Very ugly ducklings

[A brief news report from England: back to India next time.]

I was wandering round Kensington Gardens in central London last weekend, and found a group of six swans. Two were adults, and four were last year’s young, still in their ugly duckling plumage. Two of them had the most peculiar wing feathers, stuck out at an angle and reduced to toothpicks :


They seemed otherwise fine, behaving normally, feeding alongside the others. I didn’t know if it was a strange moult, or a problem, so on the advice of my birding friend Jane I emailed The Swan Lifeline,, who confirmed it was a disease known as Angel Wing.


Jasmine and her colleagues sprang into action. By 11am the next day they had got permission from the Queen (via her representative, the park warden!) driven up to London, and met me at the water’s edge . They sprinkled food on the water, and as the foolish birds came over, they grabbed them with one swift expert scoop .


To my surprise the adult parents did not come to the defense of their young, just watched with interest.

Next step: tying the feet together with a piece of soft cloth.


then swaddling them in a custom-made red straitjacket.


And finally into a bright yellow carrier. Interestingly, by this point they are quite calm, just looking around with interest. And the rest of their uncaring family are polishing off the left-over food in the background.


Off they go to be looked after and eventually released somewhere safe from predators, probably a private lake with an island that foxes can’t get to.


There is a short video here: listen to the noise and fuss that the more aggressive male makes:

The cause of Angel’s Wing is not clear. One theory is that it is dietary, caused by too many carbohydrates, especially white bread. In Hyde Park these swans are fed by well-intended passers-by, often with not just bread but biscuits or cake too. But it may have a genetic component, since only two of the four cygnets were affected. Read more here:

Whatever the cause, there is no cure, and the wings will never grow proper flight feathers like these:


So these poor swans will never fly, which is why they must be protected from predators. They will be otherwise fine, and are even capable of breeding.



Janus butterflies*

Many butterflies have “tails” on their hindwings. This small Blue at Koshi Tappu in Nepal is a good example:


When its wings are closed it looks like this:


One hypothesis is that the combination of these long wiggly protuberances and the eye spots at their base mimics the antennae and eyes of a butterfly’s head. A predator is then confused, and instead of attacking the head it goes for the much less important hindwing. Mind you, a butterfly whose wings have chunks missing probably won’t fare so well either.

Here is an entirely different Nepalese butterfly, with similar wiggly tails, though the eye spots, at least on the upper side, are not so obvious.:


And this one in Ecuador has gone overboard:


Since Darwin’s day, eye spots on butterflies have been thought to pay a role in confusing predators (and attracting mates). Butterflies and moths can have eye spots without fake antennae, as this Grand Paon de Nuit (Grand Peacock of the Night) , Saturnia pyri, near Carcassonne, France, so dramatically displays:

Saturnia pyri, Grand Paon de Nuit (Great Peacock of the Night).. Top side.

They can also have fake antennae without eyespots, as this Swallowtail butterfly in Maine shows:


In 1980, scientists from the Smithsonian showed that the more “false head” features a butterfly had, the more likely it was to be attacked on that part of the wing, so apparently deception works!

* Janus was the Roman god of beginnings and endings, the past and the future, and he was always depicted with two faces. He is also associated with deception, which is why I chose his name for my title. I am not the first person to think of this link. This moth’s scientific name is Automeris janus:

phpthumb.php(Thanks to the website for this photo. The URL refused to copy, so I hope the unnamed photographer will forgive my use of this photo.)

The tails of two squirrels

The Malayan Giant Squirrel , or Black Giant Squirrel, Ratufa bicolor, is a squirrel on steroids. Far above in the canopy it looks more like a monkey, being a total of 1.2 meters long, half of which is tail. This one’s tail looks just like a long ponytail, still wet from the shower


They live in forests from eastern Nepal and northeast India (where I photographed this one) all the way through southeast Asia to western Indonesia. They are almost entirely arboreal, rarely descending to the ground.

Malayan Giant Squirrel

They eat seeds, fruits, and leaves, and have ear tufts like our British red squirrel:


Like most solitary squirrels, they are polygynandrous (a new word I learnt while researching this); not only do the males mate with multiple females, but when the female is in season she mates with five or six males, and a litter may have several different fathers. Despite the orgies, numbers are thought to have dropped by 30% in the last ten years because of habitat loss*, and it doesn’t help that until recently they were sold in large quantities in the food markets in Vientiane in Lao.

More familiar in scale, but quite cute, is the Hoary-bellied Himalayan Squirrel, Callosciurus pygerythrus, so called because each hair has two light yellow rings, giving its coat a hoary or grizzled look.

Hoary-bellied Squirrel

Although it is a smallish squirrel, about 40 cm from head to tail-tip, its tail is also impressive, and nearly as long as the rest of its body. Unfortunately it has arranged its tail behind the tree trunk, but if you look carefully you can just see the tip emerging in the top right-hand corner of the next photo:

Hoary-bellied Squirrel

It is common and not threatened, despite also being widely eaten in some areas of Lao. The ones in the foreground of this photo look like Hoary-bellied squirrels to me:

*The Malayan Giant Squirrel is classified as Near Threatened, mainly due to deforestation, since they live high in the canopy of tall trees.

A reader asked me what the huge tail is for, since it seems more of a liability than a plus. I have poked around to find an answer, and as I suspected it is probably mainly used as a counterweight when leaping through the canopy, but it may also attract mates (a lot of them!), and in other species of squirrel it is known to be used in communication.

