For an Indian birdwatcher, Arunachal Pradesh is like the Holy Grail. And to visit the place with some of the most ardent bird watchers (we were christened ‘crazy birders’, by some in the group who were not so crazy!) and an ever smiling host, is an experience to behold. I have been planning to write a blog on the trip for a long time. It turns out this is not a trip report, but a look at a genus of birds called Yuhinas, that we found all around us in Mishmi hills. If you are wondering what Yuhinas have to do with handing natural calamities… well, I will get it to in the end.
The richness of the biodiversity of Arunachal Pradesh is a reflection of the wide altitudinal range. This was evident to us when we started our journey from Dibang Valley to Mishmi hills. The rapid change in the avifauna was breathtaking. At a brief stop on the way we spotted Nepal Fulvettas and Whiskered Yuhinas.
A little further down on the drive, we stopped when we heard a lot of bird calls. Apparently we chanced upon a hunting party of Striated bulbuls, Black bulbuls and White-naped Yuhinas. It was a great sight to watch a bunch of 20-30 birds move in a wave around a spot feeding. We were lucky to see a bunch of white-naped Yuhinas among them, because we never saw these birds for the rest of the trip.
The scenario changed even more dramatically as we approached Mishmi Hills. We could see Yuhinas all around us. We chanced upon a different Yuhina at every corner. They are gregarious birds and found constantly fighting among themselves. It grew dark very quickly and we could not continue birding beyond 4:30 pm. But we were rewarded with the sighting of a large congregation of Stripe-throated Yuhinas next morning.
Yuhina is from a large group of Babblers (Timaliini) comprising of more than 200 highly diversified species. I wonder why the babblers cannot be made into a bunch of smaller groups, well, I am not qualified to comment. More interestingly, the Yuhinas belong to the same family as the White-eyes (Zosteropidae). The genus Yuhina includes eleven species that are distributed in the Himalayas, Indochina and the Sunda region (Sibley and Monroe 1990). Yuhinas inhabit broad-leaved, coniferous or bamboo forests. Their distributions range in altitude from several hundred meters to 4,000 m high (Sibley and Monroe1990). Yuhinas are omnivorous, feeding on insects, flower honey, small berries and seeds (Ali and Ripley 1987).
What do we know about the ability of Yuhinas to handle natural calamities? When humans are faced with natural calamities like the recent cloud burst in Uttarkhand, we forget our differences and cooperate to handle the situation. This helps us recover quickly from the situation. Well, we now know that birds do the exact same thing in bad weather conditions. In a paper published in Nature Communications, researchers monitored groups of Yuhinas for many years in different weather conditions. When the scientists combined their data with a game-theory model, they found that periods of fighting between female yuhinas were 50-percent shorter when the weather was bad—which increased the overall success of the breeding group ( I somehow suspect that the game-theory model was used to just publish it 🙂 ).
When it rains heavily, the birds have to expend more energy to stay warm. Also food becomes scarce. The birds seem to avoid fighting among themselves, cutting down on energy spent on fighting. This increases the group’s chance of survival.
This information made me more inquisitive. When I looked around for more such information, I chanced upon this NY Times article detailing some observations on bird behaviour during natural calamities.
To Birds, Storm Survival Is Only Natural
More pictures from the trip
All the pictures from the trip can be found in the following flickr collection.
Mishmi Hills trip – Dec 2012
Nature Communications Journal: Unfavourable environment limits social conflict in Yuhina brunneiceps