The forcibly adopted child!

I have a great respect for the God of Lesser Things! The actual God, not the book, I mean. He is kind, he is just and he is fair. Since he rewards us in suitable measure, we should indeed proclaim him as the deity of all amateur naturalists.

To the compulsive lister of species, he sends hordes of small warblers, difficult and challenging to identify and extremely satisfying to record. To the casual bird watcher, who wants to enjoy nature without too many hassles,  he will direct a mother Spotbill with ducklings swimming across his binocular’s view. A beginner will be blessed with a Paradise Flycatcher which will surely make him gaga about the rare wonderful bird that he saw! But this God is especially kind to that least and most obscure community of birdwatchers –  the kitchen window birdwatchers.

To be a member of this club you have to be a hard-working housewife and the glances through the kitchen-window or from the balcony or terrace are the only ornithological indulgences that are allowed  in between the drudgery of chores. I really respect these kitchen-window bird watchers. My mother, my aunt, my wife, my cousin sister – they are all members of this venerable clan.

The gracious God sends them ‘Tit-bits’ (pun intended) to lighten their long labour. My mother was rewarded with the sight of a Jungle Crow with overlong curved upper beak which she attempted to feed to the great happiness of the squirrels. My aunt enjoyed the sight of sunbirds nesting year after year in the bush outside her kitchen window. My sister saw a Spotted Owlet in Pune city in the tree opposite her verandah which wasn’t – it was a Scops Owl which all will agree is a rare and delicious find!

Just a few days ago, my wife, who has a keen eye for sound, heard a harsh call amidst the noisy cackle of the babblers.

The babblers are a familiar feature of Maharashtra’s landscape.  They are earthy-brown, generally unkempt and noisy birds which are always seen in a flock, hence their colloquial name of “Saat bhai” or “Saat behen” (‘seven brothers’ or ‘seven sisters’ in Hindi).

Large Grey Babbler (Turdoides malcolmi)

Large Grey Babbler (Turdoides malcolmi)

The babblers in our garden are the Large Grey Babblers (Turdoides malcolmi). They squabble around our courtyard and never seem to leave our garden. Who can blame them? Here they find – a neatly tended lawn, profusely bloomed flower beds with interesting flowers (both coloured and fragrant), din -k- raja, raat -ki-rani, plumeria, papaya, a small pond deliberately run wild with bulrushes all around it, a variety of trees all around the fence both inside and outside, an interesting garbage heap, a neglected garden patch, a servant’s quarter with its associated fireplace and litter, and long weedy verges aside the driveway. Though they  deign to favour our neighbours from time to time,  its ””’our””’ garden they occupy and I proudly call this flock ”mine”.

Since they are such a constant part of the background, I tend to take them for granted. “Ghar ki murgi dal barabar” so goeth the old adage ( a rough translation of this Hindi proverb is – the delicious chicken dish if cooked at home is considered equal only to the lowly lentil! ).

After all, they are only ”babblers”; virtually the first bird a new birdwatcher learns about and soon tires of. They aren’t as gaudy as the Golden Oriole which flies across our clearing. Or as distinct as the Bharadwaj  (Coucal) that struts across the fence-lawn-pond-papayas route four times a day in his tireless, rapacious search for food! Or as spectacular as the Grey Hornbills which play catch-me-if-you-can amongst the ”Gliricidia” trees. They are plain ashy-coloured biscuit brown birds who cackle and perform but soon tire you of their antics.

But all of a sudden that day, they pulled a rabbit out of a hat. In this case, it was an adopted child! And it was my beloved kitchen window-birdwatcher (my better 99% – for those joining in now) who spotted it!

A forlorn squawk drew her attention to the branches above where the flock foraged on the ground. Above, on the branch of the tree in our backyard, was perched a grey bird heavily striated on its chest. It was a juvenile “Brainfever bird“!

My wife caught her breath, because just then a babbler flew up and deposited a meal in the gaping maw of the young ‘un. The babblers were feeding the bird.

