, towns, and cities throughout its range. Resorts to altitudinal and seasonal local movements in colder northern areas in winter. Replaced by Large-billed Crows and Jungle Crows in mountains and forests respectively.

Breeding: Solitary nester except in areas of high population density. Will use trees, buildings, or other artificial structures for rough stick nest lined with coir or other fibre. Four to five pale blue-green eggs, speckled with brown. Breeding season March through July. Incubation 16–17 days; fledging 21–28 days.

Status: Not threatened. Abundant in its range to the point of being a pest and a threat to other bird species.

Photo courtesy Muhammad Mahdi Karim
 
References: Wikipedia, birding.in
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Vanishing Species: Indian Otters

Sunday article by Mohan Pai

 
Indian Otters
Mustelids
Photo: courtesy: K. Pichumani
 
Playful creatures, a group of Otters is called ‘romp’, being descriptive of their playful nature.
Otters are semi-aquatic, fish-eating mammals. The otter subfamily Lutrinae forms part of the family Mustelidae, which also includes weasels, polecats, badgers, as well as others. With thirteen species in seven genera, otters have an almost worldwide distribution. They mainly eat aquatic animals, predominantly fish and shellfish, but also other invertebrates, amphibians, birds and small mammals.An otter’s den is called a holt or couch. A male otter is a dog (otter), a female a bitch (otter), and a baby a whelp or pup. The collective nouns for otters are bevy, family, lodge or romp, being descriptive of their often playful nature, or when in water raft.
India is home to three species of otters: the Eurasian otter (Lutra lutra), the smooth-coated otter (Lutra perspicillata) and the small-clawed otter (Amblonyx cinerous). Just 50 years ago, the smooth coated otter, also referred to as the smooth Indian otter, was widespread in the country while both Eurasian and the small clawed otter (earlier called the clawless otter) were absent from central India, but found in broad bands in the Himalayas and the ghats in the south. It is essentially an otter of cold hill and moutain streams and lakes. Today, these elegant creatures are confined only to protected areas and zoos. If there are any unknown pockets outside, they are unlikely to survive.What happened to otters was quite simple. Found in rivers, lakes and other wetlands, they competed with human beings for fish, their main diet, and lost. Pollution poisoned their food and habitat. Lakes and wetlands were drained for agriculture. In fact the trade of otter skins has been going on for hundreds of years in South East Asia. According to a wildlife trade survey done in Thailand, an otter skin can be sold for $90-$100 to leather factories and considered the best leather to make jackets. It is also believed that otter fat was good for rheumatism, and dried otter penis can fetch up to $50 per inch in Mandalay, and in Myitkyina in the Kachin state. A researcher from the Centre for Ecological Sciences, Bangalore, V. Meena, found nomadic tribal herb collectors from Haryana trapping otters in the Palani hills of Tamil Nadu to sell the oil and skin and of course, eat the flesh, while they were at it.
Characteristics
Otters have long, slim bodies and relatively short limbs, with webbed paws. Most have sharp claws on their feet, and all except the sea otter have long muscular tails.They have a very soft, insulated underfur which is protected by their outer layer of long guard hair. This traps a layer of air, and keeps them dry and warm under water.Many otters live in cold waters and have very high metabolic rates to help keep them warm. In summer, in the Himalayas many otters go up the streams and torrents ascending to altitudes of 12,000 ft or more. Their upward movement probably coincides with the upward migration of carp and other fish for purposes of spawning. With the advent of winter they come down to the lower streams.For most otters, fish is the primary staple of their diet. This is often supplemented by frogs, crayfish and crabs. Some otters are expert at opening shellfish, and others will feed on available small mammals or birds. Prey-dependence leaves otters very vulnerable to prey depletion.Otters are very active, chasing prey in the water or searching the beds of rivers, lakes or the seas. Most species live beside water, entering it mainly to hunt or travel, otherwise spending much of their time on land to avoid their fur becoming waterlogged. The sea otter does live in the sea for most of its life.Otters are playful animals and appear to engage in various behaviors for sheer enjoyment. Different species vary in their social structure, with some being largely solitary, while others live in groups – in a few species these groups may be fairly large.

