The Birds and The Bees

Walking down the road with which even my posthistoric readers are familiar by now, I noticed a branch waving in the wind, with a bunch of flowers on it, and some interesting little people sitting on those flowers.

Let’s recap that for a moment. Branch, flower, interesting little people – in that order.

So  – when I say branch, you automatically think of a tree. You are right in doing so, because branches are attached to trees. They look like smaller trees stuck on the body of a larger tree. And they branch off into smaller branches, which branch off into even smaller branches.

Uncannily, this might remind you of the bronchus, which divides into bronchioles, and which bronchioles divide into yet further bronchioles, till they end at the alveoli. And you might be tempted to think that the words ‘branch’ and ‘bronchus’ derive from the same etymological root. But, as I found out, you would be wrong.

Branch derives from an Old French word branche, which in turn derives from the late Latin branca – meaning ‘paw’.

Bronchus, on the other hand, derives from the Greek bronkhos – meaning ‘windpipe’.

Check out these two pictures, don’t they look like slightly varied versions of each other?

There is, indeed, a lot similarity between the two systems, – both in form and in function. But, alas indeed, their names do not share a common origin.

Back to where we were. So this branch belonged to a tree. What tree? Well, as it happens, it was an acacia, those dry, thorny, temperamental-looking trees, with their own Darcyesque personality. They are prickly towards strangers and paternal towards their own (more about this later someday, hopefully).

I was about to be content with ‘acacia’, but something told me to take the trouble of finding out exactly what kind of acacia this was, and that opened up a whole box of wonders for me.

Turns out, the acacia is not one species, – and for our intents and purposes, it is not even a genus that contains more than one species. Acacieae, as the name is, is a tribus, a subdivision that is smaller than a subfamily but larger than a genus. And this tribus Acacieae includes five genera (that’s the plural for genus), one of which is Acacia.

The trees we colloquially group together and refer to as acacia trees are members of the Acacieae tribe.

This means that some trees we know to be acacias are not from the genus Acacia, but from one of its sister genera. They share so many features that as long as we are conversing casually, we simply do not take the trouble to tell them apart.

This tree that was waving its branch in my face was, it seems, a Senegalia catechu. Senegalia is a sister genus of Acacia, so my initial impression was not far from the mark. The thing that looked interesting was the name of this genus. Was this tree, then, from Senegal?

Today, almost all the places in the world have non-native species that were introduced there by the human hand. India has its own fair share too, and I wanted to know if my little catechu was one of them. So I looked at its distribution.

It said that this tree is found in Asia, China, India and Indian Ocean regions. It’s not found in Africa.

Then why Senegalia, you might want to ask?

Best guess would be something like this – the person who named the genus was looking at a tree that is native to Senegal, and they christened and tagged the tree Senegalia. Later on, trees were found in other places all over the world which were to be grouped inside this genus, and they got their own individual species names, – and that’s how we ended up with a Senegalia catechu that is not at all from Senegal.

Oh, any guesses as to what name that original Senegalia tree was called by? I’m not sure, but on the wide and diverse family tree (woo!) of the Acacieae I found a species that’s called Senegalia… wait for it…  senegal. I think we can take a very safe guess there.

So I was walking down the roadside and an acacia branch was waving in my face, and what did I see? On the branch were tufts of acacia inflorescence, and on one of them was a bee!

IMG_20170527_153258_1.jpg

I wanted to take a photo of this little spectacle, ever so common and yet ever so charming. I fished out my phone and tried to get a clean focus.

It is not easy to get a clean focus with a phone camera when you are trying to photograph a tiny bee sitting on a small flower hanging on a thin twig that’s ten inches from the lens, and the broad grey road looms large in the background.

It is especially difficult when exactly when you are trying to get it focused, the wind gets extra enthusiastic and starts swaying the branch like a drunkard’s arm.

That’s the best I could get, that picture up there.

Then came the next part in our adventure – the birds.

A few days back, when I was going down this road, on a beautiful tree I had spotted two black birds. Because they were so far away and hidden behind the amazing windy leafyness of the tree, I could not make out what birds they were. Could be ravens, could be cuckoos – I thought.

Today as I passed that spot, I saw them again on the tree, but this time they were lower, closer… and I could see them clearly now. Looking like detectives out of some hardboiled paperback, a pair of jet-black ravens.

