They need the showers, but in moderation 

The Indian silverbill has adapted to urban environments, and in Chennai, the odds of seeing a nesting pair close to one’s hearth are high now

October 02, 2022 10:17 am | Updated 12:57 pm IST

A pair of Indian silverbills at Karapakkam on September 30, 2022

A pair of Indian silverbills at Karapakkam on September 30, 2022 | Photo Credit: PRINCE FREDERICK

The breeding season of the white-throated munia (Lonchura malabarica) reads like a college time-table. Here is how Handbook Of The Birds of India and Pakistan by Salim Ali and S Dillon Ripley chirps on it.

“Season, chiefly July to December in Punjab, January to March in central India, September to November about Hyderabad, December to May in Kerala.”

The provocation for raking up the white-throated munia’s love life is the sighting of a pair at Karapakkam on the morning of September 30 this year, a dateline meshing with Salim Ali’s observation pertaining to places “about Hyerabad”. The famed ornithologist was obviosuly taking in a massive, multi-framed macro picture, out of which one should gently slide out the hyperlocal frames pertaining to Chennai.

Now, almost as a rule, the breeding season of the Indian silverbill — another name for whitethroated munia, one with better air play — is sharply divided between north and south India, generally believed to play out in summer and winter respectively. However, going by Salim Ali’s field notes, it is cut more finely and allows for regional variations, with minimal overlaps — something one would expect of a neatly marked time-table. That gives a sense of a hoary-feathered, death-defying Chieftian Indian silverbill assigning conjugal rights to the various populations of the species at different times of the year.

The pattern, as reported by Salim Ali, should continue to provide a reliable framework for understanding the Indian silverbill’s breeding timelines, but allowances have to be made for some variations brought on by various factors, not the least of which being climate change.

Viewed in the light of the Indian silverbill’s behaviours, this pattern yields close-to-certain, if not absolutely sure-footed, conclusions.

Ornithologist V Shantaram remarks that the regional breeding seasons are coinciding with the availability of food. These birds need grass seeds which are found in generous measures when the scent of rain pierces the air. While the showers need to be significant enough to grow the grasses that yield seeds, they should not be intense to the extent of proving damaging to their nests, Shantaram explains.

The Indian silverbill builds flimsy nests, usually with grass. Here is how Salim Ali describes the bird’s nesting behaviour in the Handbook — “An untidy ball of grass with a lateral entrance-hole distinctively fringed, like a short tube, with feathery flowering grasses and woven from inside by female with stems brought by male.”

So, these birds would need a reasonably dry space to raise a family.

In each of the regions, the peak breeding and nesting activity happens in months way from the Apogee of the monsoon. When the monsoon is at the peak, the breeding activity would actually be tapering off.

It also has to be noted the Indian silverbill has changed with the times, having adapted to an urban environment, building nests within houses, using unlikely nooks like the one between the wall and AC compressor. The “urbanised” lot may be bringing a variation to the timeline.

They would want to be on absolutely dry ground to protect their nests

The case of the little green bee-eater (Merops orientalis) illustrates how some bird species are faced with the necessity of being on absolutely dry ground to have a pleasant nesting experience.

In these parts, the little green bee-eater’s breeding season usually stretches between February and June, a period insulated from the effects of the both the principal and secondary monsoon. (However, with climate change queering the pitch, occasional showers in Chennai during February do not sound far-fetched anymore.)

In Handbook of Birds of India and Pakistan (Vol. 4), Salim Ali notes: “Season, overall February to June varying locally.”

Asian green bee-eaters during a mating ritual, at Uthandi on June 2, 2022.

Asian green bee-eaters during a mating ritual, at Uthandi on June 2, 2022. | Photo Credit: PRINCE FREDERICK

The nature of the little green bee-eater’s nest keeps the bird from stretching this time-frame both ways. Its nest is essentially a mound of earth, and a downpour with some degree of intensity can unsettle the species’ “hearth” and domestic stability.

In the Handbook, Salim Ali describes its nest thus: “Nest a tunnel 3-4 cm in diameter bored horizontally in an earth mound or sandy cutting, or in the sides of a borrow-pit and the like.”

The images accompanying this text show a little green bee-eater pair in Uthandi going through a mating ritual on June 2 (this year), well within the time-frame of its breeding season, when rain-induced threat to its nest is almost non-existent.

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