Range map of Otters (IUCN)

Major Threat(s): The aquatic habitats of otters are extremely vulnerable to man-made changes. Canalisation of rivers, removal of bank side vegetation, dam construction, draining of wetlands, aquaculture activities and associated man-made impacts on aquatic systems are all unfavourable to otter populations (Reuther and Hilton-Taylor 2004). In South and South East Asia, the decrease in prey species from wetlands and water ways had reduced the population to an unsustainable threshold leading to local extinctions. The poaching is one of the main cause of its decline from South and South East Asia, and possibly also from the North Asia. (IUCN Red List)
References: Wikipedia, IUCN Red List, S. H. Prater (the book of Indian Animals), Aniruddha Mookerjee in the Hindu.

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Vanishing Species: Peregrine Falcon

Sunday article by Mohan Pai

 
Peregrine Falcon
Falco peregrinus

Nature’s dive-bomber that attains an incredible speed of 324 km per hour in its swoop.
Rocketing down to catch its prey, no other creature on earth can move as fast as the peregrine falcon. A peregrine stooping is not really flying; it’s coming out of the sky like 1 kg feathered rock. These falcons get higher than most before they dive, so they reach higher speeds. Presumably they need the altitude and resulting speed because their prey itself is so fast. Pigeons for example, a staple peregrine food, can have a cruising speed of 50 km/h and bursts of about 100 km/h which is the top speed for a cheetah.
Painting of subspecies babylonicusBy John Gould
The Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus), also known simply as the Peregrine, and historically as the “Duck Hawk” in North America, is a cosmopolitan bird of prey in the family Falconidae. It is a large, crow-sized falcon, with a blue-gray back, barred white underparts, and a black head and “moustache”. As is common with bird-eating raptors, the female is much bigger than the male. Experts recognize 17–19 subspecies, which vary in appearance and range; there is disagreement over whether the distinctive Barbary Falcon is a subspecies or a distinct species.
The Peregrine’s breeding range includes land regions from the Arctic tundra to the Tropics. It can be found nearly everywhere on Earth, except extreme polar regions, very high mountains, and most tropical rainforests; the only major ice-free landmass from which it is entirely absent is New Zealand. This makes it the world’s most widespread bird of prey. Both the English and scientific names of this species mean “wandering falcon”, referring to the migratory habits of many northern populations.While its diet consists almost exclusively of medium-sized birds, the Peregrine will occasionally hunt small mammals, small reptiles or even insects. It reaches sexual maturity at one year, and mates for life. It nests in a scrape, normally on cliff edges or, in recent times, on tall human-made structures. The Peregrine Falcon became an endangered species in many areas due to the use of pesticides, especially DDT. Since the ban on DDT from the beginning of the 1970s onwards, the populations recovered, supported by large scale protection of nesting places and releases to the wild.
The Peregrine Falcon has a body length of 34 to 58 centimetres (13–23 in) and a wingspan of around 80 to 120 centimetres (31–47 in). The male and female have similar markings and plumage, but as in many birds of prey the Peregrine Falcon displays marked reverse sexual dimorphism in size, with the female measuring up to 30 percent larger than the male. Males weigh 440–750 g, and the noticeably larger females weigh 910–1500 g.

Peregrine range map

Ecology and behavior
The Peregrine Falcon lives mostly along mountain ranges, river valleys, coastlines, and increasingly in cities. In mild-winter regions, it is usually a permanent resident, and some individuals, especially adult males, will remain on the breeding territory. Only populations that breed in Arctic climes typically migrate great distances during the northern winter.

The life span in the wild is up to 15.5 years. Mortality in the first year is between 59–70%, declining to between 25–32% in adults. Apart from anthropogenic threats like collision with human-made objects, the Peregrine may be killed by large eagles or large owls. The Peregrine Falcon is host to a range of parasites and pathogens. The Peregrine Falcon feeds almost exclusively on medium sized birds such as doves, waterfowl, songbirds, waders and pigeons. Worldwide, it is estimated that between 1,500 and 2,000 bird species (up to roughly a fifth of the world’s bird species) are predated by these falconsThe Peregrine Falcon hunts at dawn and dusk, when prey are most active, but in cities also nocturnally, particularly during migration periods when hunting at night may become prevalent. Nocturnal migrants taken by Peregrines include species as diverse as Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Black-necked Grebe, Virginia Rail and Common Quail. It requires open space in order to hunt, and therefore often hunts over open water, marshes, valleys, fields and tundra. It searches for prey either from a high perch or from the air Once prey is spotted, it begins its stoop, folding back the tail and wings, with feet tucked. The air pressure from a 200 mph (320 km/h) dive could possibly damage a bird’s lungs, but small bony tubercles in a falcon’s nostrils guide the shock waves of the air entering the nostrils (compare intake ramps and inlet cones of jet engines), enabling the bird to breathe more easily while diving by reducing the change in air pressure. To protect their eyes, the falcons use their nictitating membranes (third eyelids) to spread tears and clear debris from their eyes while maintaining vision. Prey is struck and captured in mid-air; the Peregrine Falcon strikes its prey with a clenched foot, stunning or killing it, then turns to catch it in mid-air. The Peregrine will drop it to the ground and eat it there if it is too heavy to carry. Prey is plucked before consumption.
 

