The great pecking order

As Kingfishers and Bulbuls embrace their urban sojourn, birding groups suspect a shift in feeding habits, finds out Subha Priyadarshini

By Author  |  Published: 2nd Dec 2018  12:45 amUpdated: 1st Dec 2018  2:02 pm
Photo by Shreenivas Kandukuree

Birds, like humans, are migratory in nature. Like we travel across planes and forests in search of a the daily bread, birds, too, have left their perennial abodes of the bushes, marshlands and high trees, and are now nestling in to urban spaces.

As forests turned into agricultural places, villages to suburbs, cities have taken just a blink’s time to cement their influence on nearby flora and fauna in the landmasses that house them and bird watchers and animal conservationists are primary to provide observational accounts of changes in the other world.

A birder and dessert store owner in Madinaguda, Manoj Kumar Vittapu has documented birds that are no more confined to scrub jungles, like the black-naped monarch, a flycatcher which he spotted beside his house. A spark of curiosity led him to the nonchalant neighbour who claimed that the bird was a regular visitor.

Incidents like these arouse intrigue about the changing habitats; and birds are smart enough to gull humans into believing they are indeed disappearing.

Documenting the shift

The city has an active community of birdwatchers that has been documenting a subtle-yet-significant shift in resident and non-resident bird behaviour, specifically their eating habits in the State of Telangana.

Birding communities like Hyderabad Birding Pals, and BSAP have been hosting bird walks to popular birding hotspots in the city. And a flash of local bird photographers have been spotting garden-friendly fowl to be preying on what they call an ‘unusual choice’ of nourishment. Birds like Kingfishers, Bulbuls and even some Pond Herons hunting and feasting on rodents, lizards and snakes.

A wildlife conservationist and animal rescuer, Pradeep Nair says though it was surprising earlier, Kingfishers hunting mice is a common sight. “We rescued a couple of White-throated Kingfishers which were stuck to glue pads that people use to trap mice. Usually, people dispose the animal along with the pads, and these birds must have seen the mice on them and get trapped themselves. Along with other raptors and Paala Pitta, Kingfishers have become rodent hunters. However, it can be a good trait, as the exponential growth of mice can be curbed,” he says.

Own hunt, not interested!

The animal enthusiast has also observed this pattern among other reptiles, with even Checkered Keelbacks adapting to aggressively feeding on fish remains left behind by fisherfolk instead of savouring its own hunt.

Photo by Jagan Pannala

Often mistaken for raptors, Kingfishers are predominantly meat eaters and are non-passerine landbirds. Interestingly, Telangana roosts six species of Kingfishers and three of them, pied kingfisher, common kingfisher, white-throated kingfisher can be spotted in concrete jungles of Hyderabad. Unlike the first two species, the white-throated Kingfisher lacks the astute brilliance of ‘kingfishing’, a hovering technique that these birds use to eye and strike their target over water; they perch on low-lying branches that give them platform to pierce through the film to get to the fish.

“White-throated kingfishers, one of the biggest kingfisher species, normally live in the nearby lakes. From the past few years, I have observed that they are living in urban areas also. Instead of catching fish, they also started catching lizards, rodents and snakes. Reason might be because we are destroying their habitat,” shares Manoj Kumar.

Vanishing water bodies

Once known as the city of thousand lakes, Hyderabad’s dwindling number of water bodies and vanishing spaces where they can perch and fish from, have displaced them to urbanscapes to feed on arachnids, amphibians, reptiles and also smaller aves like Prinias.

K Vijay Kumar, a physician at Citizens Specialty Hospital, feels that the transition has more to do with depleting habitat. “It depends on the availability of food. When people spot these birds feeding in urban spaces, one should understand that there is no vegetation, water bodies, and, naturally, they go for alternative sources for food. I have seen Kingfishers eating crabs and termites; others have seen snakes and rodents as well. It’s just adaptation,” he says.

Also aboard the adaptation train is Dr S Bakhtiar Choudhary, avid birdwatcher who has been dedicated towards dispelling misinformation on birds’ behaviour with his YouTube channel. “Species have to prove themselves to withstand the changes in the environment, while dinosaurs couldn’t survive despite their stealth and vigorous body. Survival of the fittest depends upon adaptability. Like how sparrows, over the last two decades, were thought to be disappearing due to cell phone towers and radiation… but, there isn’t an ounce of truth to it. Many other birds have survived. Now, they are revived as they have adapted to their surroundings and changed their nesting and feeding habits with subsequent generations,” he clarifies.

Winter saving long gone

As the very Indian habit of sun-drying pulses and grains on terraces has been long gone, and supermarket grains have flooded our kitchen jars, along with it, humans have denied sparrows their share of winter saving, impairing the relationship that they shared with the now hostile friends.

Photograph by Manoj Kumar

Experts have also jested about the increasing number of budding bird snappers is responsible for propagation of misinformation or half-knowledged. Contrary to these claims, Bulbuls, Kingfishers or any other majorly omnivorous aves that have been spotted choosing queasy nosh over their monotonous menu, are known to eat them.

On a lay level, one would think Kingfishers got their name for their love for hunting fish, which might be true, only partly. While these birds eat fish around lakes, they are universally documented to eat frogs, mice, lizards, birds and their eggs. Post rainy season, lakes dry up and fish would be scarce, making the birds search for more easily available options.

Photo by K Vijay Kumar

This is not incongruous behaviour from the birds, but, instead, a logical shift to appease hunger in the most convenient way.

“Claiming that Bulbuls and Kingfishers are turning predatory is false… they can eat anything from insects and snakes to lizards and butterflies. Although Bulbuls are known to be frugivores and granivores, they can eat anything according to the availability of food materials. It should not be mistaken for a trend and changing feeding habits,” says Dr Jagan Pannala, a senior lecturer of Zoology in SR College, Warangal.

He further adds that like humans, birds would pick their favourites when they have umpteen options, but when the needle is edging towards survival, the birds tend to adapt to their changing surroundings and weather.

Indian Pond Heron
Touch me not

With an excellent camouflage, they let humans approach them very closely before taking flight, resulting in a folklore that says the birds are short-sighted or blind.

Pied Kingfisher
Hover and click

The only Kingfisher species with black-and-white plumage, the Pied Kingfisher is the largest bird capable of hovering while still in air.

 Common Kingfisher
Staying low

An iridescent plumage of bright blue and orange while under the Sun makes the bird more visible to predators, forcing the bird to mostly remain in shadows to avoid attention.

White-throated Kingfisher
Hear me out!

Described as very vocal birds, they communicate with ‘loud, defiant rattling laughs’. They are not great divers and do not spend a long time underwater.

Red-vented Bulbul
Regal fighters

Frequently kept as cage pets, Bulbuls were prized birds for fights in the Carnatic region during the 19th century. Their perches were often made of precious metals or jade.

Amorous parents

A DNA research has shown that about 15% of sparrow chicks are the result of infidelity of either the cock or the hen mating with another partner.

Commitment phobe

Being a brood parasite, Asian Cuckoo, or more commonly known as the Koel, lays eggs in the nests of crows and other host birds that rear baby cuckoos till they develop distinctive plumage to tell them apart.