Is it going to be the common mynah versus the pied mynah in Chennai?

Updated - January 09, 2023 10:00 am IST

Published - January 07, 2023 09:37 pm IST

Spotted at Pallikaranai marsh. Photographed by KVRK

Spotted at Pallikaranai marsh. Photographed by KVRK Thirunaranan

The common mynah proves a inviolable law of life — there would always be someone waiting in the wings to purloin what one holds dear; or, at least, cause that perception.

A resident bird in Chennai, the common mynah (also called, Indian mynah; Acridotheres tristis) flaunts this residency and gatecrashes almost every party in town. In terms of ubiquity, only the Indian greynecked (the house crow; Corvus splendens) barely manages to put this bird in the shade.

As a resident mynah, it clearly rules the roost in and around Chennai, its “adaptability and boldness” — qualities ornithologist V Santharam attributes to the species — taking it where other resident starlings fear to tread.

“Brahminy starling is largely seen around agricultural tracts — it is mostly a suburban-to-rural bird,” says Santharam. Therefore, the odds of sighting the resident Brahminy starling are low unless one is willing to put some distance between oneself and the bustle of Chennai. So, the closest contender is many laps behind the common mynah. Santharam notes the chestnut-tailed starling (also called grey-headed starling; Sturnia malabarica) enjoys some sort of resident status in Chennai, usually being sighted in these parts while it is in the process of nest-building.

“In March and April, it nests in certain areas, such as the Guindy National Park — that is based on my observation in the 1980s. There is a tendency to associate breeding with residency, and that would make this bird a resident of sorts,” says Santharam.

A pied mynah photographed by Jithesh Babu

A pied mynah photographed by Jithesh Babu

At best, the chestnut-tailed starling can be compared to a reclusive neighbour who surfaces a few times in a year just to stock up on essentials. Does that leave the field entirely to the common mynah? Not quite; life is far too complicated to arrive at straightforward conclusions, let alone stay put there.

There is a contender, and the “contention” — there is an element of hyperbole to the use of that word — is of recent origin.

In birding and ornithological circles, the southward movement of the Indian pied mynah (also known as Asian pied starling; pied mynah; Gracupica contra) comes with the staleness of yesterday’s news. Its range expansion is well-documented, and in parts of Chennai, fresh nests are regularly reported from newer places. Recently, Jithesh Babu, who regularly patch-birds close to his hearth, in Nanmangalam, has reported nesting activity of the pied mynah on the western side of Nanmangalam lake. KVRK Thirunaranan of The Nature Trust (which works alongside the forest department to document avian presence and numbers in the Pallikaranai marsh for a year-on-year comparison) points out nesting activity by the pied mynah within the marsh has long ceased to raise eyebrows. A little over a month ago, he reported the sighting of three nests within the marsh. The question that brings a whiff of freshness would be: What does this mean for the common mynah?

The pied mynah is also known to be quite aggressive in territorialising areas where it is found or gets inadvertently introduced as escapees of caged birds. So, can one expect some jockeying for space and control?

Santharam believes the pied mynah could spread and become common, without making the common mynah hot under the collar.

He rests his argument largely on how the two birds, though cousins, are markedly different in their philosophies about how to build a “home”. The common mynah is a hole-nesting species, and would be competing against the rose-ringed parakeet and the spotted owlet in urban sections of Chennai for nesting spaces, and in slightly extended areas, also with the Indian roller. The Asian pied starling builds nests with grass and twigs, and the nests are usually huge and conspicuous — a factor Santharam believes could be predisposing the Asian pied starling young to predation. Significantly, there is no competition between the two mynah cousins for nesting spaces.

The common mynah is a generalist in terms of food habits and habitats — much like the house crow. If one let one’s guard down, the bird might boldly hop into kitchens.

The pied mynah may not be capable of such courage, but has enough reslience to spread itself widely across Chennai to be placed a noticeable second to the common mynah in the future.

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