Balcony birdwatching to get a closer look at the Common Myna

It’s just the right time to observe the Common Myna, as they pair up and roost, often in cavities in our outside walls

In these distressing times of the coronavirus lockdown, what does a naturalist like me do to pass time? Do some backyard birdwatching! With no human presence on the road, the pleasant spring season has given birds the peace they had always hoped for. A pleasant melancholy of calls and songs of urban garden birds echoing everywhere is often complimented by my sacred early morning cup of coffee in my balcony. This season is perhaps the best time to observe resident birds in our backyard, as it is a time of joy in their lives as they pair up and raise their young ones. One such fascinating account from my diary entry dated 23rd April, 2017, was of a pair of Common Myna trying to raise two chicks in my noisy neighbourhood.

I had always read in books that the parents feed the juvenile who screams louder and the most, in comparison to its siblings. I had read this in several places, and while I couldn’t disregard it, I was also slightly skeptical. It is only when I started observing the Common Mynas (Acridotheres tristis) nesting site close to home that I realised it was all true. I also noticed that the parents alternated in feeding the young ones and they always made sure to keep the nest cavity in the tree clean by ridding it of excreta and other unwanted things.

Given the commonness of the bird, we generally tend to ignore its presence and little details. The overall plumage of the species is dark brown with a glossy yellow bill. A passing look suggests it has dark eyes, but only when you spend time observing it – and we all have a great deal of time of our hands today — you’d notice that the eye colour is reddish-brown with white specks.

The Common Myna likes a wide array of habitats like open country, cultivated land, and urban spaces, and thrives in almost every habitat, except for in dense forests. In cities, they breed almost exclusively in nooks and eaves of houses, under roofs, and in holes in walls, considering that they are cavity nesters.

Being quite gregarious in nature, the clan generally roosts in large numbers in a particular tree and keeps up a noisy chattering concert (sometimes musical and sometimes harsh) of praikh praikh (when perched) and twee twee (in flight) all morning and evening.

Soon after sunrise, the birds disperse to their foraging grounds, leaving a few behind on guard duty to look out for crows and other troublemakers, making them quite territorial in nature. They will even mob birds of other species.

They are generally omnivores feeding on almost anything, but their diet mostly consists of insects. In concrete jungles and townships, these birds often venture into verandahs to feed on any fragments of cooked or uncooked food that people usually put out for birds.

Near farmlands and grazing land though, they feed off the insects on cattle, and pick up grasshoppers and other insects that are disturbed by their feet.

In fact, the genus they belong to, Acridotheres, translates to ‘the locust hunter’, derived from the Greek word akris meaning locust and theras meaning hunter.

These birds were introduced to Mauritius from India, to contain the grasshopper population there and successfully adapted to the conditions there. For birdwatchers like me, behaviour is key. Nodding their heads at each step and hopping occasionally is a common trait among mynas. They have a strong, direct, and somewhat quick flight — you’ll see white in the underwings as they fly.

These birds were once commonly caged and domesticated, often following their masters around the house like dogs. They are good imitators and soon pick up words and sentences, much like parakeets.

The writer is the founder of NINOX – Owl About Nature, a nature-awareness initiative. He is the Delhi-NCR reviewer for Ebird, a Cornell University initiative, monitoring rare sightings of birds. He formerly led a programme of WWF India.

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