Barefoot Notes: Grey Neck and Other Balcony Birds


Every day around noon, he perches on his favourite, fifteen-year-old neem tree, tugging at a branchlet fallen over his usual seat, but never really trying to get rid of it. This neem tree grows in a pot in the window, three feet from where I sit, separated by a reflective glass.

He is the calmest of his kind I’ve ever met. He does not call in response to every conversation he overhears, only some. Mostly, though, he is quite in spite of the constant ruckus all around, and there are a lot of his kind. I didn’t know they could be so – if I may use the word – disciplined, or appreciate solitude. He certainly appears to enjoy it.

How do I tell he is calm and relaxed? He hunches down on his toes, sinks his shoulders, and ruffles his crest and neck feathers – looking snug. Sometimes he scratches, shuffles his feathers, stretches his wings one by one, fans his tail and shakes his head – and finally gives a long sigh of satisfaction and relief, I’m willing to believe.

Like every other of his kind, he is quite curious. He turns his head to look at every unusual sound made around him – even those that come from inside homes. He is synurbic – a species that is found in or colonises urban ecosystems. He is a synanthrope – a species associated with humans, form whom they benefit. He is the House Crow – a name as fitting as the raven-that-shines, Corvus splendens.

Perhaps their association with humans is not the only reason they are called the House Crow. It is probably because they like sitting at the window and looking about. They like to venture out for a stroll – or flutter – and meet and greet on terraces and under city trees, or have some evening snacks – by this I do not intend to anthropomorphise them, but this is their true nature, so much like ours.

I call him Grey Neck, after M Krishnan’s article on House Crows titled ‘Grey-necks’. How do I tell if he is the same crow that visits? I cannot even tell if it is a he. But then again, like humans, crows are territorial. They form gangs, called a murder for reasons I cannot fathom, and live together for most part of the year except when, during the breeding season, they form a loosely held community and become more ferociously territorial as pairs. Two pairs belonging to the same community will nest close by, even steal each other’s sites or rubble used to build nests, but they won’t tolerate outsiders, even individual crows of the same community, venturing close to their nesting site. If a floater flies by, he is condemned not in the court of crows but with beak and claw. Perhaps that is why a gang is called a murder. Even humans are not spared. Those who’ve been jabbed on the head by a crow know it all too well.

Territoriality is in their nature. Another way of seeing this is that a territorial animal identifies with a community or a locale. Within every community, every crow possesses a unique identity. It allows for a sense of being independent, albeit being a part of a larger whole. Sounds so much like humans again. This independence, this individuality, allows them to build their own shell, much like we do – and I think I just found the shell of this fellow: a neem tree my father rescued by the side of a highway, dripping wet in soot and oil. I know exactly what compelled him to rescue this sapling. When I looked at it, I took pity on it and set to help him dig it out from its tar-baked coffin as vehicles zoomed by us, plastering us with a blend of rain and soot. It just wasn’t a place for a plant. Grey Neck does not know this, but I decided to add this bit to his story because it makes me realise one thing; everyone has a place. If anything, this place makes Grey Neck special.

And then, sometimes within a few minutes to an hour, he flies off to attend his unfinished business or visit an old cache. Thereafter I cannot tell Grey Neck from other crows.

The balcony is my father’s forest. We have a fair share of feathered visitors. A pair of Purple-rumped Sunbirds almost always finds time to visit and sneak-peek into the flowering Bougainvillea, Crossandra, and Yellow Alder, at times manoeuvring themselves to sip from the downward-facing flowers of Chilli. Recently they have been bringing a new companion with them, their fledged son! Not to meet me, of course. I saw him the first time sitting close to the reflective window and chirrup to himself as his father sat in the back in silence. Was he introducing his son to his new (imaginary) friend, or simply to his own self before he flies off to find a place in this big bad city? Both these thoughts upset me. And I remind myself of the neem tree. If it can find a home in a city, and thrive and flower, certainly can this little sunbird with its wings and effervescent curiosity.

