Pied kingfishers (Ceryle rudis) are a minimalist’s wet dream. They pack up so much suave and swag for a bird with a two-tone (which is what pied means, bi-colored and not getting a pie thrown in your face) color palette, it’s just ridiculous. They are that beautiful. Out of the seven species of kingfisher found in Sri Lanka, they are the third most common (more or less) which is the same for their worldwide distribution where they are found from sub-Saharan Africa and southern Asia from Turkey to India to China. Apart from their large distribution, they tend to prefer a more permanent home. They do migrate short distances depending on seasons but do not undertake continent-spanning migrations like most birds.
They have no need to hunt on land as their prey is entirely or mostly aquatic (small fish, crustaceans, aquatic insects, small frogs, etc). So, like hummingbirds, they have become adept at hovering above a stationary point and when you look at videos of them hovering, you can clearly see that only their wings move and the head is motionless and the body is positioned at a roughly 45-degree angle to the water surface. The wings move in a figure-eight position (like the infinity symbol) so they can create the lift they need to be airborne and their wings move at a rate of 10 movements per second!
This high energy output makes them voracious eaters and they need to eat approximately 50% of their body weight, every day, to survive. They can cover large bodies of water without the constant need for a perch close by because of their amazing hovering skills (this is called “aerial perching”). They hover over the waterline, sometimes fifty feet up and once they lock down their prey (they have this amazing ability to compensate for the effects of refraction caused by water and pinpoint their prey exactly), they dive beak first (like a guided missile) and snatch their prey and gulp it down mid-flight or would take it to the perch to stun it before gulping head first (The reason why birds swallow a fish head first is because that way, the fish scales won’t irritate their insides while it travels down to the stomach).
When they would finally perch on a nearby branch, they would bob their heads up and down and start gossiping with the neighbors about the day (gets as loud as the manning market on a Saturday noon). They are very gregarious (loves company) and would hang out in small groups. Also, it is not unlikely to see large roosts at night. Males and females look alike but easy to tell them apart because of the bands on their chests. Males have a thick band on top and a thin one below and females only have one thick band which is sometimes broken down in the middle.
Like their common kingfisher (Alcedo atthis) cousins, pied kingfishers make their nests on earthy banks closer to a water source. Both sexes put their backs (and beaks) into making the tunnel and it usually measures about 1m in length. Then the female lays about four to 5 eggs and the male helps with the incubation and the feeding of the female throughout the whole process. Because of their sociable nature, other members of the group would willingly help parents to look after their chicks (which is called cooperative breeding). Up to four “nannies” would volunteer their services and usually, the nannies in question are adults who failed to raise their own chicks or the parent’s adult kids from a previous litter. Guess it is family first for these critters (Somewhere, Dom Toretto sheds a tear).
To understand how big an Indian flying fox (Pteropus medius) can be, you have to see one in person. Upon seeing one up close you half expect it to swoop down, punch you in the face (because you didn’t bother to put that toffee wrapper in the bin) and growl “I’m Batman” before vanishing into the darkness. Apart from their size, they’re notorious for their mind-bogglingly large colonies on isolated, large trees in rural or urban areas, preferably near a good source of water. Why near water you might ask? Well it’s because they lose a substantial amount of water compared to their size, because of the large surface area their wings occupy. Hence, they have a large requirement for water compared to other animals of similar size and weight.
They do tend to keep a low profile and try to keep it down a notch, but if it gets too hot (like it always does at noon in Sri Lanka) or if they have too many mouths for per fruit, they express their discomfort quite raucously (somewhat similar to a Colombo school Big Match at maximum capacity. Loud right?) and flap their wings around to regulate the excess heat. The wings of a fruit bat are highly vascularized. which means that there’s a large network blood vessels within them. So when they flap their wings the outside air cools the blood flowing through the vessels, thereby cooling their bodies effectively (DIY aircon anyone?). Living near large bodies of water also allows them to take advantage of the cool air circulating over the water, and also allows them to rehydrate easily. But when the air temperature dips and it gets comparatively cooler, they wrap their leathery wings around themselves and relax.
These bats are mainly frugivorous and nectarivorous, which means that their diet mainly consists of ripening or overripe fruits (mango, cashew plums, plantains, guava, figs and papaw) and the nectar of flowers, respectively. This is another explanation as to why they choose to roost near rural and urban areas. It is because of the ease of access to rural and urban gardens which are more often than not, full of fruit trees, unlike dense forests (inside of which bat colonies are never found).
