Tuesday, 1 May 2007

Brahminy Myna Swimming Pool

It was getting to be summer and the sun was beating down on my garden in Kanpur, India. As I was entering my compound at hottest lunchtime, I saw that the garden was being watered and some water had accumulated in the depression at the base of an ashok tree. A few babblers were wandering around the edges, sipping the water.

So I decided to eat my lunch on the balcony: fortunately, I have a fan installed on my balcony!
As I was sitting there, a bulbul came to the ashok tree (also called the Indian Mast tree). It was a red-whiskered bulbul, the ones that have a red patch on the side of the cheek like a Rajasthani man's moustache that he curls up on his cheek. (Click on the image to see another picture where you can see the "whiskers" more clearly.)

The bulbul's song, though is quite melodious, and doesn't go with the image of the moustachioed Rajasthani military man!

A brahminy myna also showed up on the kachnar tree on the other side of the fence. Brahminy mynas are very common birds - but they behave so much like normal mynas that we may miss their special orange colour and the brilliant tinge of blue on their bill.

The Brahminy Myna, also called the Brahminy Starling, is a common bird in most of India. It has a bright orange underside, and a black cap of hair with a bit hanging down over the back like a Brahmin's topknot or "choti". It's very similar to the common myna and may not be noticed at a distance. You can see it in the parks and gardens of most Indian cities.

Pool Inauguration

Just then a bunch of common babblers come along, jostling and scrambling till the edge of the water. I can't vouch for this, but I am pretty sure that a couple of babblers pushed a third chappie into the water. Babblers are such bullies... Anyhow in this picture you can see the birdy in the water splashing water on the rest with her wings.

But just as quickly, they were gone. And then I was trying to finish my lunch (I had a meeting at 3 PM), and I didn't quite notice how and when this Brahminy myna - probably the same one who was looking down earlier - had gotten down and entered the water. Suddenly I saw him splashing around, jumping from one side of the pool to the other!

I got onto the lawn to get a good view of his bath, and he was having such a good time he didn't bother with me. (By the way, in birding lingo, birds who don't run away from humans are called
"confiding". Mostly, mynas are confiding; they're not scared of you!)

The Brahminy Myna was busily splashing away. It would jump around on one side, and then the other. To me, it seemed he was more than cooling off - he was just having fun!

Ousted from the pool!

Suddenly, a babbler approached the pool. I didn't seen him earlier, but the way he's standing, it's clear that he wants the myna to go away.

But the Brahminy was splashing away as if he is quite unaware of the babbler, and the babbler steps a notch closer to make his presence felt.

I doubt very much that the brahminy can be unaware of such a close presence - birds are at all times extremely sensitive to the slightest changes in their environment. My hunch is that the Brahminy is saying: "Boo to you!" or some such rude remark; among birds, it's their actions that do all the talking. So, by splashing water despite her close presence, the Brahminy is just saying:
"Go jump in the lake!" (It's besides the point that the Babbler may just want to do that! )

You see, there is a hierarchy among birds, and I suspect that babblers are not very high up on this ladder, particularly because they are such poor fliers - they can fly better than your average chicken, but that's not saying much. On the other hand, the mynas are excellent in flight, very quick and agile - so the babblers know they can't touch a myna. Like all bullies, they will go after the weaker, like squirrels that can't fly, but they will be careful of the myna.
So the myna is just being cheeky and splashing water. If you click on the middle image - not a very sharp image, I'm afraid, but I think you still should be able to see the water droplets scattering everywhere, some on the babbler as well.

At this point, some other babblers were also coming, and although the myna didn't look that side, he knew about them, and he decided that discretion is the better part of valour. So here you can see him flying off:

Drying on the tree

Then he dried himself sitting on the amal-tas tree, his hair all fluffed up so it would dry quicker.

Doesn't he look like like a rock star with hair dyed in mohawk fashion? This is a look that many people would die for, I am sure, blue nose ring, yellow beak, orange and black!!! (I am using "he" here as a gender-neutral English pronoun, please don't think I know anything about bird gender).

Meanwhile, the Babbler gang came back to the pool. But they didn't jump around with quite the abandon of the myna!

Now look at this picture, and tell me if he isn't thumbing his nose at the babblers below?
Or - ugh! - maybe he's picking his nose?

And now, don't you think the Brahminy is looking carefully to inspect what goodies he found in the nose?

You may think that I am perhaps carrying things too far, and that I have fallen in love with this creature... but then what can I do, he's such a lovable truant, don't you think?

Ousted from the tree

The story of the babblers and the brahminy isn't quite finished yet. As the brahminy was sitting on the branch, vigourously shaking her wings dry, some babblers had also come up from the pool on to the same tree.

Normally trees have a lot of space for many birds, but one of the babblers - I think it was the same one, started moving along the very branch where our brahminy was sitting. If you look carefully in the branches at the left of this picture (click to see larger pic) you should see him coming. Maybe he didn't like the way the myna was thumbing his nose at them...

The Brahminy didn't look once towards the babbler, but he knew what was coming. Not wanting to have another babbler encounter, he just flew off, away from my garden for the day...

The Brahmini Myna as a wandering ascetic

In ancient India, this saffron-coloured bird was thought of as a sannyasin or a wandering monk. This is because monks often wear orange colour robes. The ancient Sanskrit poet scholar and yoga guru Patanjali, in his MahabhAshya, says of the Brahminy Maynah:

ShaMkarA nAma parivrAjikA shaMkarA nAma
shakunikA tachchhIlA cha tasyaM ubhayaM prApnoti

'Shankara' , an ancient name of this ochre colored bird,
The wanderer 'Parivrajika' amongst birds, a pious 'Sanyasini'.

The origin of the name "brahminy," however, may have more to do with the "choti" - i.e. the way the black crown has a longer strand going back, brahminic style.

Don't you think this wandering sannyasin is someone you should try to look up, next time you are visiting some garden in India?