Breeding
The Peregrine Falcon is sexually mature at the end of the first year of age but in healthy populations they breed after two to three years of age. The pair mates for life and returns to the same nesting spot annually. The courtship flight includes a mix of aerial acrobatics, precise spirals, and steep dives. The male passes prey it has caught to the female in mid-air. To make this possible, the female actually flies upside-down to receive the food from the male’s talons. The Peregrine Falcon is territorial during the breeding season; nesting pairs are usually more than 1 km (0.6 miles) apart, and often much farther, even in areas with large numbers of pairs. The distance between nests ensures sufficient food supply for pairs and their chicks. Within a breeding territory, a pair may have several nesting ledges; the number used by a pair can vary from one or two to seven in a 16 year period. The pair defends the chosen nest site against other Peregrines, and often against ravens, herons, gulls and (in ground nest) mammals like foxes, wolverines, bears and wolves. Both nests and (less frequently) adults are predated by larger-bodied raptorial birds like eagles, large owls, or Gyrfalcons. Peregrines defending their nests have managed to kill raptors as large as Golden Eagles and Bald Eagles (which they normally avoid) that have come close to the nest.
 

Pesticides
The Peregrine Falcon became an endangered species because of the use of pesticides, especially DDT during the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. Pesticide caused to build up in the falcons’ fat tissues, reducing the amount of calcium in their eggshells. With thinner shells, fewer falcon eggs survived to hatching. In several parts of the world, such as the eastern USA and Belgium, this species became extinct as a result.

Falconry
The Peregrine Falcon was used in falconry for more than 3,000 years, beginning with nomads in central Asia. Due to its ability to dive at high speeds, it was highly sought-after and generally used by experienced falconers. Peregrine Falcons are also occasionally used to scare away birds at airports to reduce the risk of bird-plane strikes, improving air-traffic safety, and were used to intercept homing pigeons during World War II.

Falconry in India.
The sport of falconry which spread throughout the world was especially popular with the Indian nobility. Falconry, a sport among kings, princes and nobles started way back in 2000 B.C. in China. It started not as a sport but simply out of a necessity for food. From China it spread to Japan, India, Persia, Arabia, Turkey and finally to Europe. By 700 A.D. falconry was well established as a sport. By the middle of the 18th century there were hawking clubs all over Europe. Many tapestries and paintings all over the world depict battle scenes of kings and nobles with their favourite falcons as falconry was also a form of relaxation during long battles. King Richard, Coeur de Lion, took his hawks with him to the crusades. The kings Frederic and Henry VIII of England and the Emperor Napoleon were all keen followers of this magnificent sport. Among the ladies, Mary Queen of Scots loved to be out hawking and Empress Catherine of Russia had her favourite falcon, Merlin.
The Mughals in India were also keen falconers. The sparrow hawk was the favourite of Emperor Akbar. He often used these remarkable birds for hunting. They also added splendour to his court. For them many mansabdars ( commanders), ahadis (single man) and other soldiers were employed. The birds were fed twice a day and towards the close of each day they were fed on sparrows.Falcons are birds of open country, solitary in habit and prefer to fly freely scouring the countryside with their acute sight and pausing in their majestic flight to stoop down at a hundred miles an hour on their unsuspecting prey. The peregrine falcon, the finest bird for training in India, migrates along the east coast of Bhavnagar in Gujarat on the boarder of the Gulf of Cambay. Other falcons found in Bhavnagar are the desert falcon known as the lugger and goshawk or baz which can be trained very successfully.In Bhavnagar, the royal family continued to cherish the sport of hawking till the 1940s. the late Maharaja, Shri Krishna Kumar Singh’s two brothers, Maharaja Nirmal Kumar Singh and Maharaja Dharam Kumar Singh were very enthusiastic sportsmen. They each had their own trainers and falcons. The falcons were caught off the coast of Bhavnagar or brought from Punjab. After it is caught the falcon is securely bound in a handkerchief and its eyes are sealed. This is done by slipping a needle through the lower edge of the eyelid and putting the thread over the head. Apparently the falcon shows no sign of pain. In this manner the eastern falconers seal the eyes of their hunting birds. This keeps them quiet for the rest of the training days and prevents them from becoming excited and scared. The bird also gets used to the human voice and touch. Buying a hawk is like buying a horse. The colour phases, marking, shape, size of beak and middle toe, spirit, age and weight are a few points worth considering. Indian falconers would never buy a falcon whose eyes were not sealed. Sealed eyes were an indication that the hawks had not been trained. The new hawk never leaves the gloved hand of its trainer for four to five days. Day and night they are handled carefully by speaking to them softly and stroking them gently and constantly for only then can these wild birds be trained.

