IUCN Red List Status: Least Concern (IUCN 3.1)
National Red List Status: Least Concern

Chances of having a backyard garden of sorts is not so uncommon these days if you have the space – a beneficial trend of sorts borne of the lock downs which were imposed to curb the spread of Covid-19 – and you’d wake up one morning and pay a visit to see how those vegetables are coming along with your morning tea in hand, when suddenly your right foot sinks underground, upsetting the hot tea on yourself. There you are, turning the sky blue for miles along with such colourful language which would make a sailor blush, while frantically trying to pull your foot out, wipe that hot tea off your chest, and trying not to step on shattered pieces of mug, while not letting the sarong slip off. 

After this sudden turn of tragic events has passed and with a clear head you go on to inspect.

Then you note that the Manioc (Manihot esculenta) roots you’ve been carefully cultivating for weeks have been nibbled and munched with relish. A quick look reveals that the hole in the ground was caused by some really articulate tunneling. And then it clicks!

It’s the signature handiwork of a greater bandicoot rat (Bandicota indica) or as it locally known (with gritted teeth) as “ඌරු මීයා (ooroo meeya)” which literally translates to “pig-rat”. It is called as such not because it’s rosy pink and wallows in mud. It’s called so, because when it feels threatened, it will raise its bristly guard hairs (like some knock-off porcupine) and grunt like a small, yet very angry pig. They are big and can get bigger if there is ample opportunity for scoring food. They are not fastidious (not concerned about the what, when, where, how when it comes to food) eaters and would eat anything from grain, household waste, vegetables, fallen fruit, tubers, roots, yam etc…, making farmers and gardeners around the country to roll their shirt cuffs and shorten the length of their sarongs at the tell-tale signs of their presence.

Greater bandicoot rat grunting angrily. Video by Anya Ratnayaka.

Greater bandicoot rats are notorious for their tunneling skills and if the soil is moist and easy to break (like the embankments you find in paddy fields), expect a series of tunnels that would win a standing ovation from any VietCong. The tunnels are used mainly for shelter rather than being used as a larder. Adults are aggressive towards each other and if placed in the same enclosure, they will fight to the death. Their lifespan is about a year and therefore they mature very quickly as characteristic of their species, where the pups (newborn bandicoot rats are named as pups… awww!) sexually mature within 50 – 60 days. A female is capable of producing 8 – 10 litters during her lifetime with 8 – 14 pups per litter.

They are classified as vermin and are also disease vectors (vectors are living organisms that spread infectious agents like a virus or a bacteria from an infected animal to a human or another animal) for deadly diseases like hantaviruses, bovine schistosomiasis and leptospirosis and for the rat lungworm (Angiostrongylus cantonensis). Sadly we humans are contributing for their population boom by our improper management of waste (garbage sites are like K-Zones for these guys). Eliminating their natural predators like rat snakes, civets etc… would also contribute for them to thrive because it upsets the natural balance of ecosystems. Now terminating them left right and center and wiping them off the planet won’t do any good also because as mentioned earlier, they happen to be prey to certain animals and upsetting the way of nature is never a good idea. Best example would be Mao Zedong and his four pests campaign where he named the sparrow as a pest because sparrows ate the rice crop. Then the Chinese people were forced to kill as many sparrows as they can because the propaganda stated that less sparrows would mean more rice crop. Sparrows were driven to near extinction in China and instead of booming the crops, it bombed them because the insect population skyrocketed, driving the crop yield to abysmal levels which caused a famine which caused the deaths of approx. 15 million Chinese people. See how that escalated? Sure bandicoot rats are pests but their population controlling MUST be done after considering all the pros and cons. You can just contribute simply by disposing your garbage properly, having a cat around the house etc. It’s the smallest things that make the biggest change in the end.

IUCN Red List Status: Least Concern (IUCN 3.1)
National Red List Status: Least Concern

Indian rat snakes (Ptyas mucosa) also known as Oriental rat snakes have this triggered “what the…” look, like always. It’s like when someone stole your parking space (or when someone takes Joey’s food). It’s not because they had a bad day or anything it’s because that’s how they have evolved to look like. Just because they look like they want to fight you in a dark alley does not mean that they are dangerous. They’re harmless and non-venomous and just want to have some rats for dinner, hence their name. They don’t discriminate though, they prey on mice too, thus contributing to controlling rodent populations. Their harmless nature is known even in Sinhalese culture where there is a saying that goes like this “ගැරඬි මරලා පව් පුරව ගන්න එපා” and translates to “don’t go accruing sins by killing rat snakes”. 

