Category: Birds

Mute Swan Moments

Mute Swan Moments

A commonly seen bird doesn’t really excite a local birdwatcher. Long time ago, a British birdwatcher visiting India said Red-vented Bulbul was his favourite. I said, ‘yeah they are nice birds’ but without much enthusiasm. When I went to UK, a local birdwatcher asked me which British bird I liked most. I replied instantly ‘Mute Swan’. He said, ‘alright, they are doing ok’. I could figure out that the tone was very similar to that of my response for that ‘boring and common’ bulbul. But he added, ‘but they are lovely, aren’t they?’ Indeed they are.

Mute Swan in Cam River
Mute Swan in Cam River

These birds became my favourite the moment I saw them in 2002 in the Cam River. Last year (September 2012) I had a chance to see these birds again, for a fairly long time. And the series of events that followed made my affection towards this bird even stronger. I spent a long time watching and photographing them in the Cam River. There were three cygnets (young Mute Swans) along with an adult. Mute Swans are a good subject for photography with their long neck and the white plumage reflecting on the ripples in the dark waters while they gracefully swim along the stream. Once in a while, they dipped their heads into the water to feed on the aquatic vegetation. Cygnets are dull greyish in colour. But they were certainly not ugly ducklings as folk lores portray.

Mute Swan with cygnets
Mute Swan with cygnets

I was in the UK to get trained in bird ringing. During my stay I had a chance to visit the British Birdfair. There the BTO (British Trust for Ornithology) had a stall in which the volunteers explained to the visitors about bird ringing and demonstrated the technique with live, wild birds. To understand the importance of bird ringing by the public, they kept a box full of wrist bands on which a bird name and a ring number were printed.

I have been ringed as a Mute Swan..:)
I was ringed as a Mute Swan..:)

These were replicas of real rings put on birds during the demonstration. One could pick and wear a band of their choice. It meant that you had been ringed like that bird. Then you go with that band to the other BTO stall to find out some interesting facts about that particular ringed bird. Obviously, I choose a Mute Swan band and the ring number was W03598. I went to the BTO stall and showed my band. To my dismay I found that that bird was dead. I learnt that the bird had been hit by a golf ball when it was flying over the golf course! See the photograph below for more interesting facts.

Fact sheet of W03598
Fact sheet of W03598

My tryst with Mute Swan continued during my walk in a beautiful English countryside in East Sussex. I went crazy when I saw a Mute Swan swimming in the stream. A footpath ran parallel to the stream. I walked along keeping up my pace with the two Mute Swans swimming along the stream. That entire landscape wouldn’t have looked beautiful if these birds had not been there.

Mute Swan in English countryside
Mute Swan in English countryside

Something strange happened when I was following those birds. One of them raised its leg above the water and kept it in that position for a while. They do that once in a while to rest their legs. When I looked through the viewfinder of my camera I was surprised to see that it had been ringed! I quickly took some close-up shots and figured out the ring number—ZY2162. Soon after I got that photo it sank that leg back into the water. It was as if that bird raised its leg just to show me the ring number. Later when I informed this to the local ringing group I got to know that this bird had been ringed on 20th August 2011.

Showing off the ring!
Showing off the ring!

Another interesting thing which I noticed on that individual was that it was moulting and had lost its primary feathers. During this period individuals like these mostly stay in the water as they can’t fly too well and are vulnerable to predation by foxes.

Moulting individual without primary feathers
Moulting individual without primary feathers

Two days after that memorable sighting (6th November 2012), I was in the ringing hut busy ringing some passerines. Suddenly the ringers outside started cheering aloud and I instantly knew that they had captured an interesting bird. I came out and was awestruck to see a Mute Swan. We always want to touch the things which we really like. I fulfilled my wish by caressing the Mute Swan. When these kind of special birds are brought to the ringing hut, normally, they draw a lot from among the names of the participants present there written on pieces of paper. And guess whose lucky day that was? Yes, when they read out my name and said I got a chance to ring the bird I was over the moon.

Ringing a Mute Swan was a special moment. But it is not very easy to do that. Two people had to hold the bird while I put the ring. Since I had never ringed a Mute Swan before, other ringers around me helped enormously. Although my name is recorded in the register, I wouldn’t really boast that it was ringed by me alone. It was a collective effort. However, I was quite happy and thrilled that I got a chance to touch this beautiful bird once again. The ring number that I put on it was ZY2122. In case any of you see a Mute Swan with this ring number, do remember me!

