This moth supplements its diet with bird tears

In the forests of Brazil lives a moth that drinks tears of birds. It perches quietly at the back of an antbird at night – when the bird’s not very active – and uses its long, flexible proboscis to lap up its tears. Don’t believe me? See for yourself!

*I’m not crying; there’s something in my eye*

You can read the story behind the video over at Science magazine.

Multimedia credits: Leandro Moraes

Egg theft might cause seabird decline

Among the 36 Lakshadweep islands dotting the Indian Ocean, one is particularly famous for its bird life. Pakshi Pitti is a flat sandbar that several species of seabirds come to for breeding. Devoid of predators such as rats and cats, and even humans, it is the perfect place for these birds to nest in.

Except, year after year fisherfolk from the nearby populated island of Kavaratti come to Pitti and plunder its wealth of seabird eggs. On every visit they make, they collect 14%–45% of the eggs. About 72% of the islanders of Kavaratti are involved in poaching and trading eggs from Pitti, showing that the network is quite vast.

The eggs are sought for their supposed medicinal properties, and their trade, scientists fret, could have a huge impact on the island’s seabirds, especially terns, whose numbers have plummeted from 20,000 in the mid-1900s to 970 in 2014.

Pitti was declared a bird sanctuary and afforded legal protection to stop this age-old practice of egg consumption. But a lack of regulation is defeating that purpose.

To know more, read my report published today in The Wire.

Photo credit: Ravichandra Mondreti

Little auks slurp like fish

The little auk is a small seabird that would fit comfortably in the palm of your hand. At only about 150 grams, this featherweight bird eats 20% of its body weight in prey each day. And this takes some underwater hunting skills. Diving up to depths of 27 meters, the bird spots and slurps its prey, much as fishes do. Read more about the world’s only slurping seabird here in my first piece for Hakai magazine.

Photo credit: Manfred Enstipp

How are India’s birds faring?

About 1,500 of the world’s 11,000 bird species are on the verge of extinction, thanks to human activities like agriculture, logging and hunting, according to a report by BirdLife International.

I decided to dig deeper and look at the status of birds in the context of India. After sifting through factsheets after factsheets, here’s what I found: Close to 90 of the 1,200-odd bird species are on the verge of extinction in the country. Of these, 16 are critically endangered, 21 are endangered and 52 are vulnerable. These include not just birds found only in India (or ‘endemic species’) but also ones that migrate to the country.

An additional 74 are near-threatened – they might soon be assigned one of the three threatened species status. Vultures, bustards, eagles, hornbills, woodpeckers, storks are all in trouble. So are robins, thrushes, buntings, babblers.

The state of a stout, white and brown bird, the great Indian bustard, is especially worrying. “It really is in a bad way,” Tris Allinson of BirdLife told me. “It could well be the planet’s next extinction,” he added. A few hundred individuals of the species remain. Though it was declared critically endangered in 2011, not much has changed in terms of protecting its grassland home. Wildlife sanctuaries have been established but a commitment to protecting India’s wider landscape of grasslands is still awaited. Since bustards tend not to remain within protected area boundaries year-round, grasslands outside sanctuaries need to be urgently protected by law.

Things have also become worse for other birds in India – several have been moved to higher threat levels. The endemic Narcondam hornbill (Rhyticeros narcondamii) was vulnerable by 2008 and was uplisted to endangered in 2009; another endemic species, the Manipur bush-quail (Perdicula manipurensis) went from vulnerable in 2012 to endangered in 2013; and the migratory steppe eagle (Aquila nipalensis) was of least concern until 2013 and was uprated to endangered in 2015.

But there’s one recent downlisting that stands out: the endemic forest owlet (Heteroglaux blewitti) was critically endangered until 2016 and was moved down to the endangered category in 2017.

For more, check out my article published here at The Wire.

Bird Ballet

I had a dry spell for the whole of April. But the start of May has brought some good news – a new byline. This is a piece that’s very close to my heart because it is my first true attempt at nature writing. (I am a science writer, so of course I backed it up with science.) And to top it all *pause for effect* it carries some of my photographs. This story was fun to write as it brought together all the things I like – writing, writing about science, photography and birding! Isn’t that great?

So without further ado, let me quickly tell you what’s it about and then you’re free to go read it. (Or to keep the surprise element intact, skip to the end). It’s about Rosy Starling – a lesser-known species of starling that also murmurates like its European counterpart but hasn’t got as much attention. Earlier this year I went birdwatching at a lake not very far from where I live. And I found this huge conglomeration of rose-coloured birds resting on trees there. When dusk fell and it started to pour, the flock of birds took off and started swirling through the sky. It twisted and turned, split into smaller flocks and merged back again, singing all this while. The flock then returned and rain downed on the trees, preparing for a long night.

I describe this in a lot more detail for JLR Explore. Go, check it out.