Nature Feature: Of Scaly breasted Munias and survival

While birds like scaly breasted Munias and sparrows may have adopted to modern civilization, rapid urban development and lack of efforts towards their conservation can severely cost human survival.


On a recent nature trail to the Valley School area in the outskirts of Bangalore, we were delighted to see a large of Scaly-breasted Munias feeding on the maize plants:

In our rapidly expanding urban jungles, one of the many casualties, apart from the quality of life for the citizens, are the wild denizens of the areas. As habitats get cleared, and trees chopped down, the transformation of a wilderness into a human-centric habitat results in many animals and birds moving out of the area (or being caught and killed sometimes, especially in the case of snakes.)

However, some animals have adapted to human settlements, and seem to do well, and thrive, too. Passerine birds (sparrow-like; the word “passer” means “sparrow” in Latin) seem to have done particularly well.

Wikipedia says, “The Scaly-breasted Munia or Spotted Munia (Lonchura punctulata), known in the pet trade as Nutmeg Mannikin or Spice Finch, is a sparrow-sized estrildid finch native to tropical Asia. This Munia feeds mainly on grass seeds, apart from berries and small insects. They forage in flocks.”

But the Munia has adapted its diet to what is available in human habitation. Fields of ragi, millet and maize are fair game to this species of bird, and it is a delightful sight to see the Munia feasting on maize, as the plant sways in the morning breeze.

As far as a symbiotic relationship goes, the benefits that birds such as these Munias confer upon humans may not be immediately apparent. But a lesson can be learned from the dreadful error that was carried out in China between 1958 to 1962. As a part of the “Four Pests Campaign”, which targeted rats, flies, mosquitoes and sparrows, the last-mentioned were systematically targeted and eliminated.

This kind of a mass extinction was perhaps unique in natural history. The Chinese, in 1958, included Sparrows on the list because the perception was they ate grain seeds, robbing the people of the fruits of their labour. The masses of China were mobilized to eradicate the birds, and citizens took to banging pots and pans or beating drums to scare the birds from landing, forcing them to fly until they fell from the sky in exhaustion. Sparrow nests were torn down, eggs broken, and nestlings killed. Sparrows and other birds were shot down from the sky, resulting in the near-extinction of the birds in China.

By April 1960, Chinese leaders realized that sparrows ate a large amount of insects, as well as grains. Rather than being increased, rice yields after the campaign were substantially decreased. Mao ordered the end of the campaign against sparrows, replacing them with bed bugs in the ongoing campaign against the Four Pests.

By this time, however, it was too late. With no sparrows to eat them, locust populations ballooned, swarming the country and compounding the ecological problems already caused by the Great Leap Forward, including widespread deforestation and misuse of poisons and pesticides. Ecological imbalance is credited with exacerbating the Great Chinese Famine, in which at least 20 million people died of starvation.

Closer to home, we have seen the disappearance of House Sparrows from many of our cities as life-style and housing-design changes made a difference to the survival of these perky birds. Cell-phone tower radiation was advanced as a reason for the decline, but now they are making a strong comeback, suggesting that they, too, are learning afresh how to live with human beings’ changing lifestyles.

An interesting example, in this regard, is that of the Purple Martins in North America. These birds have come to depend wholly on habitation constructed for them by humans, and do not make nests for themselves! This, obviously, resulted in an alarming decline in their numbers, before conservation efforts were undertaken. You can read about the Purple Martin conservation effort at the website of one of the organzations devoted to it here.

Given this dreadful scenario as a backdrop, it would be wise to leave the birds alone, and let our feathered friends feast on a part of the grain crop…as their survival might be the key to ours!


  ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Deepa Mohan is deeply concerned about the rapid evolution of her city, Bangalore, but is also interested in theatre, quizzing, music, wildlife, photography, learning about heritage, and writing, all of which she does with enthusiasm. more

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  ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Deepa Mohan is deeply concerned about the rapid evolution of her city, Bangalore, but is also interested in theatre, quizzing, music, wildlife, photography, learning about heritage, and writing, all of which she does with enthusiasm. more

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