Sri.Abhiram G Shankar
I consider myself lucky to have had the opportunity to explore the wilderness and diverse landscape through the lush Western Ghats to the dusty deserts of Gujarat and Rajasthan, from the grasslands of the Deccan to the peaks of the Himalaya, but there is something in the mountains, which draws me to them. The rugged terrain that hides surprises around every bend, the crisp cool air and the feeling of being humbled by towering walls of rock and snow, clothed in shades of green and brown, takes me to a different world of unparalleled peace and tranquillity.
To me, learning about nature, especially birds, is not just a hobby but an essential part of my life – passion, stress-buster, meditation, sport – all rolled into one. In this small write up, I shall try and introduce the reader to three interesting species of birds seen in our campus. I only hope and pray that more of young civil servants take to appreciating nature in her myriad forms. Bird watching or Birding is to identify and observe birds in their natural habitat. It is a recreational activity as well as forms part of Citizen centric science, a way of documenting the birds of a particular area. The streams, terrain and woodlands of Uttarakhand offer amazing opportunities for birding.
An interesting thing to note is that, knowing the Latin binomial nomenclature of a bird can be a source of great revelation and joy at times. For example, take Treron Sphenurus (Wedge-tailed Green-Pigeon). Treron is derived from the Greek word for pigeon, trērōnos which in turn traces its roots to the word treō which means to flee in fear or of shy or timid disposition. The fact that the tail of this species is uniquely shaped like a wedge is captured by the species name, sphenurus derived from the words sphēnos meaning wedge and the suffix -ouros meaning -tailed (wedge-tailed).
Wedge-tailed Green-Pigeon (Treron Sphenurus)
The Wedge-tailed Green-Pigeon is a handsome, large frugivore and the only green pigeon to be seen along the Mussoorie ridge. The more common Yellow-footed Green Pigeon takes the place of the Wedge-tailed Pigeon in the Dun valley and across much of India. On cool mornings, they often perch atop treetops to soak in the morning sun but most of the times they are rarely visible, unless one searches specifically for the pigeons. Given their cryptic plumage, it is all too easy to not notice this bird as it forages silently on a variety of fruit-bearing trees and plants but once spotted, one cannot but appreciate the fine colours.
One way to identify this beautiful creature is to concentrate one’s ears to its mild but delightful and melodious crooning (which reminds me of my first encounters with Grey-Fronted Green Pigeons in the Western Ghats) or gently shaking branches as they move from one perch to another, often hanging upside down to reach the choicest of fruits.
I’ve sometimes been taken aback when, instead of the one bird I was pursuing, a dozen or more would take flight with quick, whirling wing beats from the leafy depths, as if they all materialised out of thin air… with its rich hues of chestnut, lilac and mauve. A hint of a grey border to the mantle and nape adds elegance to this beautiful bird. The Wedge-tailed Green Pigeon displays altitudinal movement like several other bird species of the Himalayan region. The best time to see them in action and in the open is during the summer and
monsoon. This is when they return to their preferred habitats of temperate forests dominated by oak and rhododendron interspersed with deodar. They commence singing from mid-March onwards, soon to be followed by courtship, mating and nesting spread across the summer.
Once, in May 2022, I saw a courting pair on a deodar (Cedrus deodara) near Company Garden. As the courtship progressed, the male commenced to flick his tail gently up and down. This behaviour went on for several minutes. Was this part of the ritual or just one odd pigeon trying to learn new moves to woo his indifferent partner? It is still a mystery to me. In August, I have seen immature fledglings awkwardly perched on branches, hopping about with the adults in the flock. By the end of September or early October, the frequency of sighting goes down, as they descend to lower slopes and parts of the Dun valley to escape the biting cold of Mussoorie winter. In fact, there are several records of large flocks moving down the slope from the Shivalik hills of Rajaji Tiger Reserve, during peak winter. Being frugivorous, these pigeons prefer a variety of fruits and I have seen them feed on fruits of Ficus neriifolia, Debregeasia hypoleuca and other trees.
The A.N. Jha Plaza within the Academy has a charming willow-leaf fig tree Ficus neriifolia at the edge of the lawn. Its location, next to the Happy Valley hostel which is a heritage building from the colonial days of Hotel Charleville, makes it the backdrop of quite a many photos clicked by trainees over cups of hot coffee, or as a shaded corner for conversations on exceptionally sunny days. This 20-feet tall Ficus also plays an important role as a source of food for Wedge-Tailed Green-Pigeons, Rhesus Macaques and Himalayan Langurs. The fruiting season starts by late June and peaks in July as the monsoons hits the mountains. I cross this tree daily on my way to the office and it is a commonplace to see a flock of green pigeons gorging on figs in July-August. Generally easily startled by nature, to see them on this tree is a welcome change as they would permit a closer approach. Once, while the pigeons were engrossed in their gastronomic pursuit, a couple of rhesus macaques came ambling on the tin sheet roof and jumped onto a branch. Expectedly the birds were spooked and immediately dispersed in all directions, flying in straight lines as if they were projectiles fired from cannons. One unfortunate bird however, flew straight into a glass pane, hitting it with a dull thud. By stroke of luck or quirk of physics, I cannot say for sure, it survived the impact and flew as if in a dazed manner towards the clump of Banj Oaks…
Another incident that occurred in my own office deserves narration. I was working on my desktop when I heard a sharp tap on the glass pane behind my back. Within the split second that it took for me to turn around, the bird was gone. But I could discern a ghostly, faint impression of a bird on the pane, as if a fairy or an angel had decided to etch her wings on the glass with talcum powder, ever so slightly. I went out to see if I could see any bird, but there was none. I suppose not all glass hits are deadly, after all!
Oriental Turtle-Dove (Streptopelia Orientalis)
A common, plump-looking dove. The genus, Streptopelia aptly describes the characteristic feature of the bird – streptos meaning a collar or a neck-chain- indicating the pale blue-and-black striped neck patch which it conspicuously sports. In Mussoorie, this dove follows a seasonal migratory rhythm. From the data that I have collected from September 2020 onwards, I can confidently say that the last sighting before the bird left for its winter quarters was in November for the respective calendar year, and the return to Mussoorie was sometime in February of the succeeding year. They are not very fussy birds when it comes to choose of habitat – cultivation, scrubland, open woodland all are real estate worth living in.
Actually they live close to human habitations along with feral rock pigeons and spotted doves, and often feed on grains scattered by kind-hearted locals. This courtyard-loving population is much tamer and lets one approach them for good close-up photographs. My observation is that they generally avoid dense canopied forests, except to rest on treetops occasionally, and instead prefer the fringes along clearings such as roads or cultivation or a watercourse. Turtle doves are seen in singles or pairs, and occasionally in small flocks while feeding at an exceptionally rich food source. Much of the breeding in the Mussoorie landscape in 2022 started in early April. Courtship, display, mating, carrying of nesting material all can be observed in this period.
Spotted Dove (Streptopelia chinensis)
A close cousin of the Oriental Turtle Dove, the spotted dove, hails from the same genus Streptopelia. The sides of the neck and the nape are covered by pretty chess-board patterned black-and white feathers. Widely seen across India, in semi-urban and rural, garden and field, scrub and woodland landscapes – there is no introduction that one needs to the spotted dove. The interesting aspect is that the spotted dove in Mussoorie is a seasonal migrant, as are most members of the Columbidae (Dove family) in Mussoorie. Sometime by mid-October, the local population starts dipping sharply in the hills and bounces back from March onwards, with summers being the most preferred season. In Mussoorie, spotted doves are partial to areas adjacent to human habitation where they find easy access to food and water that good Samaritans provide regularly.