A small murmuration of Common Myna often visit to rest on the grille and crackle and whistle at their own reflections. They are not aggressive, and appear to be trying to strike a conversation with their own self. The White-browed Fantail Flycatcher are probably the most expressive of balcony birds. They amble along whenever they wish, dancing upon the branches looking at their own reflections spin with them with a tail fully unfurled – a sign of excitement and alertness. They can take on a cat prowling close to their nest in the nearby copse, or harass a crow, but they would not come any closer to their own reflection. Occasionally, the Red-vented and the Red-whiskered Bulbuls would arrive – the latter only to fight with their own reflection. One of the pair always perches calmly on the grille while the other vehemently attacks its spectre. It’s easier to tell, then, which one is the guy. Their rivalry with themselves – not every animal can recognize its own reflection – is equalled by that of the Common Tailorbird whistling tew-whee tew-whee in a constant loop at the top of its voice while vehemently jabbing at its doppelganger. I would tap on the glass or open the window only when the fighters arrive least the constant squabble and pecking hurt them.

Curiously, not all birds do this. I am certain the House Sparrows visit the window to check themselves out, so do the Blyth’s Reed Warbler that migrate to this crowded city in winters – the naturalist laughs at this assertion. The sparrows always come in groups – of as much as fifteen at a time – twittering and socialising and pecking at the leaves of the succulents, Asparagus, and Ocimum, or picking the runners of the Fishbone Fern to build their nests. The warbler visits to relish on the egg-sacs of the tent spiders that have claimed a corner of the balcony – I told you, it’s a forest.

The only birds to rarely visit this forest are the Rock Pigeon, Magpie Robin, and Coppersmith Barbet. The pigeons prefer rooftops where they saunter about gurgling their voice chambers at the quietest time of the day. The Magpie Robin and the Coppersmith Barbet stick to the larger trees of a nearby copse. Both of them, at different times of the day – the robin in the mornings and evenings, and the barbet at noon – lay claim to their territory by singing their own version of the sweetest martial music ever recorded (over a blare of horns and combustion engines), from a vantage point on a tall Eucalyptus tree.

When Grey Neck takes his place in the forest, though, the others don’t visit. Not because he is intimidating, but because a crow is judged by the way he behaves in a social grouping – was it the balcony birds to label a group of crows a murder? At times when Grey Neck is silently seated I see him cocking an eye towards the window, and I wonder if he does that to look at his own reflection, or to look beyond it, at another set of eyes watching him.

We’re both strangers to one another – well, I’m a stranger to every bird that visits. In fact, if you were to enquire about me to them, they would deny my very existence. And yet seeing them use this man-made forest on top of a man-made building to socialise, quarrel, feed, make love, or, just like the House Crow, find a few moments of silence in this chaotic city, this is the affability of nature, this is its resilience, its resolve.

We build cities for our own sake, nature maximises their usability for everyone else’s.

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Every year around the middle of February, India participates in the Great Backyard Bird Count, where birders observe birds through the balcony or the window. The observations are uploaded online to create a nation-wide database on birds of India. It helps find trends in their diversity, density and distribution.

If you think the birds around your place are aplenty, or vanishing, participate in this activity. You will help find the larger trends in their dynamic lives. You can help by spending only 15 minutes every day between Feb 16 and 19, whether you are home, at work, on a campus, watching and counting birds.

Two Wings, But Not A Bird

I cannot put my finger on an insect and call it my favourite. Yes, the banner-bearers of the insect world, the butterflies and the moths, mesmerize me; I have an infatuation for the eagles of the insect world, the dragonflies and the damselflies. I adore the champions of this age, the beetles, the musicians, the piercers, the jumpers – one name is not enough to describe them – the true bugs. And the most industrious, the ants, bees, and wasps, the immortal cockroaches, the architects – the termites, the hunters and the herbivores, and all the rarities in-between with their own ingenious lives – they all amaze me equally. But the one that held my fascination for the longest time are also the most infuriating to understand, and they happen to be omnipresent.
It flies! A male horsefly struts his stuff by hovering mid-air in a large courtship ball.
This bias lies in you too. After all, it is not the butterfly that we recognize as soon as we begin to identify with the world. Nor the birds. It is that other two-winged entity: the fly. In our lives, we’ve fixated on flies more than any other animal, but for all the wrong reasons.
The infamous Anopheles, this one content with cattle's blood.
Flies truly grossed me out with The Fly (I & especially II). It took the axiom “flies kill” to another level – beyond space and time. In reality, they are way scarier – I give you that. Flies, unbeknownst to them, might I add, help spread the most horrible of diseases. They are responsible for most number of human deaths. They cause secondary infections, they spoil our food, they lay eggs on us and their larvae feed in us, and if you’re sensitive enough, their wing-beats alone can drive you crazy in the nights.

