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A Tale of Two Sets of Tails

The Baya Weaver and Purple Rumped Sunbird Vs. the Monsoon Session of Parliament

The monsoons in India may seem overcast by the dark clouds of disruption in Parliament during the ongoing ‘Monsoon Session’, and the habitual whining about how insufficient rainfall will cast a pall of gloom on the already beleaguered Indian farmer. But that doom and gloom apart, there is a brighter side in the real world- the natural kind, if you care to look. Aside from the fascinating cycles of nature that find perpetuation from the smallest rain-shower, this is a time for another beautiful phase- Nesting. Several species of Indian birds build nests in the months between May and July, lay eggs and await the birth of little ones. I’ve had the pleasure of switching off the ‘noise’  that has become Indian TV news lately to get a ring-side view instead of the breeding pattern of two amazing birds- The baya weaver bird that builds incredibly complex hanging nests single-handedly and the purple rumped sunbird, that builds somewhat simpler nests much closer to human habitation. This blog-post is dedicated to them. Their stories also pack in quite a lot about gender-roles and shared responsibilities in the avian world, geared towards the singular purpose of procreation, stripped of all the social trappings of family life the human species feels pressured to endure. There are surely a few things for us to take away from observing how these little birds live their short lives.

I would have to naturally begin with the brilliant baya weaver bird, whose skills and intelligence might almost make the average Indian politician, seem a bird-brain in the sense that the expression is derogatorily used by us humans in all our vanity. There’s unity of design, a classical consistency, a definite sense of purpose and lots of hard-work behind the meticulous nest-building exercise of the baya. The sheer ingenuity with which the baya weaver designs its cosy little home, using nothing more than paddy leaves, grass strands or long strips torn from palm fronds to build its waterproof nest, complete with heat-shield mechanisms can leave you scratching your head. The male of the species is known to make up to 500 trips to gather the material to complete a nest. On the other hand, the purple rumped sunbird native to the Indian Subcontinent seems to suffer from the ‘chalta-hai’ attitude endemic to its human neighbours. It’s somewhat basic ‘jugaad-type’, probably modernist nest is almost embarrassing when compared to the neat, well-finished home of the baya weaver. Choosing to live much closer to human habitation than the baya, the sunbird picks up nearly everything it can find- fine plant fibres, cobwebs, lichens, bark pieces, flying seeds and other materials. Even bits of plastic, and newspaper. In the case of the sunbird, it’s the female that almost exclusively builds the nest while the male hovers around. I’m reserving judgement on the role of genders to distinguish the finesse of the nests of these two birds. I’m clearly biased in favour of the baya weaver, but I assure you that has nothing to do with the fact that their nests are crafted by the male of the species.   

Once the male baya partially build the nests, reaching what’s called the ‘helmet stage’ (which takes a little over a week), they begin to display to passing females by flapping their wings and calling while hanging from their nests. The females then inspect the nest and, if they approve of what they see- the design and location, they signal their acceptance of a male. Only then does the male actually complete the nest by adding the entrance tunnel, which can take up to 18 days. The pair then homes in the nest and breeds happily thereafter. But it isn’t always rosy. When females reject nests, some male weavers have reportedly been spotted tearing up the nest in frustration! It’s all about natural selection. The best man wins, the female gets to pick its ideal mate based on the skills displayed and leaves with a polite no, thank you, if it’s not quite impressed. The purpose of the nest is to house the brood of the fresh pair and carry forward the line. No marriage contracts, no expectations of fidelity or loyalty, none of the complication of morality that afflict the human species. Both male and female baya weavers are believed to be polygamous. After mating with a female, the male often courts other females at other partially constructed nests. Females are on occasion known to lay their eggs in the nests of others. Males sometimes assist in feeding the chicks. It’s a pretty hippy kind of culture. 

The social and gregarious baya weaver is known to nest in areas where they can easily access grains for food. Nesting mostly in colonies, they typically breed during the monsoons and are usually found on thorny trees or palm fronds and the nests are often built near water or hanging over water where predators cannot reach easily. While baya weaver colonies in Asia are usually 20-30 nests strong, the African sparrow weaver birds even build ‘nest apartments’, with 100 to 300 nests within the complex!

This is the colony at our farm in Thally, Tamil Nadu. The chosen branches of the tree are spread over an open pond, which fills up with water, depending on the strength of seasonal rainfall. I’m not sure where these birds have been feeding, but there are paddy fields not far from our farm itself. The pond certainly seems to be keeping off predators, keeping these birds happy to nest in peace.