The 'adoped child' and his mom (?).

The 'adoped child' and his mom (?).

There is a simple explanation for this! The “Brainfever bird” is a cuckoo. Most of us will know it as the “papeeha” while birdwatchers call it the Common Hawk-cuckoo (Heirococcyx varius) because it resembles very closely our resident Indian sparrow-hawk – the Shikra.

The Brainfever Bird adult.

The Brainfever Bird adult.

The Shikra (Accipiter badius) which the hawk-cuckoo resembles.

The Shikra (Accipiter badius) which the hawk-cuckoo resembles.

The papeeha is a brood parasite of the Turdoides babblers. When the female babblers are not looking, the female Hawk-cuckoo will deposit its egg in their nest.

Cuckoos are known to roll off some or all of the genuine eggs to make place for their egg. Usually a cuckoo’s egg resembles the host species’ egg very closely in colour and pattern though it may be larger in size. Sometimes birds recognise the eggs as ‘strange’ and eject them but in the majority of the cases they do not.

Looking away - the adopted child's orange bill and indistinct eye-ring are visible.

Looking away - the adopted child's orange bill and indistinct eye-ring are visible.

In some species, the cuckoo’s egg hatches earlier and the young cuckoo fledgeling kicks off the eggs or nestlings of the host species and makes itself the lord of the nest.

The cuckoo sibling is ravenous. Its gaping maw resembles that of the babbler’s nestlings and the plaintive cries trigger the feeding instinct in the babblers. Though it grows larger and looks different from the babblers, the hosts are trapped in their instinctive response which the cuckoo has evolved to take advantage of.

This phenomenon is called “brood parasitism” and is considered a form of “kleptoparasitism” where birds steal resources from others to gain an advantage in  propagating their kind.

A very poor photo with cuckoo and babbler in the same frame.

A very poor photo with cuckoo and babbler in the same frame.

Our brain-fever bird is quite large now. It is larger than its adopted parents but yet it follows the pack around positioning itself at a vantage point above where the babblers forage. Soon it will be able to fend for itself and the babblers will be free from feeding such a hungry brute. Lets hope the next time they are able to raise their own kind.

Fortunately Large Grey Babblers are irregular in habit in breeding while cuckoos breed as per season so they have a far chance of raising their kind. The breeding season of the Common Hawk Cuckoo varies from place to place and is very dependent not only on its hosts but its very competitive cousin, the Pied Crested Cuckoo (Clamator jacobinus) who also parasitises the same hosts – the babblers.

Brainfever birds are relatively benign parasites. On many occasions the host is able to raise its own chicks as well as that of the cuckoos. The babblers are known to collectively rear the young. Parent babblers often rejoin the flock after the fledgelings have flown. However, the adopted child of the Brainfever bird is dependent for much longer and hence our observations in CME. As per T.C. Jerdon, Brainfever birds often do not eject the eggs or young and permit the host to breed its children alongwith them.

This is not so in the case of its relative, the Great Spotted Cuckoo (Clamator glandarius) of Europe. The female of this species exhibits an extreme form of aggressive brood-parasitism, referred to as the “Mafia hypothesis“. She revisits the nests of the host birds where she has laid an egg. If that egg has been ejected, she lets loose her anger and destroys the nest. This is a very good move on her part – if a nest is destroyed early in a season,  the nesting pair of the host species may rebuild the nest and lay another clutch. This will give her a chance to breed once again. She will again visit the new nest repeatedly to ensure her egg is safe and repeat her destruction if the egg is mising.

This is however an extreme case of animal behaviour and shared by one another species only – the Brown-headed Cowbird of subtropical North America.

Great Spotted Cuckoo, a.k.a. the Mafia cuckoo

Great Spotted Cuckoo, (clamator glandarius) a.k.a. the Mafia cuckoo

Before you get all furious over our cuckoos, remember enough of their hosts breed so as to maintain a large enough population to bring up the next generation of cuckoos. Too high a success rate in nest-parasitism is its own death knell.

