Thursday, January 23, 2014

Oh, the ingratitude

Everyone has days when they feel unappreciated.
You know how it is: those around you not only take your help for granted, they then go on to presume.
Well this is one of those days for me.

What’s caused this sad state of affairs?
Well, with the summer rain, my garden’s transformed into a jungle. The ‘lawn’ has reached head-height and the local avifauna have moved in.
This is not the problem.
I love watching the common waxbills clamber about the tussocks, scissoring off grass seeds with their redder than red bills. Down below the firefinches and blue waxbills hop about searching diligently for windfalls, and garrulous flocks of red-billed queleas swoop in to chatter and squabble among the trembling seed heads.

The joys of being lawn-mowerless
(Common waxbill, Estrilda astrild)

But these little seed eaters aren’t alone. In the wild mango, a pair of scarlet-chested sunbirds are canoodling, and tucked beneath my eaves, four families of white-rumped swifts noisily discuss the pleasures of the day.
But my grievances don’t rest with any of these critters.
It’s the garden’s tiniest feathered bug-eaters that have earned my ire.

Now tawny-flanked prinias aren’t a species you usually notice. They flit about in the undergrowth, pausing now again, with jauntily cocked tails, to peer around for ill-fated bugs. Only if something’s bothering them do you become aware of their loud and persistent complaints: przzt-przzt-przzt.

Tawny-flanked prinias (Prinia subflava) are Africa’s best attempt at a fairywren. However they’re traditionalists at heart, opting for monogamy and nuclear families. This juvenile was photographed by Neil Strickland.

Tawny-flanked prinias were once thought to flutter over much of Africa, India and east Asia (prinia is the Javan name for the species). However, the elegant inhabitants of the orient have recently gained taxonomic independence (becoming Prinia inornata) - presumably to their huge relief (my prinias could never look this refined).
Photo taken in Taiwan and posted on Flickr by John&Fish.

I was sitting on my veranda one morning, with my dogs and cat sprawled around me, when a prinia fluttered down to perch in a tangle of weeds almost at my elbow. Oh how charming, I thought, as I watched it throw out its chest excitedly and clarion its territorial przzts. It then zipped away, returning a moment or two later with a long, wavering grass stem.
Oh no, it couldn’t be...
Surely, not there...
But yes, it was determinedly twining the grass stem around a weed stalk.
I watched aghast: the creature was building a nest at perfect dog nose-height.

Now please bear in mind that while one of my dogs (Wizard) is a dyed-in-the-wool husky who sensibly eschews feathery aperitifs in favour of whale carcasses, the other is a husky-cross. I don’t know what her husky forebear coupled with, but it was certainly purpose-bred to exterminate rodents. Magic’s blood-lust for small defenceless critters is enough to turn even Wizard’s stomach.
I couldn’t decide whether the kamikaze homemakers, busily weaving a nursery just 1.2 m (4 ft) away from us, were the silliest birds to fly God’s airspace... or the most fiendishly cunning.
What snake, what monitor, what raptor would dare attack them there??

The pair dashed back and forth excitedly, hopping up and down on their toes and eagerly entwining leaf blades into their globe-shaped construction. Every now again one (the male?) would alight exuberantly on a weed top and przzt in triumph (just in case some predator hadn’t noticed them). I’m sure birds feel euphoric when they’re nest-building. These two just looked so, well... pleased with themselves.

Hmm, scissor truss joists here I think...

Both Ma and Pa prinia enjoy DIY but since they favour matching outfits (and both don their glad rags for the occasion (brighter with tail extensions)), I don’t know who this is.

The completed nursery.

I was convinced that sooner or later they’d realise the error of their ways and abandon the whole hare-brained scheme, but after a few days three tiny eggs – salmon-brown mottled with purple – appeared inside the rattan ball.

Having borne witness to this folly, I felt obliged to assist the venture. So, for the last month, I’ve been creeping about the garden, calling my dogs away dozens of times a day, dashing outside whenever a harrier hawk or coucal drops by and generally worrying over the hatchlings’ long-term prospects.

Now I do not expect accolades for this effort. I don’t expect the little creatures to sing my praises or bring me gifts (bugs?) or help with the housework. But their actual response left me speechless.

I was busily working on my computer (I do work sometimes) when I noticed a prinia hopping past the back door. I’d seen them flitting about there before and assumed they were hunting bugs. But this one was carrying something in its beak. It hopped on to the back door step, paused, examined the step with its head on one side, looking first to the left and then to the right, and then it carefully put down its burden – placing it meticulously, just so. It then flew off.

Curious, I went to see what it had been doing.
Bad move.
There, right before my door, was a little moist package of bird poop.
And when I looked closely I realised that the whole step was scattered with small white faecal sacs.They were using my door step as a waste dump for their nestlings’ poop!

Now I know that most birds remove (or swallow) their ankle-biters’ droppings so they don’t attract potential chick-munchers.
But why put the stuff on my doorstep?
Do they think my house stinks so badly it will mask the faeces’ odour?
Why not place the goo further along the veranda amid the piles of swift droppings? 
Why not put it, well... ANYWHERE else??

I’m just NOT appreciated.

Yeah, so?


  1. This is the fate that awaits all of us who try to interfere with the course of natural selection and protect individuals otherwise doomed to a terrible death... Um. That got a bit too portentous sounding for poop-on-a-doorstep, didn't it? And, of course, I too would try to save such hapless nest builders. Maybe this is one of those cases where virtue (and the admiration of your readers) is its own reward?

    1. I appreciate your portentousness (nothing so restorative as having one's trivial woes treated seriously). I'm pleased to say that my virtue has been rewarded with 3 cute little fledglings. They did clamber from the nest a week before they'd mastered flight (a tense time for all) but they're now happily flitting about the garden and pooping on the step in person.

  2. Hahaha... remember Mouse?
    I love you Lynda, I think you are an amazing naturalist , a wonderful person and a delightful writer, but you are definitely co-dependent when it comes to animals.

    1. I remember Mouse with great fondness.
      Are you suggesting I was co-dependant on a rodent as a nine-year-old?


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