Bats are for the large part, nocturnal creatures and are known for their echolocation abilities which enable them to navigate around obstacles and catch prey in extremely low visibility conditions. Flying foxes on the other hand, use their keen sense of smell and large sensitive eyes to locate their favorite fruit trees. Their immense love for all things fruit has labeled them as vermin by fruit farmers, due to the sheer amount of cash crop that they consume (much like when Obelix [Jim Pappa] goes to that one restaurant and just polishes off all the dishes, causing the chef a hysterical nervous breakdown). As a result, many farmers are known to destroy any flying fox roosts that are near important crop lands.
But the thing that most people don’t know, is that flying foxes are extremely important for the pollination and seed propagation of a large number of plant species. Thus outweighing their destructive feeding habits. Plus they tend to target overripe fruit which doesn’t have a long shelf life anyway. There are however ways of mitigating the damage caused by flying foxes to crops. Erecting netting around the crops, picking them on time, or planting Jam Fruit Trees (Muntingia sp.) around the crops would be the best sustainable method of deterrence. Why? Because they love jam fruit, and so do the pale-billed flowerpecker (Dicaeum erythrorhynchos), a bird no larger than a human palm, capable of zipping around branches like a kid on a sugar rush, while gorging down jam fruits.
Flying foxes are highly social creatures, as evident by their large colonies. Their social structure is a male dominated hierarchy and is structured like any corporate office where higher ranked males occupy the highest branches (Penthouse for the CEO) and lower branches for the low ranks (cubicles for the executives). Males are responsible for preventing outsiders from entering their roost. Like that Nelly Furtado song, Indian flying foxes are a promiscuous bunch. That is, they are polygynandrous, aka, mate with multiple partners. Come breeding season, male testes get bigger (supply and demand) and copulation occurs after a male corners a female after a lengthy chase. Mating season is from July to October with one to two pups per litter born six months after. Pups are born feet first, enabling them to grab onto its mother as soon as it is born. Pups are looked after by the females, as males are known to shoot and scoot, and are not involved in the rearing of the cubs.
Flying foxes, though adorable and ecologically important, are vectors for several viruses that can infect humans. The main ways to curb the transmission of zoonotic diseases is to take some pretty basic preventive measures. These could be as simple as safeguarding water sources used by humans from bat poop, not consuming fruits that have been partially consumed by a flying fox or any other animal, and so on.
The most important thing is to not eat them, no matter how exotic or adventurous it sounds. They are not a food item! Though they may be a staple diet in many indigenous cultures, if you take the time to read about them (the people not the bats!), you learn that they are riddled with horrible diseases generation after generation, because of the diseases transmitted to them through the consumption of flying foxes and other bat species. This is one of the main reasons why bushmeat consumption and the exotic wildlife trade must be strictly mitigated.
Being conscious about your health is a mighty good thing, and most seem to maintain this by engaging in morning or evening walks – or dashes – along the pathways built within close proximity to Colombo’s urban wetlands. So while you are on the run (not from the law, better not), if you come across a very handsome looking dog with mottled fur, who darts into the bushes after throwing a cursory glance your way, don’t worry. It’s not Uncle Stuart’s beloved Rex but a Sri Lankan jackal (Canis aureus naria)! Jackal, in Colombo?!? I mean, fat chance seeing them in a national park, but to actually see them in Colombo, out of all the places?
Well, yes! There was actually this wonderful sighting in Thalangama recently (and one a few months earlier), and Thalangama is an area which is as urban as it gets.
Now the accepted way to address a jackal in Sinhala would be by calling it හිවලා / Hiwalā, considering the root of the word which stems from Sanskrit.
But a jackal is also addressed as නරියා / Nariyā, which is now used to mean fox in Sinhala. The apparent confusion and the misconception that there were foxes in Sri Lanka stems from the fact that the same word in Tamil நரி / Nari, is used to address both fox and jackal, in a general sense (there are other specific terms which are used to address these two creatures but some are outdated and not in use). Some of you might have come across a term called குள்ள நரி / Kulla Nari (kulla meaning dwarf or short stature), which is the word used to address the Sri Lanka jackal in the Jaffna Tamil dialect. You might be thinking “all this for one word?”, but that’s how a language evolves over time and space.
If we shift our perspective from the linguistic towards the animalistic, you begin to see that they truly are resourceful creatures. The Sri Lankan jackal is a subspecies of the golden jackal (Canis aureus), which calls habitat for a truly large range which stretches from South-east Asia towards Eastern Europe.
