The way they blend: ground nesting birds of Indian grasslands

by Santosh Rajus : The grasslands of South India are beautiful and spread across different regions including the Western Ghats. Most of the time, people consider the grassland as a wasteland as it does not seem to have much vegetation. But there are a lot of animals that are dependent on this grassland ecosystem and this ecosystem is very important for their survival.  Grasslands also perform water and climate regulation for agriculture, biogeochemical cycling, carbon storage, cultural and recreational services, and are a source of genes for many crops that we rely on for survival

During my fieldwork, I observed a great gathering of the common Indian toads and fish which were spread across entire grasslands, almost the size of a football field, for mating and laying eggs during the monsoons. And during summer, the grasslands were filled with insects. This in turn brought in a lot of birds. What caught my attention while walking in the grasslands was the unique call

“tututdo tututudo”

This alarm call started the moment I entered the grassland and continued until I left. My curiosity got the best of me and upon doing some research, I found out that the alarm call was from ground-nesting birds, the lapwings, commonly known as “ஆள்காட்டி பறவை”, which literally means “the bird which calls out on a person who is trying to sneak in” (that’s exactly what the birds did when I walked in the grassland). These birds are found in pairs and often have a marching session in the evening to find a mate. This patch of grassland was a breeding site, and what caught my attention was that there were two more species of birds breeding in the same location and their survival depended on this patch of grassland.

The three birds that I observed were the Yellow-Wattled lapwing, the Right-Wattled lapwing, and the Malabar Crested Lark. These birds migrate away during the monsoon and return back during summer for breeding. The timing for these birds to visit the grassland is very important as their nest, egg, and hatchling camouflage needs to match with the dry grassland. If the birds arrive too early, their nest will be built on green grasses and the eggs will stand out, which can get them predated easily. Likewise, if the birds build their nest too late, the hatchings would not be able to camouflage well after the first monsoon and can get predated easily. This is why I feel these guys have mastered the art of camouflage in grasslands.

Firstly, the nests are built to camouflage with the surrounding. The lapwings build their nests in open fields with few pebbles, rocks or on cow dung. The crested lark builds its nest close to a rock to match with the hatchling pattern and for shade, as both the parents leave frequently to get food and the hatchling might die in the hot sun. Secondly, the eggs of these birds also blend well with the surrounding with key elements added by the birds: rocks and dry grass. Thirdly, the hatchlings’ patterns blend so well with the surroundings that you won’t be able to spot them even when they are 2 feet away. The hatchling defense against predation is to stay low and blend with their surroundings.

The ground nesting birds have beautifully adapted to grassland ecosystems and the way they have adapted blows my mind. The next time you visit a grassland, do take the time to spot these camouflage masters.

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