As soon as the hawks lose their fear and become docile, their eyes are unsealed and the training days begin. The trainer swings a lure at the end of a short stick and the falcon stoops but the bait is jerked away before the bird can strike. After 40 to 50 attempts the falcon is permitted to strike and bring the lure down to the ground. It is indeed a wonderful sight to see these hawks starting to respond to their trainers. After this lesson the birds are hooded and well fed. Before a contest or a hunt the birds are given secret Indian drugs to stimulate them to have the utmost powers of speed, courage and endurance. Falcons, being good hunters with keen eyesight, can bring down big birds like ibis, cranes, big heron and among animals, hares. When the game rises, the falconer throws the hawk to catch its prey just like an athlete hurls a goal forward. But vigorous training is absolutely necessary to teach the little fighters how to chase such a quarry. In game hunting, pointers and setters are used and not until the game is found the falcon is unhooded.
In India falcons and hawks constitute two thirds of all species of birds or prey. The uncommon goshawks and the perennial favourite, the peregrine span the Indian sub-continent.However, the sport of falconry has been fast losing popularity not only due to the expenses involved but also due to wide criticism and an increasing awareness of preserving nature and wildlife. There has been a dwindling of the species. In fact the king of falcons, the bullet-headed, steel grey peregrine became almost extinct due to excess DDT in the environment causing the bird to lay eggs with fragile shells leading to greater pre-hatch mortality. However, people were quick to champion this much loved bird and save it from imminent peril.

Peregrine in philately


References: Wikipedia, Falcon & Falconry

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Vanishing Species: Hanuman Langur

Sunday article by Mohan Pai
 

Hello friends,

Good morning. This sunday’s article is about the Hanuman langur, a very bold and rowdy primate.
Hanuman langur is associated with Lord Hanuman of Ramayana and is revered by the Hindus, it is seldom molested and they have lost all fear of man. It’s also known as the temple monkey. Considered as a single species earlier, 7 distinct subspecies are now recognised in India. Hanuman langur is widely distributed over the subcontinent.
 
Ms Sucheta Chatterjee (facebook) has provided link to a very lucid essay by Steven Weinberg: http://www.physlink.com/Education/essay_weinberg.cfm
Very best wishes,
Mohan Pai.
 

Hanuman Langur
Semnopithecus
 
 
One of the rowdiest primates, even the Indian Parliament is not out of bounds for them.
 
Hanuman Langur is believed to be one of the Old World monkeys, belonging to the Semnopithecus Genus. They comprise of 15 subspecies and are terrestrial in nature. Earlier, hanuman langurs were believed to comprise of a single species. However, now they are recognized as seven distinct species. Hanuman langur is also known by the name of Gray Langur, Entellus Langur and Common Indian Langur. Venerated by the Hindus and seldom molested, they have lost all fear of man.
This is the long-limbed, long-tailed, black-faced monkey, seen as much about towns and villages as in forests of India. Animals from the Himalayas are more heavily whiskered and coated, their pale almost white heads, standing out in sharp contrast to the darker colour of the body. The contrast is much less apparent in peninsular animals. Langurs living in the rain-swept hill regions of the Western Ghats are generally darker then those from the drier eastern zone.
 