The chances of seeing a rat snake in your home garden or down your street is high, because they are very well adapted to urban environments. The boom in the urban rodent count caused  by our reckless and selfish garbage dumping methods are also a contributing factor to the rat snake’s All Day Neighbourhood Pass. If you do see one near your house however, don’t panic. And DO NOT douse them with a bucketload of gasoline, because chances are, that in a moment of panic you might end up dousing your office clothes which are hung out to dry instead. Good luck explaining to your boss why you smell like a CEYPETCO shed. Plus, kerosine greatly irritates their skin if it gets past the scales. So just make sure all entry points to the house are closed or barred and wait until it moves out. Usually when they sense human presence, they slither away fast. 

Rat snake sunning herself on a garden fence. Photograph by Mihiri Wikramanayake.

Talking about rat snakes slithering (not to be mistaken for the Hogwarts house, Slytherin) away, they are quite agile and fast-moving when needed. They are a diurnal, semi-arboreal and highly territorial species and will defend their territories aggressively (much like you and I would defend our own homes). They happen to be the second largest snake in the country, after the Indian Rock Python (Python molurus), and if conditions are right, they can grow up to eight feet in length. If threatened, they may flatten their necks and emit a sort of growl to deter the threat. Unfortunately, this warning display can bring about their end because many people often  mistake them for  the spectacled cobra (Naja naja). Female rat snakes lay a batch of eggs that number between six to 15, and they (the adults, not the eggs!) breed year-round in tropical climates.

The amnesty and personal space that they experience in Sri Lanka are not shown elsewhere. And sadly, they are hunted illegally for their skin and sometimes for their meat at largely unsustainable and damaging levels to the ecosystems that they are an important part of.

IUCN Red List Status: Least Concern (IUCN 3.1)
National Red List Status: Least Concern

Out of the seven species of kingfishers found in Sri Lanka, the common kingfisher (Alcedo atthis) has the second most widespread distribution. Even though it is called the “common kingfisher”, it is not comparatively common (much like common sense) to see. The reason it is called common kingfisher is because of its wide distribution along Eurasia and in parts of North Africa. Hands down, it is one beautiful bird. The contrast of orange with the multiple shades of blue, neatly arranged in a form the size of a sparrow truly makes it a much sought after bird with photographers and birding enthusiasts (it is a common fact that it is not easy to get a satisfying picture of a common kingfisher).

Being a rather shy, inconspicuous bird, it tends to perch away from the crowd, overlooking a clear stream, pond or any such source of water. Since its main diet comprises species that are quite sensitive to water pollution (e.g. small fish, tadpoles, freshwater crustaceans etc), and therefore in Japan, the common kingfisher is  considered as a freshwater indicator species. Clearer the water, better are its chances of catching prey, as it has to consume 60% of its body weight every day. You might even find one perching on a tree in your garden, if it is nearby to one of its preferred habitats, like a wetland.

Speaking of the Japanese, they modeled their 300 km/h bullet trains (specifically the front face of the train) after the beak of the kingfisher. The reason being that the shape of its beak provided the ultimate aerodynamic solution for preventing the loud sonic boom (which happens every time a bullet train enters a tunnel), making the trains more sustainable and eco-friendly.

Telling the sexes apart can be quite tricky (as both are really flamboyant), but the general rule is to see if the underpart of the beak is orange. If it is, it’s a female and if the whole beak is black, it’s a male. This beak coloration is more prominent in adult females. Common kingfishers are highly territorial and there is no love lost between individuals as they are solitary birds and very much like to keep it that way. If another kingfisher even pokes its beak over the boundary, a full-on scuffle can be expected.

Males chase after females, calling continuously. This is followed by a ritual feeding which then leads to copulation (guess they do buy dinner first, huh!). Rather than conforming to the norm and building a nest, the pair straight up tunnels into the mud on a vertical riverbank, before the female deposits her eggs inside. You might wonder how on earth the newly hatched, hungry chicks find the parents and vice versa in that pitch dark tunnel (CEB/LECO does not cover kingfisher tunnels, sadly) but as always, nature has a solution. The hatchlings have a white blotch on the tip of their beak and the adults have a white patch in their face, which acts as a visual cue (like the vest a traffic warden has, with luminous stripes).

Just because it is named common (not to be confused with the Rapper/Actor, Common) does not mean that this species is not threatened. The small perks which make the common kingfisher unique also makes it sensitive to change, to which we are a part of. If we do not change our impact on the environment, it won’t be long until it is renamed as the uncommon kingfisher.