The Takshak

The Tokay Gecko, Gekko gecko, is a sizable lizard, whose eyes I discussed in a blog last year. I had never seen one in the wild. Our guide pointed to a tree trunk, and said “Look!”. We gazed blankly at some nice bark, apparently devoid of life.

Tokay Gecko

Eventually, deep in the tree, we saw what he was pointing at:


But he kept pointing, to a different crack a foot or two away, and then we saw the really wonderful thing:


There were three babies and several eggs, deep inside the tree. The freshly laid eggs have a sticky surface that adheres to the tree, and both adults guard the eggs through 2-6 months of incubation. They will grow as large as 35cm, with a ferocious bite.

Tokay geckos show this blue-grey coloration in low light, becoming grey with red-orange spots in bright light.

They are called takshak in Assam, where we saw them, after sounds they make in the mating season.. you can I hope hear it if you click on the link below:


Buffalo romance

[Like my last post, this concerns an animal whose descendants are common farm animals. But it is also a Brief Encounter for the New Year!]

Water buffalo, Bubalus bubalis, have been domesticated for around 5000 years,  but their progenitor the wild water buffalo, Bubalus arnee, is now rare. The IUCN Red List considers them Endangered. The global population is estimated at 3,400, and 90% of these are in Assam, especially in Kaziranga.

We saw them in Koshi Tappu in Nepal, which has around 400, and of course in Kaziranga. They are huge, the males weighing up to 1200Kg or 2600lbs.

In Koshi Tappu, we followed one along a park road and you can get a sense of his size and power, and those horns, which can spread up to 2 meters, the largest of any living bovid:

Wild Water Buffalo

In Kaziranga, a male is scenting to see if a female is receptive.

Wild water buffalo, scenting

He follows her out into the lake, still checking her perfume. The Greater Adjutant Stork is unimpressed, but then he is nearly five feet tall, up to the shoulder height of a smallish wild water buffalo.

Wild water buffalo, scenting

The female buffalo’s pheromones seem to be sufficiently fragrant to win his approval..

Wild water buffalo, scenting

But they will go somewhere more private for consummation. And months later (about 320 days gestation, and a few months more) this will be the result; they are brown at birth and don’t start to darken till about 6 months of age:

Wild water buffalo

One of the threats to the wild water buffalo is interbreeding with the domestic population, and indeed we watched them wandering in amongst domestic herds, but these are all wild.

PS Note the cattle egret following the baby around, hoping for insects disturbed by its hooves.


Have you ever pondered on the origins of the domestic chicken? I thought not.  Read on..

Chickens seem have been domesticated by around 7,500 years ago, most probably from the wild Red Junglefowl, Gallus gallus.  We saw this one in Kaziranga: just look at him:


In close-up he is draped in blazing orange feathered locks, just like Lizzie Siddall*:


And he is equipped with spurs that are not to be trifled with; they have a bony core and an outer horny layer, and are formed for the vestiges of the former fifth toe, which most birds have lost completely:

Male Red Jungle Fowl

Our domestic roosters just can’t compete.

There is some fear that truly wild Red Junglefowl are becoming rare because of contamination of the gene pool by domestic chickens. Let’s hope not.

*Lizzie Siddall was a pre-Raphaelite artist, and also the wife, muse and model for her husband Dante Gabriel Rossetti. She was famous for her red hair:


Or if you prefer you could imagine The Red Woman, Melisandre, from Game of Thrones, played by Carice van Houten!

Heard but not seen: The White-browed Gibbon

[Something warm and cuddly hanging from a tree, as Christmas approaches!]

Of all the apes, gibbons are the hardest to see but the easiest to hear: listen to this troop calling, and imagine hearing it deep in the forest:

Seeing them is another matter.

We were at the Hoolock Gibbon Sanctuary two hours east of Kaziranga, which has a stable and even  increasing population of White-browed Gibbons, more properly known as Western Hoolock Gibbons, Bunopithecus hoolock.

They move around high in the canopy, brachiating*:


But getting a clear view let alone a close-up is hard. This is either a male or a juvenile: both are black with dramatic white eyebrows, just visible in this photo, most of which is a picture of his/her bottom.

Western Hoolock Gibbon

But every now and then you get lucky: look at the astonishing length of those arms.


Their arms are almost twice as long as their legs, and when they descend to the ground (rarely) they have to hold their arms above their heads. On the ground, they are about a meter tall, the height of a small child.

The mature females are naturally blonde (so teenage gibbon girls don’t need peroxide) , and note the bulging biceps that come from doing chin-ups all day long:

Western Hoolock Gibbon

Here is a closeup of the female and baby:

Western Hoolock Gibbon

Hoolock gibbons are thought to mate for life, and a family group has an adult pair and 1-4 juveniles of varying ages. They are considered endangered, numbering around 100,000 globally, and 90% of those are in Myanmar. Their population has fallen by about 50% over the last 40 years (three generations), largely due to habitat loss, and this decline is forecast to continue.

*Brachiating is using only your arms to move around, like a gymnast on the horizontal bar.

PS: Apes, unlike monkeys, have no tails. Gibbons are Lesser Apes, as opposed to the chimps, bonobos, orangutans, gorillas, and humans, all of which are Great Apes, aka Hominids.