The World of Ornithologists

Whoever could have believed that such fearful beasts like the dinosaurs would one day spur such wonderful descendants like the birds, thus creating a world for us and ornithologists to enjoy.

If at dusk you happen to go through Quatre Bornes on your way home after a hard days’ work, then — as you pass by Bhunjun’s Flats – you will hear opposite to it a wonderful symphony of loud twittering sounds on a rare ‘Pipal’ tree. It is the reunion point for thousands of birds. No worry, if you miss that tree, then some three traffic lights later as you head towards La Louise, you will find yourself in front of the ex-‘Happy Valley’ restaurant, with another tree harbouring a similar symphony.

As children we might have looked up and wondered whether those birds were gathering to welcome the new night.

However, in one of his books, Richard Dawkins relates the why of such a gamut. It seems that those birds are just having an evening roll call, to find out how big or small their crowd is and try to keep a check on it!! Ornithologists have found out that those birds, which of course cannot count, will gauge by the volume of the din they generate whether their number is increasing exponentially or decreasing. Why, we may wonder?

If their population increases, then there would be less food available for them and their offspring. Should this be so then accordingly the female birds will start laying fewer eggs – to restrict the size of their population! Should it be decreasing then more eggs will be laid. A sort of family planning, what.

That’s not all: we may still wonder why do they have to indulge in such an unusual loud ruckus?

Let’s say we are one of the 100 birds gathered at sunset on such a tree. We would not be very keen to restrict the number of eggs we would lay (according to our avian ethics and convention), thereby diminishing substantially our chance of propagating our genes. So what do we do, we chirp and twitter as loudly as possible to give the other 99 the impression that there are more than 100 birds around – and virtually a bigger crowd. So let them be outwitted, let them lay fewer eggs, while we would lay more – and promote our own descendants! Of course, the other 99 are no fools, as they also indulge in the same strategy. And finally all of us 100 together would stir up a racket and give the impression that we are 500 birds gathered on the tree! That’s the daily entertainment we are invited to – at dusk or dawn. It is a fact, according to the experts!

And what amazement the ‘Lyrebird’ has in store for us; watch it on YouTube. They indulge in courting dances with their spectacular tails fanning out high in the air like a lyre, coordinating a “song-dance routine that puts many humans to shame”; they have another trick up their sleeve: they can imitate the songs of some 20 other birds of different species, and fool them all. Yet the best is: if they hear your old mechanical camera shutter opening or closing, your mobile phone ringing, a chain saw being used in the vicinity, or the stuttering sound of a machine gun… then be sure that they will reproduce and mimic all these manmade sounds! Quite unbelievable.

Supremacy of the female

We may also ask why is it that in the ornithology world it is the male which displays the beautiful plumage. This is because the female of the species is the one which will try to entice the most gorgeous macho. And those colourful male feathers give the signal that the macho’s genes are better than the dull coloured rival’s. Hence the display and dance by the peacock. If a peahen chooses a peacock with exuberant feathers, their male progeny will inherit those colours, while their daughter will have a gene driving it to look for similar flamboyance in a prospective mate; and as time goes on there is an exponential genetic multiplier process, leading to blossoming of wonderful colours in the latest generation.

That’s why if we trek through the Amazonian forests we may suddenly come face to face with an explosion of extraordinary colours among some species of birds. The dull-feathered generations have died and weeded out, while the beautiful one survives. The wonderful parrots of the Amazon bear witness to that theory; they have such stunning plumage and above all excel in impersonating human voice; we are still wondering how they do that.

The pink flamingo is also a case at hand. Those which eat planktons or algae that confer a pink colour to their plumage are healthier. The female birds know that, and somehow or other, they females have come to associate beautiful colour with carotenoids and other vitamins that promote health, wanting their progeny to get the best. Birds at Chernobyl are getting paler and duller feathers – an indication of their fragile health at that nuclear disaster site.

Eternal Flyer

G. Kaplan in her book ‘Bird Minds’ seems to extol the extraordinary world of birds. Some of them drop crumbs of bread in lakes to catch their fish. Sol et al (2007) discovered that birds with larger brain live longer. And how could we not wonder how cormorants dive with such efficiency and precision to catch their fish deep underwater? What could we say of the male Satin bowerbirds of Australia: they decorate the vicinity of their nest with all sorts of plastic and odd pieces of objects they pick in the forest to impress their future mate; and they have a predilection for the blue colour! Jaybirds have a knack of hiding their food in thousands of nooks and corners; sometimes they would even feign caching their booty while other rivals (or squirrels) are peeping at them. It is said that only birds, which had cheated others before, could have such suspicion – prompting experts to wonder whether birds could have a theory of the mind.

A lot of work by neuroscientists is afoot to understand the behaviour and intelligence of the volatile species. There is even a case where one parrot outdid a chimpanzee in IQ testing! Another one exhibits intelligence equivalent to a 5-year-old child. What could be said of that raven which could bend a straight piece of metal into a hook to make a tool to retrieve food! A magpie has joined the club of the few animals – elephant, chimpanzee, orca and dolphins – that can recognize their own image in a mirror. But all these are isolated cases.

About one billion years ago our planet had a single mass of land called Rodinia; 500 million years later it formed Pangea, which later still broke into two, the southernmost part came to be known as Gondwanaland, comprising of Australia, New Zealand and the Antarctica. According to Kaplan, the origin of birds is from that southern land, and not from the northern hemisphere.

We can stretch our imagination and surmise: suppose there were two points A and B just a few kilometres away on Gondwanaland millions of years ago. As tectonic plate movements proceeded, forcing A and B to move away from each other at the rate of many inches yearly, the birds of antiquity moving from these two points (due to seasonal changes) would keep the habit, generation after generation, for millions of years. So nowadays even when A and B are thousand of kilometres apart, and seasonal change helping, the traditional to and fro trip still persists between A and B. Will ornithologists ever entertain such a farfetched line of thinking?

As we watch birds flying in a wide loop of thousand of kilometres over the oceans, while staying in the air for weeks or months, we can only wonder whether they are still searching or celebrating their ancestors’ old continent of Gondwanaland!

* Published in print edition on 19 February 2016

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