Swan upping in East Sussex..:)
Swan upping in East Sussex! 

Mute swan was introduced in the US and now they are considered a pest. I personally don’t want to hate the Mute Swan even where it is non-native. But that is not possible in a biologist’s world. A biologist has to enjoy nature with discretion. This is a curse. We have so many specifications.

If someone in India says they like Lantana flowers, I would have given them a big lecture: “They are invasive plants, they are very bad, they don’t allow other plants to grow, they spread like hell, this is one of the serious problems now we are facing in Indian forests, this plant should be controlled, so on and so forth.” I hate to see Lantana in India, Eucalyptus in India. Likewise somewhere in some part of this earth somebody surely hates the Mute Swan for being non-native. Just the feeling that someone can hate these birds, makes me feel sad. Human beings did a mistake of introducing them in the places which are alien to them. And when they adapt themselves and flourish we call them invasive. Because of our mistake, those beautiful birds are losing their lives. Isn’t that awful?

Mute Swan at its native land
Swan and Shadow (Poem by John Hollander)

But when I was watching those beautiful Mute Swans beautifully swimming in that beautiful golden sun-lit stream, I thought to myself, I am watching the Mute Swans in their native land. Nobody around me to tell that, ’they are….

Lucky me!

Books on birds in Tamil

Books on birds in Tamil

Birds have fascinated human beings since early times. There have been many books, notes, and descriptions of birds and their behaviour in world literature, including several Indian languages. Birds have a special place in classical Tamil literature. Names given to some birds in ancient Sangam Tamil literature are still the same and in use (e.g., Koogai – Barn Owl and Thookanang Kuruvi – Weaver Bird). The famous old Tamil verse on White Stork, ‘Narai Narai Sengal Narai’, gives us a glimpse of the observation skill of the poet Sathi Mutha Pulavar on the migratory behaviour of this bird. Birds are mentioned even in Tamil film songs. For instance, I have made a list of twenty songs mentioning Chittu kuruvi or House Sparrow. Although there are mentions of various birds in old Tamil literature, proverbs, contemporary poems and film songs, and birds are also depicted in temple murals and other paintings, there are as yet few popular science books and field guides on birds in Tamil.

In recent times, efforts to popularise birds and their behaviour in Tamil were pioneered by the famous naturalist M. Krishnan. He wrote about birds and other wildlife of India in various Tamil magazines and newspapers. In 2002, Krishnan’s writings in Tamil were compiled by Theodore Baskaran, another accomplished nature writer in Tamil in the book Mazhaikalamum Kuyilosaiyum (The Monsoon and the Call of the Koel). M. Krishnan also wrote about birds for the Tamil Encyclopaedia Kalaikalangiyam, published in ten volumes between from 1954 to 1968 by the Tamil Valarchi Kazagam. These articles on birds have been compiled and brought out in the book Paravaigalum Vedanthangalum (Birds and Vedanthangal) by Tamil writer Perumal Murugan (read his foreword for this book here). This collection includes M. Krishnan’s booklet on Vedanthangal Bird Sanctuary, which was published in 1961 by the Tamil Nadu Forest Department, an English version of which is available here.

Among the significant works on birds to emerge in Tamil after M. Krishnan, is the book “Theninthiyap Paravaigal” (South Indian Birds) authored by Dr. K. Ratnam, a retired Tamil professor. Published in 1974 by the Tamilnattu Padanool Niruvanam (Tamil Nadu Textbook Corporation), this book was part of school and college curriculum for a while, but is now out of print. After this Ratnam also produced another important publication Tamizil Paravai Peyargal (Bird names in Tamil) in 1998. In this amazing work, he compiled Tamil names of 410 bird species, referring to various books and sources including M. A. Badshah’s Checklist of birds of Tamil Nadu with English, scientific and Tamil names. Ratnam coined new names for species that did not have common names. This book, which I clearly remember buying in 1995 at the the 8th World Tamil Conference book fair at Thanjavur, is one of my prized possessions. It is now available online for free download. Still, Ratnam’s landmark book came a few years later. Published in 2002, Tamilnattu Paravaigal (Birds of Tamil Nadu) became the first field guide for birds in Tamil, covering 328 birds species that occur in Tamil Nadu.