Our association with flies, however, has been limited. If you have an affection of the butterflies, it is generally for how beautifully they have evolved; how effortlessly they glide through the skies, elegantly perch on flowers, and fashionably unfold their delicate proboscis to sip nectar. Flies are a bit problematic to understand.
This fascinating mass of maggots of the dark-winged fungus gnats observe the "strength in numbers" behaviour by appearing like a caterpillar, or a snake.
We know them for that cold, wet feeling they give when the land upon us. We swat them when we see them on the table, and curse under our breath if they sit on the food. And their larvae are found in the most detestable of places. Our opinion about flies, in general, is based on our own limits of understanding, but I won’t blame you for it. It began in the ancient times – there is a demon, Beelzebub, also known as the lord of flies because he controls the spread of diseases. We used DDT rampantly on crops as well as against flies – particularly for mosquitoes – and ended up with a catastrophe that woke us from our ignorant little abodes.

You probably know by now what I’m going to talk about. I’ll start with this: In ecology, you know something is wrong when you know something for all the wrong reasons. The most infamous ‘something’ today are the flies – the whole lot of them – in the order Diptera, the third most diverse insect group in the world.

A few days ago, researchers found that flies carry many more harmful bacteria that can cause diseases than we previously thought (Junqueira et al. 2017). The study identified about 316 bacterial taxa on the surface of blow flies (blue-bottle fly) and about 351 on house flies (based on a certain method of identifying the Operational Taxonomic Unit of the bacteria) – most of them present on the legs and wings of the flies. The researchers identified at least 33 bacterial species associated with diseases in plants, animals, and humans.
On the other hand, a hover fly, Mesembrius sp., is exclusively a flower-visiting species, like the bees.
It was widely reported, with titles on the lines of: don’t eat food if a fly lands on it (The Telegraph); why you should never eat off your plate after a fly lands on it (Daily Mail). For most of us with relatively low understanding of the fly diversity, sensationalist news reports make flies appear as something like a demon, while the study focuses explicitly on two species of flies – and adds a cautionary line on the ultimate reasons for spread of diseases: The risk of infection ultimately depends on host susceptibility and contact with the agent transported by the insect vector, which moves from one reservoir to another (pg. 7 of the article). In other words, cleaner surroundings may have flies present, but they need not necessarily transport harmful bacteria to infest you. Also, they don’t do it intentionally; the bacteria they carry come full circle from humans, who, surprise-surprise, are almost always the source of these infections. For instance, several bacteria found on these flies cause a variety of nosocomial infections – diseases originating in a hospital – and most because of lack of hygiene.
On the other hand, a long-legged fly, a predatory species, attempts a somersault to distract you from all the talk of diseases.
The study aims to scientifically highlight the role of two species of flies as vectors of diseases – for humans as well as animals and plants – and to use it as “an effective tool for vector control programs and public health environmental surveillance.” It does not intend to demonize flies – but that is how we generally see it.

This makes us raise questions like: what if all the mosquitoes were killed (many have also very nicely explained why that is a bad idea – see the SciShow video and read this reddit thread). We ponder upon such grand-esque questions because mosquitoes spread deadly diseases, but as a matter of fact, only about 3% of mosquitoes bite us, even fewer spread diseases.
Toxorhynchites is a mosquito, but there's something about them:
their larvae breed in tree holes where they feed on other mosquito larvae, and as adults most are flower-visitors and pollinators. This fellow was feeding on a sarso flower in central India, also potentially aiding in pollination.
These questions generally follow-up with such questions: what is the role of mosquitoes in an ecosystem? This is sort-of difficult to explain, but, generally, every organism plays some role in the ecosystem, which is why it exists. Mosquitoes in particular are important in the web of life – they are pollinators, they are a source of food for fish as larvae and birds and other predators as adults, and some are predatory themselves.
A small, inconspicuous member of the Lauxaniidae family feeds on the pollen of the ephemeral Karvy which flowers
once in seven-eight years. This family is most common in the forest understorey, but is yet to earn a common name.
These questions attracted me to flies like flies to carcass. I wanted to know how many are there, how many are good and bad – an ethical conundrum in ecology, I agree, but a necessary-evil nonetheless, and I will explain you why shortly, and ultimately, what ecological role do they play. I started documenting flies ten years ago in my hometown of Thane/Mumbai and gather information about them. It wasn’t like seeing a butterfly or a dragonfly and quickly posing a query on an online forum. It was rather rudimentary (today, one of the best resources on flies is The “new” Diptera Site – run by an active community of fly watchers from across the world). Diptera is generally well documented in India, but it must be said that the Diptera of India has not seen the light of the day.

