Thirst for a thought

The driest periods of any year are during the summer season. The wells have almost dried up, the creeks are running low, there is almost no rain (except for the sporadic abnormal showers), and the temporary water puddles are non-existent. As the month of May sets in, the heat takes over. We start drinking more water than usual. It made me think about the other life forms with whom we share this planet, and more specifically, the ones who are battling the heat this summer with us.

The gardener waters the plants each day. The dogs, though few, drink from the tap area on the ground floor under the watchful eye of the watchman. And what about birds? Summers can be quite hard on them. With no natural pools, they tend to look for water near human settlements.
Like all life forms, birds also need water for their survival. Some can extract moisture from the food they eat, while others drink water every day. It is not an uncommon site to see House Crows (Corvus splendens) or Common Rock Pigeons (Columba livia) crowding around an isolated water puddle, with crows, of course, dominating and bullying the others.

In my building premise, there are some empty, broken or unused earthen pots and trays lying around. One of them, probably unintentionally, was left in a slightly open area. Since it was near the plants that were watered each day, water would collect in the pot which would in turn attract birds. Each day I see many of our feathered neighbours drop by here, take a sip and fly off. Some even dare to take a dip, ruffling and puffing their feathers. I don’t think the earthen pot was intended to be a “bird-bath”. It just became one.

Due to intense heat, the water (which was usually only filled one-fourth the volume) evaporated fast and the pot used to run dry soon. At this point, I decided, I should intervene. One weekend afternoon, I picked up the earthen pot, cleaned the thick algal growth in it and filled it with fresh water. Something as simple as filling the pot to the brim seemed to drastically increase the number of visitors to the pot. It was wonderful to see when the bird-bath was visited by other backyard species like Black Kites (Milvus migrans), Greater Coucal (Centropus sinensis) and Oriental Magpie Robins (Copsychus saularis). The Gardener now fills the pot each day, of his own accord. Looks like I am not the only one who has befriended the birds.

Now a days, I spend hours just observing the birds that visit this bath on lazy Sunday afternoons. My observations told me that:

  • Crows are the dadas of the avian life in the city, they bully others who come close to the bird bath;
  • Coucals seem to approach the pot only during the afternoons, when the temperature peaks. Other birds are somewhat less active during this time;
  • House sparrows (Passer domesticus) didn’t show up at all, even though there are quite a good number of sparrows in the area. This is possibly because the depth of the bird-bath may have been too much for them to try and take a dip or sip from it;
  • Common Mynas (Acridotheres tristis) are always near the bird-bath but I am yet to see them drink water from it.
  • Pigeons are the ones who love to take a dip at every opportunity they get, but often they are driven away by the bullying crow;
  • An Oriental Magpie Robin’s visit doesn’t last more than 5 seconds, it flies away within that narrow time frame regardless of presence or absence of other birds;
  • Even though the Black Kite is much bigger in size, it seems to approach the bird-bath very cautiously; they are often harassed by the crows who try to drive the Kite away!
Image (clockwise from top): Crow drinking, Black Kite visiting the bird-bath, Oriental Magpie Robin during its 5 second visit, Pigeons chilling the bird-bath as an Oriental Magpie Robin looks on, Coucal drinking water.

For those of you who actively want to set up a small bird-bath for your feathered friends, here are a few tips:

  • Try and imitate a natural puddle as much as possible;
  • There is no need to buy a fancy bird-bath, with the pedestal and basin! A simple plate, a bowl or a tray serves the purpose quite well;
  • The pot/ tray / plate should be very shallow, not more than 2 inches deep. The sides of the bird-bath should be gently sloped, for all birds may not be able to perch and reach the water.
  • You can place the bird-bath at ground level, but in case you are worried about animals like dogs and cats, then perhaps you can place it at a suitable height above the ground;
  • Clean the inside of the pot regularly to remove debris. Change the water as frequently as possible. Changing water frequently also prevents mosquito larvae from hatching in the bird-bath, and we need to be careful about not providing a breeding ground for mosquito larvae in these times of Malaria and Dengue.
  • Place the bird-bath in the shade, this helps to reduce the rate of evaporation.
  • If you can work out a creative way to incorporate the sounds and movements of water in the bird-bath, without wasting water or using energy (electricity/ battery), try and do that. It is possible that more birds may visit the bath drawn by the sight of moving water and sound of water.

Providing water for birds is like your small contribution to help our co-inhabitant deal with the summer heat. Not only can this improve the quality of your backyard bird habitat, but also provide you with a fantastic opportunity to observe bird behavior. It makes you feel more connected to nature amidst the mayhem of this concrete jungle.

The above piece is a mildly edited version of my article titled “50 Days of Summer: The thirsty crow rules the bird-bath roost” that originally appeared in 2014 in an online platform called The Alternative. [Link no longer active]

Education and Awareness

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My name is Adithi Muralidhar. I am a nature enthusiast based in Mumbai, India.

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