Bird books in Tamil by Dr. K. Ratnam

Other nature writers in Tamil, including S. Mohamed Ali, Theodore Baskaran, Athi Valliappan, and Kovai Sadasivam, have published several articles and books on birds. Another acclaimed work on birds in Tamil is by Asai, a modern Tamil poet who is a writer and editor of Cre-A publications. Asai’s Kondalathi (Tamil name for Eurasian Hoopoe), a collection of his poems about birds, is a pioneering work in modern Tamil poetry.

Kondalathi, Tamil poetry on birds by Asai, and Paravaigalum Vedanthangalum, a collection of M.Krishnan’s articles on birds in Tamil.

Cre-A Publications is one of the highly reputed publishing houses of South India. Apart from the well known Kriyāviṉ taṟkālat Tamiḻ Akarāti (Tamiḻ-Tamiḻ-āṅkilam): Cre-A Dictionary of Contemporary Tamil (Tamil-Tamil-English), Cre-A has published an impressive array of Tamil literary works and translations from other languages. Cre-A’s co-founder and managing editor, Cre-A S. Ramakrishnan, has also pioneered the publishing of books on nature and environment, such as Inthiavin Sutruchulal (1986), a  translation of The State of India’s Environment, Maram Valarpu (Tree Planting), and the famous Spiders: An Introduction by K. Vijayalakshmi and Preston Ahimaz.

I was pleasantly surprised therefore when Asai approached me with his idea of bringing out a dictionary of birds in Tamil to be published by Cre-A. He had made an initial draft of the manuscript with about 50 species of birds, taking help from Dr. R. Bhanumathi, an environment educationist experienced in the art of puppetry. The initial list was extracted from Cre-A’s Tamil Dictionary. Over the next few months, we worked together on developing this and decided to bring it out as a photographic field guide.

Paravaigal: Arimugak kaiyedu (Birds: Introductory field guide)

The result is Paravaigal: Arimugak kaiyedu (Birds: Introductory field guide) released in January 2013 at the 36th Chennai Book Fair. This compact (10.5 cm X 14 cm) guide contains photographs and brief accounts of 88 bird species commonly found in Tamil Nadu. The selected species are mostly those commonly seen in the plains and a few from hilly and coastal regions. The books carries 166 full-colour photographs of these birds taken in the field by famous wildlife photographers such as Ramki Sreenivasan, Radha Rangarajan, Kalyan Varma, Gnanaskandan, Vijay Ramanathan, and many others. To aid in bird identification, photographs taken in different angles to clearly show plumage and posture of the bird are used in the book. Wherever necessary, differences between the sexes, plumage variation during breeding and non-breeding seasons, and different morphs of the same species, are also illustrated through photographs. Descriptions to help birders identify birds in the field are given in simple language. Tamil names of birds sometimes differ from region to region and we mainly use the names given by K. Ratnam, while mentioning any alternative common names. For each species, brief descriptions of habitat, ecology, and behaviour are given. Here are a couple of sample pages from this guide:

This guide is produced for anyone who are fascinated by birds and want to learn about birds. Besides the species accounts and photographs, there is a detailed introduction to the classification, nomenclature, and history of Indian ornithology. The book also lists various Indian research institutions, including those that offer courses on ornithology. To help birdwatchers who wish to know more, there is also a list of other field guides on Indian birds, tips on  birdwatching and bird identification using calls, plumage and nests. There are brief sections on bird migration, conservation, importance of birds, list of bird sanctuaries and links to Important Bird Areas (IBA’s) in Tamil Nadu and other books on birds in Tamil.

This book is a collective effort of many people. I take this opportunity to thank Mr. Athi Valliappan and Mr. Theodore Baskaran for their comments on the draft, all the photographers who generously contributed their wonderful photographs, Mr. Balaji for designing this book attractively, other staff of Cre-A for their help in various ways, and Divya and Sridhar for their encouragement. This book was a brainchild of Cre-A and I thank Mr. S. Ramakrishnan and Mr. Asai for giving me this opportunity.

To buy this book contact Cre-A. Email: creapublishers@gmail.com (Tel: 044 – 42020283)