The upside of seeing flies is that for every butterfly or a beetle, you will find at least two flies! They’re everywhere – and I couldn’t emphasise on their omnipresence enough.

In this megacity of Mumbai, the order Diptera is represented by at least 50 families – there are likely to be more – encompassing 78% of the total family-level diversity of the Western Ghats and 57% of India’s diversity. How in the world do so many live in this metropolis, and, where?
Not a dragonfly! This is Systropus, a bee fly, a fly of forest edges and meadows
where they gaily sip nectar with their counterparts, the bees.
Fortunately, the metropolis of Mumbai is one of the largest in India – a whole of 4312 sq. km. – with the most diverse topography, from the rocky and sandy seashores to estuarine deltas to coastal tropical forests to sub-altitude semi-evergreen forests of the Western Ghats. It has everything that flies want, including a bustling human population, miles of open sewage canals and garbage dumping sites. Flies occupy every niche available in Mumbai, but there is a slight difference in where they are found. By segregating 16 microhabitat types the flies were found in into three habitats; natural areas, mixed habitats, and urban areas – there was a distinct trend on two fronts: where the flies are most diverse, and which flies are found in the least diverse areas. If you thought flies are most diverse in polluted, unhygienic places, you’re wrong. Most flies were found in natural areas than mixed, and least in urban, but generally, their distribution relied largely on the larval habitats.
This dull, drab-looking fly in the family mostly known for their pestiferous nature, Muscidae, is Ceonosia, a predatory fly
that scans gardens and orchards hunting for unsuspecting, and pestiferous, insects.
Finally, the ethical conundrum in ecology, of the good vs evil, was dealt with to dissuade the general negativity towards flies as a large, diverse group of insects, because of a select few species. Flies were segregated into “beneficial” and “pestiferous” categories based on their ecological functions. Of the 50 families, 66% fell in the beneficial category for the roles they play in an ecosystem, and 34% in the pestiferous category for causing diseases or economic losses. Both the sides were weighed to emphasise on their importance in an ecosystem, especially because, so far, the emphasis has mostly been on their pestiferous nature. What I found from this study is that flies are quite diverse in the metropolis of Mumbai, but at family-level, the diversity of the beneficial ones is more than the pestiferous ones.
This fly is ridiculously common on dung but extremely hard to see because of its small size, and hard to remember because of its long Family name - Sphaeroceridae.
Do not let that business of flies on a pile of garbage alarm you – take caution by all means – but also know that they’re a fraction of the fly diversity of your city – and they alone shouldn’t represent the marvellous diversity of this gorgeous group of insects!
A pair of crane fly, Pselliophora latea, is one of the largest and prominent species found across India. They are rather common close to swampy areas high in organic content, such as areas with seeping sewage, surrounded by good plant cover.
The one perched is female, and the one hanging with feathered-antennae is the male.
Fly watching is like observing butterflies or chasing beetles – you go to the most beautiful wilderness areas and see them buzz around flowers, like bees (flies are likely the second-most important pollinators), or just sitting and plotting their next move – but not quite. You also go see them on dead things (flies are the most important insects in forensic sciences!), including animal carcasses and their faeces where they initiate the decomposition processes. You also must visit garbage dumping sites and sewage areas where some of the most beautiful flies breed.

And while you peer into the substrate be fully aware of others wondering what fetishes you foster.

In other words: welcome to the world of flies.

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The entire paper (much more elaborated than this article) can be read here: http://threatenedtaxa.org/index.php/JoTT/article/view/2742/4208

You can also directly download the paper from here: http://threatenedtaxa.org/index.php/JoTT/article/download/2742/4208