Ducking shoppers and hidden barn swallows in the Himalayas

Unlike birds that seek nature to raise their young, barn swallows idealise human-made structures to raise their young

December 23, 2017 04:05 pm | Updated December 26, 2017 03:44 pm IST

Barn swallows love nesting in shops in the Himalayas.

Barn swallows love nesting in shops in the Himalayas.

The shopkeeper is serving his customer when something drops on the counter near his elbow. The man doesn’t even flinch, continuing with the transaction. On closer look, there are many white-and-black bird droppings on the newspaper beside him.

High above their heads, four identical chicks sit motionless in a small earthen cup. A barn swallow that swoops into the shop lands on the edge of the nest. All four mouths gape wide, each vying for the insect tidbit. A few years ago, the parents had ferried several pellets of mud and grass mixed with their saliva to build this nest. As it dried, it hardened to form a cup to which they return every year.

At first, the parent birds ate their newborns’ excrement, keeping the nest hygienic and saving the shopkeeper the hassle of cleaning it. Then the offspring pooped faeces enclosed in a membranous sac for easy disposal. But now the chicks are older and their parents can’t deal with their frequent pooping. So the chicks back up to the edge of their cosy nest and aim out to the cash counter below. These squirts could have targeted merchandise, the billing machine, or the shopkeeper’s head had he not made some changes. He cleared the area of stock and moved his chair. Instead, the droppings hit a newspaper that the man changes as needed.

Elevator nest

Many shops in market areas across the Himalayas — from Kullu in Himachal Pradesh to Kurseong in West Bengal — host the nests of barn swallows. Some have three or four nests, and the space above people’s heads is busy with air traffic as the parent birds speed in and out, provisioning their young.

When humans began building shelters, these cave-nesting birds were spoilt for choice. Unlike other birds that seek natural settings far away from humans to raise their young, barn swallows, as their name suggests, seem to idealise human-made structures.

Suhel Quader of the Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF) says even restaurants tolerate the birds’ unhygienic toilet habits. They affix a metal plate below the nests to catch the poop, so it doesn’t contaminate their clientele’s plates.

No raptor has the gumption to fly into small spaces crowded with people. So the diminutive birds go about the business of rearing babies without having to look over their shoulders all the time. But people bring their own set of problems, such as pet cats. If the birds choose the spot well, no feline can scale sheer walls. An American book says the birds even nest in slow-moving trains!

Another unorthodox nesting location that Quader has noticed is the handle of a shop’s rolling shutter. Every morning, when the establishment opens for business, the birds enjoy an elevator ride from the floor to the roof. And every evening, they come down to the ground. The shopkeeper told a surprised Quader that his shop had no rodents to bother the chicks.

Elephant tricks

But what of the humans? No one appreciates filth falling on their heads or floors. Elsewhere in the subcontinent, we dislike cobwebs, and we don’t tolerate house geckos pooping down on us from the ceiling. American wildlife agencies advise homeowners who don’t want the birds nesting in their homes to install barriers, make noise, remove nests before the birds lay eggs, or paint a nonstick silicone paint, so the mud doesn’t stick. But in the Himalayas, the birds got lucky.

The hill folk think barn swallows bring them good luck. Some try to offer full board, laying out feed for them, but the birds are content with boarding alone. They prefer to catch their own meals in a high-speed chase. These small birds sit on overhead electric lines, watching the hustle and bustle of the street below. When one spots its quarry, it swoops down, weaving its way between pushcarts, vehicles, and pedestrians. The bird snaps up its insect prey in mid-flight and dives into the shop or house to cram its prize into a hungry yellow mouth.

What happens when the shop closes for the day? Shopkeepers told Sanjay Sondhi of Kalpavriksh that the birds know the shops’ schedules and swoop in before closing time. Most of these are family-run establishments that open every day and take no days off. If they can’t open the shop themselves, they make sure someone else does.

At a police station in Uttarakhand, Quader noticed barn swallows come and go through a broken window, so they were not dependent on the police to let them in.

The owner of a pharmacy in Kurseong cut a hole in the shutter for the birds so they’d have their own entrance. But they refused to use it, to his distress. Santhosha Gubbi, a forester, writes in his blog that he borrowed an idea from a colleague, who had persuaded wild elephants to use an underpass in Rajaji National Park. He collected balls of elephant dung and placed them strategically along the trail he wanted the animals to use. On seeing and smelling the ordure, the animals assumed that since others had passed through, the passage must be safe to use. Gubbi advised the pharmacy owner to smear swallow dropping on the exit hole. Apparently, barn swallows reason like elephants, and the trick worked.

Once the youngsters fledge, the parents lay another round of eggs, and the whole scenario plays out again before cold winds sweep down from the mountains.

Janaki Lenin is not a conservationista but many creatures share her home for reasons she is yet to discover. @JanakiLenin

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