Known as thukanam kuruvi in Malayalam, thookanaan kuruvi in Tamil and son-chiri in Hindi, both male and female baya weaver birds resemble female house sparrows in their non-breeding stage. From sporting a dull yellow colour with black markings at first, the males grow brighter in colour, with the yellows and the black markings becoming more prominent as the breeding season approaches.

Their pendulous bell-shaped nests are known to be elaborate, reflecting lots of attention to detail. Males are almost solely in charge of nest-building, though their female partners may join in giving the finishing touches, particularly on the interiors. Females may modify the interiors or add blobs of mud. Males have also been seen adding mud and dung to the nest chamber before pairing with a female. Although the real reason for this is not known, some believe the clay may help to stabilise the nest against strong winds. The nests have a definite design that includes a looped attachment to the branch, a roof, the egg chamber, antechamber and entrance tube. The expert craftsmanship is known to be instinctive to the baya weaver. Even one-and-half-year-old weaver birds have been spotted building fantastic gourd-shaped hanging nests, according to ornithologists based in Chennai.

One fascinating story about the baya weaver is the somewhat hard to confirm folk belief in India, that the bird sticks fireflies with mud to the nest walls to light up the interior of the nest at night! That’s an incredible vision. Imagine what that might look like…

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Compared to the baya, the nectar sucking, tiny purple rumped sunbird, is an also-ran when it comes to nest-building. They cobble together an almost comical set of items to build a dainty nest, attached very precariously to the end of a tree branch or even buildings and open porches as ideal nesting sites. They seem unafraid of humans and don’t appear to perceive them as dangerous predators, although they hardly approach them or stick around long enough even to be photographed. We have a few pairs choosing to nest practically outside our windows at home, in the city.

After admiring the work of the baya weaver, you can imagine why I find the sunbird rather disappointing. Just look at the materials it picks. I haven’t had the opportunity to peek inside, but reports say the nest is lined with soft fibres such as from the fuzz covering the seeds of Calotropis- also known as milkweed. That would make sense because we have plenty of those growing around and this is the season for seed dispersal. I sure hope the nests look better on the inside! Every time I look at this nest hanging delicately, I wonder how it might survive the strong gusts of wind and rain common during the Indian monsoon. But then there is much I don’t know… 

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I’ve often caught the sunbird tapping the window, possibly at its own reflection! Turns out they’re there collecting cobwebs for the nest and are startled by what they probably think are other birds staring back at them from the reflecting glass. Like the baya weaver, it is the males amongst the purple rumped sunbird that are brighter and more attractive. Classic mate-attracting traits, perhaps. Maybe the bird equivalent of muscular male bodies, successful careers, fancy perfumes and flashy cars, all rolled into one to grab the attention of the ideal female in our own species. The male purple rumped sunbird is quite a stunner. It has a dark maroon upper side with a blue-green crown that glistens at some angles, bright green shoulder patch and violet/purple rump patch which is generally hidden under the wings. I’m afraid my pictures hardly do justice to their true beauty. But they’re really small and terribly nimble to capture their brilliance on camera! The underparts of the male are whitish with dark throat, maroon breast band and purple/violet patch in the throat which is visible at some angles. The female is relatively staid. Something of a Plain Jane. It has a white throat followed by yellowish breast. The upper side is olive or brownish. That’s about it.

What’s fun is to see them foraging for nectar. They’re so small, they can hover over tiny flowers till their beaks find the hidden honey. They also dew-bathe, sliding over drops of rain collected on large leaves- a sight I haven’t managed to capture on camera yet. These are known to breed through the year and may have two broods, but mainly during the monsoons. For their size, they can be surprisingly loud. The sunbird lays about two eggs and the chicks are known to fledge in about 17 days. The eggs are incubated by both the male and female. I see constant traffic around the nest and research tells me the chicks are fed by the male for a few days. Helpers, females or possibly juveniles from the previous brood may sometimes assist the parents in feeding the young. The great thing about these birds is that they keep the garden blooming and happy by simply hopping flowers in search of nectar. They’re one of the key pollinators, and without them, we’d not have our fruits or the genetic diversity that makes evolution more exciting.      

I’d say, birdwatching has been time well spent, away from the nonsensical drama on TV, that has been my staple in the past. Watching a bunch of politicians hold any likely development in the country to ransom as they get down to a game of one-upmanship in stalling parliament is hardly what the monsoons should be about! What say?