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When birds transition from drab to colourful

A black-tailed godwit in breeding plumage at Perumbakkam wetland on April 17.

A black-tailed godwit in breeding plumage at Perumbakkam wetland on April 17. | Photo Credit: Prince Frederick

At the Perumbakkam wetland on April 17, a lone black-tailed godwit was given the cold shoulder by two black-winged stilts. The stilts might not have heckled the godwit, but their behaviour was not far from it either. The duo would emit jarringly shrill cries that only stilts can; the cries reeked of irritability. Their pencil-thin frames would twitch from time to time, and these twitches came with an air of involuntariness. Casting around for an anthropomorphic peg to hang this unfriendly behaviour on, the twitches seemed as unintended as those of someone with Tourette’s Syndrome. The two residents birds stopped short of launching into the hapless godwit, which seemed ill at ease, hopping around, but defiantly standing its ground.

It is as if these two stilts sensed that the black-tailed godwit did not belong in this place anymore, definitely not till the first signs of the next wintering season. And this intuitive understanding was probably getting them to display territoriality. The black-tailed godwit was also clothed in its breeding plumage — clearly a hint from Nature for the bird to move on. The stilts had got it, but the one it was intended for had not.

There are two questions on the cards: One specifically about this black-winged stilt, and the other about the species in its wintering grounds. Why was this bird poking around in a place where its tenancy seemed to have expired? Migratory birds are known to stay on till the first week of May — and some stragglers longer still — but by mid-April, especially with the kind of heat the metro is now being subjected to, the birds have a reason to check out faster than usual.

Apparently, the black-tailed godwit is not alone. Birder E Arun Kumar notes that a small flock of black-tailed godwits in breeding plumage haunts Perumbakkam wetland. Are they not even faintly uncomfortable about the thought of landing late in their breeding grounds, and being handicapped in some form on account of the delay?

The answer lies in the might of their wings.

“From the data we now have, godwits are capable of flying very fast and non-stop, covering long distances in a short span of time. The data pertains to the bar-tailed godwit; and the black-tailed godwit could be somewhat similar to that,” explains ornithologist V Santharam, suggesting that these godwits might still make in on time, even if they had tarried in the wintering grounds longer than most other migratory species do.

Birders would not complain about migratory birds lingering on past their check-out time, especially when these birds transition into totally different-looking, strikingly colourful beings.

There is still a short window for birders in and around Chennai to see some migratory species in their breeding uniform. Some waders change colour noticeably: The curlew sandpiper is one. In its breeding plumage, the Pacific golden plover is a feast for tired eyes.

One sight that birders in these parts would give their 25x100 scopes for is the male ruff in its full breeding attire. However, the ruff comes into its full breeding plumage late, only when they arrive in their breeding grounds, and therefore, local birders have to be content with just a faint indication of a “dress change”. Not for them the sight of an arrestingly beautiful male bird with flowing neck ruff.

Santharam notes that birds come into breeding earlier or later, based on internal and external factors. Some species are prepared for the process earlier, but even in these species, the timelines can shift based on questions such as nutritional status. Being sufficiently-fed does impact when the birds show up on Nature’s stage of regeneration, to enact once more a play that would run to packed houses as long as there is life on earth.

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Printable version | Jun 25, 2022 9:46:52 am |