Species list
Nepal Gray Langur, Semnopithecus schistaceus
Kashmir Gray Langur, Semnopithecus ajax
Terai Gray Langur, Semnopithecus hector
Northern Plains Gray Langur, Semnopithecus entellus
Black-footed Gray Langur, Semnopithecus hypoleucos
Southern Plains Gray Langur, Semnopithecus dussumieri
Tufted Gray Langur, Semnopithecus priam
 


In religion and mythology
Hindus revere the Hanuman langur as associated with Lord Hanuman, an ardent and loyal devotee of Shri Rama an incarnations of Lord Vishnu. An army of monkeys or the vanara sena under the leadership of Hanuman was instrumental in the defeat of Ravana by Lord Rama. Other notable vanaras who feature in the epic Ramayana are Sugriva , Vali and Angada.The Hanuman langur has a black face because according to the mythology, Hanuman burnt his hands and face while trying to rescue Sita. The langurs often live in and around Hindu temples, where they are fed by devotees. The Jakhu Hanuman temple in Shimla is a famous example. It is often referred to as the ‘monkey temple’ because of the countless monkeys it houses.
 
Bold & rowdy
This is the one of the rowdiest relatives of mankind, at least in India. Hanuman langurs are experts at depriving you of your food. and those living near temples are particularly adept at this art. Not just temples, even the Indian Parliament is not out of bounds for them. For the past few years, the parliament has been losing a ‘few important files’, thanks to these simian creatures that react quite adversely if left unfed during the lunch hour. But when threatened, they retreat immediately.
 
Physical traits
The fur of the gray langur of India may be gray, dark brown or even golden in color. The face is black and the size varies from one subspecies to another. Male langurs grow to a length of 51 cm to 78 cm and weigh about 18 kg. The female langurs are smaller, with a length of 40 cm to 68 cm and weight of about 11 kg. The length of the tail is between 69 cm and 101 cm.
Diet
Common Indian langurs survive on a diet comprising of leaves, fruit, buds and flowers. The exact diet, however, changes from season to season. During winters, they survive on a diet of mature leaves. In summer season, they mainly survive on fruits. Insects, tree bark and gum also supplement their diet. Hanuman langurs can easily digest seeds with high levels of the toxins and can eat even soil and stones.
Natural habitat
Hanuman langurs are found inhabiting tropical, dry thorn scrub, pine and alpine forest as well as urban areas of the Indian subcontinent. They spent a major portion of their time on the ground, with the exception of their sleeping time. Presently, common langurs are found in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Burma.
Behaviour
Gray langur of India can usually be found living in large groups, dominated by a male langur. The membership of the group may be anywhere between 11 and 60. However, they hold the dominating position for a very short period only, which may stretch upto 18 months. Whenever a new male takes over the group, all the infants of the previous alpha male are killed. Entellus Langurs of India may form bachelor groups also.
Mating Behavior
Female langurs attain maturity at 3 to 4 years of age, while males achieve the same in 4 to 5 years. However, they start mating in the 6th or 7th year only. The gestation period is 190 to 210 days, after which a single infant is born. Only in very rare cases does a female langur give birth to two infants. Where there are a number of males in a group, only the high-ranking males can mate with any female. The other males get a chance to mate only if they manage to sneak by the high-ranking males.
 
The inveterate enemy of the Langur is the panther. The sight of one, or of a tiger that rouses suspicion produces the guttural alarm note which sends the whole troop bolting. Quite distinct is the joyous ’whoop’ emitted when bounding from tree to tree or otherwise contentedly occupied. An interesting relationship has been observed between herds of Chital deer and troops of the Northern Plains Gray Langur. Chital apparently benefit from the langur’s good eyesight and ability to post a lookout in a treetop, helping to raise the alarm when a predator approaches. For the langur’s part, the Chital’s superior sense of smell would seem to assist in early predator warning, and it is common to see langurs foraging on the ground in the presence of Chital. The Chital also benefit from fruits dropped by the langurs from trees such as Terminalia bellerica. Alarm calls of either species can be indicative of the presence of a predator such as the Bengal Tiger.
 
Status
Common Indian langur is listed in the lower risk category by the IUCN

Pic Courtesy: Animal Diversity Web

References: S. H. Prater The book of Indian Animals), Wikipedia, Animal Diversity Web, iloveindia.com

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