When foraging gets tough
Preferred lifestyle of humans is proving detrimental to the survival of birds, animals and insects — with the pandemic further worsening the situation
Human obsession to live in 'sanitary' conditions, has meant gradual obliteration of habitats of birds, animals and insects. There are millions of 'homeless' stray dogs and street cats in several countries, across the world. Foraging became tougher for them when human outdoor movement got restricted during the COVID-19 lockdowns, during heavy rains, or when a thick pall of smog hung overhead due to man-made adverse climatic conditions.
Feeding the hungry birds, animals, ants or humans, is considered a humane act and a service to God. For example, the Sikh religion has a tenet, the 'langar', run by Sikhs, guaranteeing a free meal to any hungry person who comes to them. Sikhs ran 'langar' service in New York during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, and for thousands of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, in 2017.
A cow is sacred to Hindus. Feeding cows is a religious act for them. Stray cows are fed and attended to by philanthropists at centres called gaushalas. People can often buy fodder and feed it to cows at such centres.
An act of faith, advised often by astrologers, is to feed fistfuls of grains to ants at anthills where hundreds of big-sized ants scurry around, in swarms. These ants clear up the grains in a matter of minutes. Colonies of ants, or bees, serve as behavioural models for scientists working on swarm intelligence, which draws upon biologically inspired artificial intelligence.
Honey bees use the language of a waggle dance to communicate the location of food resources to other bees, both the distance and direction, using the sun, the hive, and the food source as reference points. Karl von Frisch was awarded the 1973 Nobel Prize in Physiology/Medicine for eliciting the social behavior patterns of bees.
There is more to learn about carpenter ants. Every now and then, they give each other wet, slobbery kisses, and by swapping spit they create a colony-wide metabolism — a social machine, which makes each ant perform its role, whether it is a forager, a nurse or a queen. To ensure this, a carpenter ant has two stomachs – one for digesting its own food and the second for storing the 'fluid' that they share with other ants.
Most interestingly, an ant is a symbol of strength and mobility, since it can carry weights hundreds of times its own, purely because its exoskeleton is made of chitin, and three pairs of jointed legs!
A sparrow consumes little but pays back more to ecology. History states that any attempts to decimate sparrows to save grains for humans backfired in the proliferation of insects which destroyed crops, even causing famines. Therefore, the dwindling population of the Indian house sparrow, passer domesticus indicus, has been a matter of concern to scientists and bird lovers in India. The main factors contributing to this decline are the over-use of pesticides by farmers; and the modern urban architecture of concrete buildings with glass façade, leaving no scope for sparrows to build their nests.
Crows have a habit of cawing for attention to be fed. For several months, a crow would come and sit in the window of my high-rise apartment, regularly, during my breakfast time. I would throw a piece of bread and the crow would consume that, at times, intercepting the crumb mid-flight to catch it in its mouth, directly.
Grains are fed regularly to pigeons near Jain temples in Mumbai, inside a large fenced enclosure, called kabootar-khana (pigeon-house), where one can watch hundreds of pigeons feasting on grains – tens of kilograms, every day.
In Malabar Hill region of Mumbai, it is a treat to watch parakeets zipping in between the tall buildings in tight V-shape formation, navigating the same routes every morning and evening. Birds symbolise grace, joy and beauty. To beat the melancholy brought by COVID-19, bird-lovers can be seen at Kensington Gardens in London, joyfully feeding parakeets, who fearlessly settle on the outstretched hands of delighted children and grown-ups. Tourists, of course, love to visit Trafalgar Square to watch flocks of pigeons settling frequently, and flying around the site. Feed sellers are at hand, in case one wants to feed the pigeons.
Feeding birds like pigeons, sparrows, peacocks, etc. not only lets us have a joyful time, but while doing so, we also get to learn much about these marvels of aerodynamic engineering. Birds can glide, soar and swoop! Many birds can do multitasking, i.e., fly, walk, swim, dive, and dig. Only birds have feathers, designed by nature to be lightweight, flexible, and structurally strong for effective wind-resistance. Birds like pigeons symbolise fun and frolic amid frugal conditions. Only darkness at night keeps them off from this activity.
Peacocks thrive in the tropical climate of South Asia, where large wheat fields and thick trees provide a suitable habitat for them. In springtime, it is a delight to watch the male peacocks dance with a full display of colourful plumage. The ancestral house of the author is currently unoccupied. A group of peacocks living in a garden nearby, find it safe and attractive to visit its terrace to feed on grains of bajra (pearl millet) scattered for them, daily. Of course, they quickly retreat to their safe haven amid thick branches of high trees, if they sense a predator.
Imported in Arcadia, California from South Asia a few decades ago, as a status symbol, the peacocks are now hated by many for their droppings and noise in the Venice region of Los Angeles, where the population of peafowls is exploding.
The deer population in the green borough of Staten Island, NY, has burgeoned to a few hundred. Some people love to feed them watermelons, pumpkins or bread. But their growing numbers also means that they increasingly rush across highways, causing collisions at times. Hence, there are efforts to control the deer population in NYC. The method employed is vasectomy by a vet. To conduct that a male deer is first lured with bait corn, and anesthetised with xylazine and telazol using a dart gun. Human preferences are evidently going against nature and ecology!
The writer is Ex-Chairman of Atomic Energy Education Society, Mumbai and Associate Director (Retd.), Physics Grp., BARC. Views expressed are personal