Besides, the host birds develop behavioural patterns to reduce the effectiveness of the brood-parasites – an evolutionary battle constantly rages between the hosts and the brood parasites.

Most of all we should not denigrate these birds because it is they who provide the beautiful bird calls which warn of the onset of India’s summer, monsoon or spring.

The koel’s crescendo and the “brain-fever brain-fever” call of the papeeha are known to all.

My favourite memory of cuckoo-calls is that of   the liquid four notes of the Indian Cuckoo in the Himalayan spring which remind me of the first four notes of the popular Ventures tune “Popcorns’ which once accompanied Sports Roundup in the good old days of black and white TV! Many’s the time I returned tired from a run at the Indian Military Academy when the Indian Cuckoo luled me to sleep.

Listen to it here!

Besides this, we have the Plaintive Cuckoo, the Drongo-Cuckoo and so many, many more.

They too are the gems of Indian biodiversity.

Some references.

1.    Gaston, AJ & Zacharias VJ. (2000). “Hosts of the Common Hawk Cuckoo”. Forktail Vol 16, pg 182. Pulication of the Oriental Bird Club.[url=http://www.orientalbirdclub.org/publications/forktail/16pdfs/Gaston-Cuckoo.pdf].

2.    Jerdon, T.C. (1862). “The birds of India”. Volume 1 (pg 330). Pub – Military Orphan Press. Calcutta.[http://www.archive.org/stream/birdsofindiabein01jerd#page/330/mode/1up].

3.  Payne, R.B. (2005). “The Cuckoos”. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0198502133.

Credits

* All pix of “forcibly adopted child” and that of the Large Grey Babbler mine. See my license publicly declared on the blog.

* Brainfever Bird adult – nidhingpoothully Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0 . On Wikimedia Commons here.

* Shikra – J.M. Garg. Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0 license On Wikimedia Commons here.

* Great Spotted Cuckoo (Clamator glandularius). 1905 Naumann encyclopaedia. Public domain. Wikimedia Commons link.


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29 Comments on “The forcibly adopted child!”

  1. Iniyaal Says:

    Nice photos… a similar kind of spotted cuckoo frequently visits a gooseberry tree next to our kitchen window. You should see how daintly it handles the berries, holding them between its legs and pecking at the fruits ever so gently.

  2. rocksea Says:

    enjoyed the photojournal on the cuckoo’s early adopted life with the babblers.

    sometimes we get to “observe” better through the kitchen windows than when we go out and watch deliberately 😉


  3. Wow ! Animal kingdom is fascinating even among the God of lessser things ! “Mafia effect” is quiet fascinating! The effort they take to disturb another’s nest , why don’t they nest for themselves :p

    btw, why are brain-fever bird called so ? Don’t scare me by saying they spread brain-fever 😮

  4. Prashanth Says:

    the more formal note coming?

  5. Ava Says:

    All kinds of parents abound in nature. It is wonderful how it maintains a balance by keeping a judicious mix of the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’.

    Awesome !


    • The animal kingdom provides a wide variety of parenting models – from total regard by both parents to disregard. Today all these varying models animal behaviour is explained with reference to reprouctive success and advantages.

      Richard Dawkin’s “The Selfish Gene” comes to mind where animal behaviour is prtrayed as arising from ‘the good of the gene’ as opposed to the ‘good of the group’ as had been postulated in the past by Konrad Lorenz and others.


  6. And I thought that it was the “poor” crow which was always “tricked” into raising the young ones of the cuckoos!

    You are very lucky… that you still get to see soooo many birds and hear them sing/squabble/complain. Here in Blr… we rarely get to see them, these days… except for a few crows, perhaps…


    • May I suggest that this is not the case! Start small – watch whatever birds you see – very soon you will be drawn into this arcane pleasure of loving nature!


      • I absolutely adore nature, right from the time when I was little… and that included birds/animals/bees….. etc.

