Ornithologist conducts the first successful study of the “primitive” bird in captivity.
The Spiny Babler, shrubland bird, shy bird, or love bird, is found only in Nepal. So, Nepal is as much the land of the Spiny Babler as it is of Mount Everest. And this Nepali bird has been hatched in captivity for the first time by a biologist-cum-ornithologist, Dr. Tej Kumar Shrestha.
Shrestha, an associate member of the Royal Nepal Academy for Science and Technology (RONAST), and last year’s recipient of the Third World Award on Sciences (TWAS) for biological sciences, has been engaged in the detailed study of the Spiny Babler, and in particular its hitherto unknown hatching habits. He has surmounted all kinds of odds to continue his research, including a lack of finance and physical facilities.
He has transformed an entire room of his home into a bird-house, using branches, soil, grass and other flora to recreate a natural enviroment removed from people and noise. Meanwhile, the parent bablers were released in the Kakani forest 37 kilometers from Kathmandu with a metallic tag tied to their feet.
“There are social drawbacks in carrying out scientific research in our society. Ninety percent of our people are uneducated, such .as my wife and other family members who are urging me these days to rent out the room in which I am doing my research,” lamented the 41-year old biologist, adding with a smile, “Bhoko petle kehi garna sakdaina. (Hunger pulls the human backward.)”
Earlier, Shrestha had tried to leave the baby Babler under the care of the Jawalakhel Zoo Administration, but it was reluctant to take on the responsibility. Shrestha had to put up with numerous complaints from his family members for using their home as a shelter.
At first, he caged the Spiny Babler, then later decided that the bird should be Left free in a room 100 square feet that was converted into a bird-house. Shrestha said it was fortunate that the female had laid four eggs. He made a nest in which he placed the sky-blue eggs for incubation.
Shrestha is quick to say his is not the definitive research on the bird. “Financial constraints have made me unable to go on,” he said. He has spent about Rs. 100,000 for “the cause,” as he put it, part of it to video-film the hatching of the baby Babler.
The male and female Spiny Babler take turns to sleep so that one is always awake to protect the eggs until they are hatched. This generally takes 14 to 18 days except when it is cloudy, or in the case of a non-virgin female, when hatching might extend to 29 days. The babler hides its head to sleep for six to eight hours, looking like a ball of spiny feathers. Shrestha describes its nest as an “artful” work.
The Spiny Babler lives in dense shrub, which it is reluctant to leave. It likes to venture from the thick undergrowth in the early morning and begins to chirp, perched on a tree above the nest. Its intention is to attract and to advertise its presence within the territory, says Shrestha.
The male and female Bablers are affectionate to each other, joining their heads in sleep. Separation, or the death partner causes the death of the other, according to Shrestha. He has been feeding the captive birds worms and insects from the Kakani forests, since in the wild the Spiny Babler only eats insects, grain, fresh wild fruit, and fruit juice.
The spiny outgrowth on the tips of the bird’s feathers gave rise to the bird’s name. It alone out of the 350 Babler species identified around the world has this “primitive” characteristic. According to Shrestha, the Tamangs are more familiar with the Spiny Babler, which is found all over Nepal and is quite abundant in Kathmandu Valley. They call it “Singare Jotma,” or “the bird that adorns itself.”
The President of Nepal Bird Watching Club, Hari Saran Nepali, believes the Spiny Babler might be found in Indian places such as Kumaon and Garhwal. But he is also proud that nobody has yet identified the Spiny Babler in India.
Nepali commends Shrestha’s efforts to hatch the wild bird in captivity. Asked why foreign ornithologists showed little interest in his field of study, Shrestha said it was a long-term task requiring great effort. “Usually, foreigners desire a good reputation at lightning speed.”
The babler’s eggs were first discovered in 1969 by Lal Bahadur Tamang. In 1863, local hunters brought Sir Brian Hodgeson four specimens of the bird. Sir Hodgeson tried to observe the bird in the wild, but was not allowed to go outside the valley by the ruling Rana prime minister. In the next 106 years, nobody identified the bird. During his travels in Nepal in 1948, Sir Dillon Ripley rediscovered it on his visit to Rechka village in Western Nepal, where he spotted a flock of seven Spiny Bablers. Pround, and Fleming and Fleming later conducted more detailed studies of the bird.
Fittingly, however, it is a Nepali ornithologist who is first to study the unique bird in captivity, a task Shrestha at tends to, in spite of his domestic travails.
Characteristics of the Spiny Babler
local name: Singare Jotma (Tamang) Kandhe Vyakur (Nepali)
scientific name:Turdoides Nipalensis colour: greyish brown
significant physical traits: spiny outgrowth on its feathers, streaked breast, white eye-coverets behaviour: shy, naughty, fearful size: approximately 25 cm. (10 in¬ches) in length with cross-barred tail sound: pookil pookil pookil chupu chupu — with an incessant burst of teer teer teer teer
habitat: dense lowland shrubs, mostly inhabits hilly terrain; abundant in Kathmandu valley