I have always been fascinated with crows. You cannot blame me, because I grew up among the likes of Drighangchu, Kakkeshwar Kuchkuche and Corvus, which means crowheadedness ingrained for life. When they had asked us to write an essay on ‘Your Favourite Bird’ in Class 5, I had written about the crow. When we learnt about how the crow had reconciled the battling families of Meshomoshai and Jodumesho, I had marveled in silent adoration. When we read how Jibanananda wanted to come back to his beloved Bengal in the form of a crow, I was hardly surprised.

And anyone who knows anything about crows knows that the raven is the King of All Crows. I present here in this regard this old historical document:

বিজ্ঞাপন - Copy.jpg

Anyway. These two ravens were a couple, and they were building a home for their young ones on this tree. Among the branches where they were sitting the other day, I saw a small black wiry jumble. Oooh, there was their nest up there! — Crow nests are famously unkempt, and this one was no exception. It looked just perfect!

I wanted to photograph these dudes. But once again, my phone’s reach was too short to get a nice one. Not that they sat and posed for me patiently. Rather, they were kinda rattled – why was a featherless biped standing next to their tree and acting mysteriously? One of them left the branch and glided to a lamp post near me. I took a-one.. a-two.. a-three steps towards the post, stretched the zoom to its limit – and snapped a shot. Here, take a look at our winged wonder.

IMG_20170527_154209_1

The only captured photograph of the elusive Branstark, Raven of the Rugged North.

Hardly had I taken some twenty steps on my way, I heard a very familiar birdcall from a smattering of shrubby trees on my left. Twice, thrice it called, again and again. I knew this call, it was all too familiar, I just couldn’t remember which one it was.. so well-known, heard so many times …

Straight out of a tree the note came clear and ringing, and out came flying the bird. And I laughed as I saw it. Dark brown with white speckles all over and white stripes on the tail, it was a cuckoo – the famous Asian Koel, to be precise! ‘Isn’t the cuckoo black?’ Yes it is, the male ones are black. The females are more colourful, but in both, the cherry-red eyes are the same.

So, I got both the raven and the cuckoo. That’s like the Velociraptor and the Deinonychus on the same day.

And then on my way back I saw the reptile.

It was an eastern garden lizard, also known commonly as the common garden lizard (I know -.- ). It was sitting on the trunk of a tree, and hoking in the way they do in their mating season. Have you ever seen this? They do a really weird thing like pathetically stiff push-ups, again and again and again, eyeing you angrily all the time, their excited heads bobbing up and down. Oh and only the guys do this. To impress the gals. Like I said, pathetic. And this guy I saw right here was seriously turned on. You can tell by how the skin around their neck and throat are blood-red in this season. It is summer going on the monsoon now and it is all hawt-and-heated everywhere, even for these cold-blooded customers. Just look at this guy.

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Johnny Bravo

That is one long tail, don’t you agree?

Okay, see the spiny little crest on its back? That’s one distinguishing feature of these lizards. They are very good at changing colours. If you ever see one get down from a tree and sit for a little while on the sunny grass, you can witness their skin change colour from a darker shade to a lighter, yellower one. This goes a long way in camouflaging their bodies and keeping them safe. But colour isn’t the only factor here. Their body shape, stillness and quickness – all play a role to bring the act together.

Biologists give fixed names to all living things so that talking about them is easy, and these names are given in Latin – a dead language – so that no living linguistic group feels too bad about it. These garden lizards have been given the name Calotes versicolor. You get a clue about their colour-changing ability right there in the species name – versicolor. Now, these lizards have sometimes been given a bad name by the human beings – literally. Some relatives of these garden lizards have been nicknamed ‘bloodsuckers’, – due to the hopeless reason that their heads appear red at a certain time of the year. But these harmless animals eat only insects, they never attack any animal for their blood. They are gentle, timid creatures, and if I may say it, beautiful.

A better name that has been given them is ‘dragon lizards’. There’s no denying it – with that crested, triangular head, skin-folds along the neck and long-toed feet ending in itty-bitty claws, they do look like tiny little dragons. And it is from this aspect that the subfamily Draconinae draws its name. And the Draconinae is but a part of a larger group – a group consisting of some 300 kinds of  lizards, our eastern garden lizard among them – the family Agamidae.

This is where the old loon Ghossa will cock his head and stare at that last word of the last paragraph.

Agamidae – as in ‘Kashmir Rock Agama’.

I should check my pen, because now this is spilling into a completely different – well maybe not completely different – story. That story will be told, but not tonight.

Happy summer, friends.


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