        While still at school… I had grown a papaya plant in a mud tub (pot). It was about 3.5-4 feet tall. One day… I found a fishtail making its nest among its branches. In bengali, we call a ‘fishtail’… ‘finge pakhi’.

        I used to guard the nest and later on the eggs and the hatchlings. It was such a joy!

        There were numerous nests made by sparrows and pigeons… in various nook and corners… of our home.

        In Blr, offlate… there seems to be the unwritten mantra: that mere trees should not be allowed to stand in the way of ‘development’. So, we have a beautiful terrace garden… which is our pride and joy! We enjoy watching the butterflies flitting in and out from among the leaves and the bees sucking the nectar from the flowers.

        But birds and getting scare, these days 😦

  7. Suhel Quader Says:

    Dear Ashwin – I think it’s really great that in this, as in other posts, you dig up and provide a lot of other information that’s relevant to the field observation you are writing about! Jerdon’s comment is interesting, but as I understand it, when they hatch, brainfever bird chicks (like all Heirococcyx and also their close relatives Cuculus) throw out all other eggs and chicks. In contrast the Clamator cuckoos (including the Great Spotted Cuckoo and our own Pied Cuckoo) don’t do this. So babblers should be much more wary of a brainfever hanging about their nest than of a Pied Cuckoo — but I don’t know if this actually is so!


  8. Suhel, its a great honour to find such a forward thinking ornithologist here. I am a great fan of Migrantwatch which you started.

    Though I quoted Jerdon, the ref by Gaston contradicts him. I was a bit of a quandary but let Gaston’s remarks lie. See, page 472 of Robert Payne’s book here:-

    http://books.google.co.in/books?id=9ezl9Z5gWt8C&dq=The+cuckoos++By+Robert+B.+Payne,+Michael+D.+Sorenson

    He wrote a tome on Cuckoos in 2005 and included both refs by Jerdon & Gaston et Zacharias but did not include Gaston’s comment sticking to Jerdon’s statement instead. Probably more work will be needed before the “experts” accept this ‘fact’.

    More than that I can’t comment. I’m a very small fry to pronounce any judgements on this issue. My job is to interest and entertain people and hopefully they learn something new.

    Hope this answers your query.

    • Suhel Quader Says:

      Thanks, Ashwin. I think that Payne may be mistaken in this. Anyway, what’s so interesting is that there are many aspects of the behaviour and life history of our species that are still not fully understood — which means that there is so much for all of us to observe and document! For example, it would be really interesting to know what proportion of babbler families are seen attending a single hawk-cuckoo fledgling versus multiple parasite fledglings. I suspect that individual observations are buried away in the memories and notebooks of birders all over the country — how wonderful it would be if we could pool all this knowledge together, on this and so many other questions!


      • Suhel,

        You may consider a combination of ‘open tools’ to capture such elusive information.

        A bouquet of a blog, wiki, email-group and web-site would be required to construct an informal portal to which people would be tempted you add such tidbits.

        The old “Newsletter for Birdwatchers” allowed people to publish their minor observations.

        The new avatar “Indian Birds” is trying to evolve upward into a combination of ‘Journal’ and ‘Hornbill’. Small notes are accepted only if they are rigourously done to satisfy peer review. This prevents small snippets of information from being captured. And to be fair to “Indian Birds” they, like JBNHS, have a year’s backlog!

        Till now, out of a false sense of loyalty or ”allegiance”, I have stayed away from the still-continuing “Newsletter of Birdwatchers”. But now I’m beginning to wonder if my attitude is correct.

  9. Suhel Quader Says:

    Ashwin, I think that these are very good ideas that need further exploration! Now who might be interested in taking this forward..?


    • Suhel,

      Such an effort should be ideally be taken up by a natural history organisation or (as in the US) by a University or perhaps as an initiative by a Govt deptt such as SACON.