Sri Lankan jackals are the same build but less heavy than a normal free-ranging dog you find in a city. Jackals have a relatively slender snout, longer frame and legs, and a bristly coat with a bushy tail which can be reddish or yellowish red, with grey speckles when compared with a free-ranging dog. They are opportunistic omnivores, which means that they are not picky about what they eat. That, along with the fact that they can tolerate cold and dry conditions, was the boost that gave them the ability to spread throughout the island. Even though they have the ability to tolerate cold conditions, they get scarcer with the increase in altitude. Jackals are quite wary of human presence and will adopt a nocturnal lifestyle if humans are near their habitat, otherwise they are cathemeral (meaning animals that are active during both day [diurnal] and night [nocturnal]).
When we consider their diet, jackals are happy with rodents, birds, the young of grazing animals (such as spotted deer), vegetables, and fruits. When they hunt, they utilize their excellent sense of hearing to pinpoint their prey and once the target is locked on, they pounce on it to render their prey immobile. Jackals are excellent scavengers as well and utilize their perfect sense of smell to locate decaying carcasses from miles away. By scavenging, they help to break down the organic material in a carcass as nutrients, back into the ecosystem. If the carcasses are disposed of in a timely manner, they help in the prevention of diseases among animals. So jackals really do a thankless job to the ecosystem which they are a part of.
Folklore around the world where jackals are found have spun tales on their cunning nature, and their intelligence. But nowhere does it merit their excellent parenting skills. Yes, jackals are model parents and practise monogamy, where they stick with one partner until their death. They practise this so much so that the basic social unit of jackals is a mated pair or a mated pair and their young. They go on about nearly every major aspect in their social life together, namely rearing their young, foraging, hunting, resting and protecting their territory from intruders. In fact, the sync increases their chances of netting good prey by a factor of three when compared with a solitary individual. The jackal’s bond is so strong that it has been observed that when one parent dies, it is unlikely that the rest of the family survives (if they are not mature enough to fend for themselves).
But, jackals have found a way to clear that hurdle as well, in the form of “helpers”. Mostly these “helpers” are pups from a previous litter and they act as assistants to their parents. Their presence has an indirect benefit on the young pups as the parents can spend more time foraging and hunting, which in turn means more sustenance for the pups aiding in their uninterrupted growth. Plus with the aid of these helpers, they can manipulate a carcass more quickly than a solitary individual can, and defend it from other animals. Sightings with such helpers may have given rise to reports of large packs hunting together, which is quite uncommon.
An affectionate mated pair grooming (L) and jackal pups (L). Image by Chandika Jayaratne primary investigator of the Sri Lankan Jackal Project.
Since Sri Lanka is a tropical country, jackal births occur throughout the year. A healthy mother can give birth to litters for up to eight years. After a gestation period of approximately two months, an average of two to four pups per litter can be expected. Jackal pups are absolutely adorable and will have your jaw on the floor like you saw something scandalous. They are nursed for about two months and then introduced to solid foods. Because of the bond their parents have, they are well protected, and if a threat is sensed, parents “rumble growl” and “predator bark” to warn the pups to take refuge, while one of the parents drives off the potential threat, should the occasion call for it. The location of a jackal “den” also aids in the defense of its pups, as it is mostly a hollow interior with only one entrance which an adult can guard without much hassle.
There is a Sri Lankan myth about the purported “jackal’s horn” or “narric-comboo”. This bony, cone-shaped structure about half an inch long, found on a jackal’s forehead is said to grant wishes to its owner, or guarantee the holder victory from any lawsuit (from the way things are done in the legal environment these days, looks like every single of the accused have a jackal’s horn with them). It is also said that only one jackal in a 1,000 possesses this horn, and is the leader of all jackals. Given that a real jackal skull does not have a true “horn”, this is either a protrusion, deformity, or a skin tumor behind the jackal’s sagittal crest. Or in most cases, a tuft of hair that’s matted into the shape of a horn, leading to this misconception.
Given the fact that the alpha predator that we are most familiar with, the Sri Lankan leopard (Panthera pardus kotiya), has a restricted distribution based on the availability of suitable habitats, the Sri Lankan jackal is the top predator in most of Sri Lanka, and controls animal populations to maintain a healthy ecosystem balance. If jackals are culled without reason, this can mean a boom in the population of pests and vermin species who can do real harm, not just to the environment but to human settlements as well. Now you understand the extent of the service that they provide.
The threats that they face currently include habitat loss, and death caused by humans – driven by the fear that jackals infect other animals with rabies. Sure they could be carriers of rabies (all mammals are), but in most cases it’s unvaccinated pet cats and dogs that infect wild animals with diseases such as rabies – there are also cases on jackals getting severe cases on mange from domestic animals. So we can all do our part by vaccinating our pets, and street dogs to curb the spread rather than to vilify wild animals.