Uncommon Residents Environment

From Mandaveli to Mahabalipuram: How the ashy woodswallow receded from urban spaces

An Ashy Woodswallow perched on a palm tree near the Mudhaliarkuppam backwaters/ Odiyur lake. Photo: Sidharth Srinivasan  

The ashy woodswallow — also known as the ashy swallow-shrike — inhabits palm trees where it chirpily attends to its domestic duties. Where only a smattering of palm trees exists, the bridge arm of a lamp post becomes home. Truth be told, in urban spaces, this adaptation is largely a thing of the past, existing mostly in birders’ anecdotes and ornithologists’ field notes.

Ornithologist V. Santharam had once written about a pair of ashy woodswallows that nested atop a lamp-post at a Mandaveli junction, in the Newsletter for Birdwatchers.

“That was in the mid-1980s, and Mandaveli was relatively busy. Just near RK Mutt Road and the bus stand junction, there was a lamp-post close to the petrol bunk, where an ashy woodswallow pair was nesting successfully for more than a year,” recalls Santharam, spotlighting how they disdainfully rejected a couple of palm trees standing diagonally opposite the lamp-post.

Were those palm trees taken by other pairs of ashy woodswallows; or any other birds? “No, these two were the only breeding pair in that area.”

The Ashy Fact File
  • 1. Within its established range, the ashy woodswallow (artamus fuscus) is usually found in good numbers in areas marked by stands of palm trees.
  • 2. Though the species is comfortable occupying power lines and poles, these are no substitute for palm trees.
  • 3. On sections of ECR — for example, Pallipattu — that are marked by a proliferation of palm trees, these birds can be seen perched on power lines
  • 4. Ashy woodswallows are a gregarious species known for their huddling and allopreening rituals, performed as they park themselves on the power lines
  • 5. Both the male and female are a picture of familial commitment sharing nest-building, incubating and post-natal parenting responsibilities.
  • 6. This bird sallies forth from its perch, snatches the prey while on the wing and even polishes it off before returning to the perch.
  • 7. Birder Sidharth Srinivasan recalls a scene from Nanmangallam where waiting ashy woodswallows made quick work of butterflies that gained elevation after a mud-puddling session
  • 8. Sidharth observes that the ashy woodswallow occasionally lets out a harsh call, one that is markedly different from its regular call. The ashy woodswallow is known to mimic other birds, certainly not as prodigiously and markedly as a drongo would, but will certainly slip in an odd note or two now and then.

The presence of the palm trees, within the hearing range of one wheezy call, probably put these birds at ease about the location. Santharam also recalls how in MRC Nagar, “largely an open area at that time”, ashy woodswallows would string the power lines, huddling and allopreening.

With palm trees on the decline even in semi-urban spaces, it takes a long drive to put oneself within the possibility of savouring such “ashy-avian” delights. An unthinking question could be: Aren’t there more power lines within the city now? The ashy woodswallow may find a comfortable perch in a power line, but does not usually see it as a substitute for a palm tree. These birds invariably “test” the strength of power lines found in a place that proliferates in palm trees. The further one drives down East Coast Road, the greater the chances of sighting gaggles of ashy woodswallows on power lines. Just ahead of Mahabalipuram, there are villages where one can make this association between palm trees and ashy woodswallow. As ashy woodswallows have now receded far from urban spaces, and farther still from our collective consciousness, one can take kindly to gaps in the overall understanding of their behaviour.

A flock of ashy woodswallows in a huddle at Nanmangalam. Photo: Sidharth Srinivasan

A flock of ashy woodswallows in a huddle at Nanmangalam. Photo: Sidharth Srinivasan  

However, in decades past, when the species was hardly a will o’ the wisp, and put up live shows in residential localities, an erroneous assumption about its behaviour persisted. In retrospect, it looks indefensible.

It was largely believed that ashy woodswallow stuck to their towers and never descended to terra firma. Beyond casual conversations, the assumption was found validated even in some field guides.

Seeking to tackle this erroneous notion, Santharam wrote about in the edition of Newsletter for Birdwatchers that saw the light in January 1981. “I have seen this species on the ground on many occasions. The first such occasion was on 23.3.79 when a pair of these birds were pulling out some tufts of grass probably to line the nest at the open meadow of Adyar Estuary. One bird having collected a beakful of material headed towards some palm trees. The other bird remained on the ground for sometime and then flew in another direction,” Santharam penned his observations.

“On another occasion, I was observing a finchlark nest that had two chicks in June 80. An ashy swallow-shrike alighted on the ground a few yards away. On seeing the bird near their nest, the agitated parents, especially the female vigorously attacked the intruder and forced it to move away.”

Santharam ends his note by explaining what necessitated it.

“While the Handbook (Vol. 5) says that this species has “not been recorded actually on the ground, but may do so.....”, Whistler in the ‘Popular Handbook of Indian Birds’ asserts that this species never visits the ground. It was interesting to note that the nesting materials include fine grass, roots, fibres and feathers.”

Forty years on, Santharam has this to say: “Apart from the rare occasions when it comes down to take out the grass, this bird has no need to come down. It catches insects in flight, and sits on wires and poles. That is the reason why it (the bird’s rare descent to terra firma) was probably not reported. Or people thought it was not significant. Because both these people had mentioned specifically that it is not seen on the ground, when I saw it happen, I wanted to report it.” From past literature about this species, it is staggering to note that the species’ relationship with terra firma has a matter of deep speculation.

In 1951, the celebrated naturalist Charles McFarlane Inglis — who associated with the Zoological Society of London and the Royal Entomological Society in the forms in which they existed then — wrote a note about the ashy woodswallow to The Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society, and it got published.

At that time, Inglis was staying at Kenilworth in Coonoor, and he was calling attention to a discovery about the species he had made some years ago.

“Although I have no evidence of this swallow-shrike actually settling on the ground, I have proof of the nearest thing to it,” writes Inglis and goes on to present photographic evidence of an ashy swallow-shrike helping itself to a bird bath, which it shared it with a grey-headed myna. Inglish was “staying with my friend, the late H.V.O’ Donel, on the Huldibari Tea Estate in the Duars” when both made the discovery.

As Donel had a camera at hand, the rare event of an ashy woodswallow setting claws on an object just inches above terra firma could be recorded for posterity.

(Uncommon Residents is about the resident birds of Chennai and surrounding areas that are rarely seen)

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Printable version | Jul 25, 2021 10:34:09 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/sci-tech/energy-and-environment/from-mandaveli-to-mahabalipuram-how-the-ashy-woodswallow-receded-from-urban-spaces/article34855457.ece

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