      Once I hoped that the BNHS would lead the way in such outreach activities but their worldview doesn’t quite build up to this kind of thing.

      As to how the organisation should shape up?

      It should be small, nimble and active. It should have a clear mandate, a clear vision of how to execute its role and just enough funds for the same.

      The aim of such an organisation should be to further knowledge about nature by providing a one-stop internet portal to bird lovers.

      The organisation should have, like MigrantIndia, a database with capture mechanism with aggregation, analysis tools for providing unhindered output with a free license to users who contribute. This will require ingenuity to devise.

      Recreating Shyamal’s BirdSpot avatar would be really cool! His huge set of records will give a good fillip to the cause of status of birds in India.

      The blog(s) should allow the written experience to come through. Each record could link to a blog entry where the details and ‘soft’ information can come through. I choke on the dry, dusty language of some of the posts on Indian Birds and Journals.

      Each blog-entry, record, wikipost be reviewed so as to verify or keep things in reasonable order.

      The wiki should allow a steady build-up of knowledge about India’s birds. We could instead choose to maintain Wikipedia’s Indian Birds section but it has other foci that may require us to have our own wiki, (such as WP is not a directory, no original research etc).

      The project should ‘reward’ contributors suitably. How to make a contributor feel good will require lots of thought.

      The emailgroup could be built up on an existing one or started anew.

      It would be nice if the portal be associated with a peer-reviewed journal, such as “Indian Birds”. Though I think Aasheesh’s hands are full already.

      I could go on and on, but I believe Shyamal is the best person to comment in detail on such an issue.

      • Suhel Quader Says:

        You’ve obviously put a lot of thought into this! I guess the stumbling block is the actual implementation. There are a fair number of people who share this worldview (apart from you and Shyamal I can think of several others); and as you may know, these things have been discussed before. But some group or organisation needs to take it forward in practice. For this there needs to be some consensus on what the purpose is and how it is best carried out — and consensus is hard to achieve… Anyway, perhaps in the next year or two enough goodwill and momentum will build up so that something along these lines takes shape.

  10. flowergirl Says:

    Got here late!

    Its a good thing..I got to read the comment exchanges above!

    The post reminded me of Ranjit Lal’s Crow Chronicles…where this forcible adoption is central to the plot.

  11. Snigdha Kar Says:

    Ashwin,

    This is very interesting observation and very well written too with scientific explanation to a layman’s observation. I wish I could write in such creative manner too. This reminds me about a spotted owlet observation for which I am looking form expert comment.
    Kindly comment on the following url

    It was interesting to read your discussion with Dr. Suhel too. Migrant watch has certainly given us an opportunity to exchange the sightings and open access to data and a forum to discuss. I really appreciate efforts made by you, Shyamal, Suhel, JM Garg and I am sure there are many more names who wish to do the same. What I would suggest is rather then looking for organisation or universities to do this, lets all of us try to work together for common study.

    There would be change in behaviour of species; nesting habit change because of urbanization, food habit change may be because of anthropogenic factors or climate change and more. Social media I feel is very powerful tool which can be used for this purpose.

    Regards
    Snigdha


    • Hi Snighda,

      Firstly, I agree with you that we should work together but how? We need someone to come forward with a collaborative, ‘free’ (asin freedom), equal mechanism, like MigrantWatch has. In the meantime do contribute to Wikipedia or any other ‘free’ endeavour.

      Secondly, its easy to write well. Get interesting facts, give a unique viewpoint, add a suitable picture. Tell people something useful to them or entertaining! Try it, If you have the will, you will succeed. It will not be instantaneous but it will improve over time!

  12. Shobita Says:

    what a wonderful and well researched well written article specially great photos. the cuckoo call audio was simply great. i am a kitchen window birdwatcher, and simply loved the piece. more please


    • Thank you. I am glad you enjoyed it. I hope you have fun reading all the posts on this blog. You can find them from a link in the main blog page right hand column. Click the Header of the blog to reach the blog main page to find the link.


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