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Fighters in Flight

Winter migrants to India, the rosy starlings are a plague upon the locusts.

Updated: March 2, 2014 1:35 am

By: Ranjit Lal

If you live in Delhi or in northern India, and stand beneath a peepul, banyan, neem or semul (or probably any large flowering or fruiting tree) at the end of March or beginning of April, you may hear an incessant sibilant chittering wafting down from the branches above. There’s a restless excitement in the air, and when you look up, you’ll see the leaves flicker and tremble: there’s something up there, actually multitudes of somethings up there!
At last you spot them: restless mynah-like birds, but in strawberry pink and glistening black, some displaying wispy “shendi” crests, trembling their wings and chattering non-stop.

They’re rosy starlings, or rosy pastors, on their way back to their breeding grounds in eastern Europe or the temperate regions of southern Asia. They’ve spent the winter in India — and you may have met them in fields and pastures and grasslands all the way down to the Deccan. They had snuck through northern India (and Delhi) probably sometime in September the previous year and spread over the sub continent for six months of R & R, and raiding fields of jowar and bajra as well as orchards.

And yes, they look like mynahs and for long were thought to belong to that garrulous clan, though now scientists are saying that’s not exactly right and no one still knows who they descended from. Hmm…it kind of figures… I did a bit of checking up on them (“research” the intellectually pompous would say) and boy do they have some interesting characteristics and USPs.

Most migrants to India fly north-south and back again. Rosy-starlings like to be different — they’re east-west migrants: they fly in from eastern Europe or south-west Asia. They don’t have much of a worldwide reputation having been deemed a species of “least concern” (I guess we could update even that status!). But they have one huge redeeming feature, which ought to make them a species of immense value. They really go after locusts and grasshoppers big time and farmers can’t be more grateful to them than for that. Normally, they breed between May and July, but if there’s a plague of locusts about which they get wind of, they’ll produce an explosive baby boom in the blink of an eye.

Eggs are laid phata-phat and incubated for, perhaps, 10 days, and the babies are out guzzling locusts in less than three weeks. The Chinese, canny as ever, even built artificial nests to inveigle them to stay and breed and clean up the locusts in their fields, which otherwise would need destruction by expensive pesticide. The pastors cleaned up the locusts to the extent that many of their babies got none at all and starved! Even the tough Afghans are known to revere the species for their pest-controlling abilities, though idiots in north-west India and Pakistan shoot them in large numbers, because they’re considered a juicy delicacy.

As for attitude (and belligerence), they have it in spades. When a flock — and they like to move around in large, intimidating numbers — descends on a tree, they’ll clear it of all other species. Even amongst themselves, there’ll be constant jostling and shoving and tu-tu-main-main. Males with love and lust on their brains will erect their gelled crests, throw back their heads, shiver their wings and sing. When a few dive down onto the grass, and hop, skip and jump after insects, others will promptly follow and they’ll be scrimmaging and hop-scotching all over one another in their haste to get the tidbits before each other — like people trying to climb over each other to get to the top of a queue. But what really is spectacular is when they take to the sky.…

If the chattering in a tree suddenly stops, like a switch has been thrown, look up quickly. The flock — maybe 500-strong — will have taken to the air, flying tightly bunched together, swift, direct and banking and swirling like coiling swathes of dark smoke. All in pindrop silence. (They’re supposed to have flight calls too, but so far I haven’t heard them). When they zoom directly overhead, they’ll remind you of a squadron of miniature Spitfires, except that all you hear is the whirring of their wings. They’ll circle around and land back on the tree, and the chattering starts up.

By the third week of April, you might see squadron after squadron flying swiftly and intently overhead like warplanes on a bombing mission. The locust-eaters are on their way home. And if you are a locust or a grasshopper dreaming greedily of laying waste vast fields of grain, be very afraid indeed.…

(Ranjit Lal is an author, environmentalist and bird watcher. In this column, he reflects on the eccentricities and absurdities of nature)

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