Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Mystery of the Missing Baby Bulbuls – A New Pictorial Story

My discovery of a bird’s nest in my backyard and the subsequent developments were narrated in a pictorial story last month [See: http://drsnprasadmysoreindia.blogspot.in/2012/06/birds-nest-and-its-hapless-habitants.html].  After the quick and tragic end to the story, little did I anticipate that I would be reliving it over a much longer period, this time with a mysterious rather than a tragic ending.   Here is what happened, again supported by a faithful photographic documentation.

My daughter and grandson had joined me again for an extended summer holiday, and their curiosity had led them one day to peep inside the flower plant where they had made their earlier discovery.  This time they saw a brand new empty nest, a little deeper and higher inside than last time, ready for occupation.  It was early morning on 26 June.  When they showed it to me, I again reacted instinctively with camera in hand and shot my first picture of the nest.  We kept looking for further developments discretely every now and then.  Here is a picture of the empty nest I shot on 29 June, fully ready for occupation:

[Many of the pictures shown here are in high resolution and can be blown up to their full size by clicking on a picture and opening it in a separate window]

It was delightfully unsurprising for us to discover a lone, beautifully mottled egg inside the nest the same afternoon.  Below is my first picture of it.  Not only was the egg by itself a splendid sight, equally so was the marvelously intricate structure of the nest itself that I had a chance to examine for the first time.

Not unexpectedly, we found a second egg beside the first one the very next morning.  Here they are, lying side by side in the dull early morning light.

When I saw the two beautiful eggs together I was strongly tempted to snatch one of them and preserve it as a memento in my showcase.  In the light of my earlier experience I must have rationalized that it would not be a horrendous loss to the avian community if I did so.  However, it didn’t take me more than a moment to exorcise this devil in me and let nature play out its own plot.

We had a feeling that our as yet unseen avian visitors were familiar with our household and could even be the same duo that had set up home in our premises earlier.  Our suspicions were confirmed by our first sighting of a red whiskered bulbul close to the nest as captured in the following picture:

Here is an ultra-zoom picture of the visitor taken soon after, perhaps contemplating its next move in a not too friendly mood:

For the next ten days in a row, we observed one of the parent birds sitting in the nest and incubating the two eggs, while the other bird kept watch and vigil nearby most of the time.  Unlike the previous occasion, none of their avian friends were ever in attendance.  Also, our backyard always exuded a serene atmosphere, with the birds strangely quiet most of the time.  Our knowledge of ornithology was far too elementary to identify the two birds by their respective gender, but this hardly mattered.  Here is one of scores of pictures I took of one of the parents snugly inside its nest warming up the eggs during this long incubation period:

It was on the evening of 10 July that we got a glimpse of one of the freshly hatched baby birds cutely embracing its unborn sibling still in its nest.  Here is this intensely tender picture:

Unfortunately we couldn’t get to see the hatching process itself, nor could we see any of the broken pieces of the eggshell after the baby had come out.  Presumably, one of the parent birds had deftly cleaned up the debris.  This whole thing was repeated the next day when the second egg was also hatched.  We would have dearly loved to steal a glimpse of how the baby was coming out, hopefully even being able to capture it on video, but this was not to be.  Such a video clip can however be viewed from a well-known source, the Internet Bird Collection, at: http://ibc.lynxeds.com/video/red-whiskered-bulbul-pycnonotus-jocosus/red-whiskered-bulbul-parent-feeding-cleaning-babies

Here is a picture of one of the parent birds apparently in the process of hatching the other egg even as it was taking care of the newborn one:

As could be expected, it was the very next day that the second egg also hatched and I was able to take the following picture with the two baby bulbuls with their ‘arms’ around each other:

The parent birds had intensified their vigil and rarely did we see one bird not watching nearby while the other one was crouched over the baby birds in the nest, not only protecting them but presumably also, feeding them.  Rarely did we get an inkling of how this was being done.  We desisted from observing our visitors too closely and too frequently or intrusively, fearing that we might disturb the natural processes where human interference is so alarmingly on the increase in our modern ‘civilized’ world.
Occasionally we observed both the parent birds next to each other on a cable overhead while the baby birds were left to themselves in the nest.  Here is a picture of one such situation:

Here is a picture of the two baby bulbuls when left alone, with one of them apparently hollering hoarsely for something, may be for mama bird, or for food or both, while its sibling appears to be blissfully asleep:

Early next morning I caught one of the birds overseeing the nest and its little sleepy habitants:

It was not until 24 hours later (on 13 July) that I got an opportunity to shoot a picture of one of the birds holding some food with its beak in readiness to feed the babies.  Seen in the following picture, the food appears to be a dead grasshopper.  This was the only time I could catch anything close to the actual feeding of the babies.  Of course it must have been happening frequently, without any luck for us.

The next picture shows the two baby birds lying next to each other with unmistakable signs of feathers.  In our earlier experience with the birds the little ones had fallen prey to a predator long before this stage had been reached.  This gave us some hope that they could survive such an eventuality this time.  My initial hopelessness had made way for some guarded optimism.

Though we were not lucky enough to observe the actual feeding process, we saw the parent birds frequently carrying something or other dangling from their beaks, obviously intended for the babies to eat.  Here is one such instance captured while a parent bird was perched on the overhead cable:

The next picture shows the babies in the nest, one of them in the act of crawling over the other, both in excellent shape.

Now comes the mystery side of my story.  The following is my last picture of the baby bulbuls huddled in their nest, with both parents standing guard somewhat as usual on the cable overhead.

I shot this picture just before I had my lunch on 14 July, just under five days after the first egg had hatched.  In retrospect, when I now reflect on this picture, the babies appeared to have such well-developed wings that I felt it would be a matter of just a few days before they would be on their own and be able to even leave the nest.  However, it was still a great surprise for me to discover an empty nest later in the afternoon that day.
My initial reaction was one of shock and sorrow just as on the previous occasion, but I realized very soon that the two situations were quite different.  Here I was staring (see picture below) at a nest that was in as good a condition as when we first noticed it and at any time thereafter, with no tell-tale signs of any intrusive activity.  In contrast, what I had seen on the last occasion was a nest that had been violently attacked and trampled upon, with its hapless habitants almost certainly killed and carried away.  Here I got the impression that the babies had been helped away to a safer place by the parents sometime that afternoon without any of us in the household noticing the act.

So, now I have a mystery behind the missing bulbuls.  Unlike last time, circumstantial evidence indicates that they survived and may have been helped to a safer location by the parents who were seen going about their daily business for the next 2-3 days as if nothing untoward had happened.  However, ornithology experts may have a different and a less optimistic explanation.  For my part, for sheer lack of understanding, I would like to trust my instincts for once and assume a happy ending to my story.  Sometimes ignorance can be bliss! 


A V G Rao said...

I am not sure about your hypothesis of what might have happened. Do these birds have a habit of changing the location of their young ones for safety like cats? I have not heard of it. I remember to have read somewhere that even crows prey upon the young ones.

malini said...

Its simply awesome. Its really a wonderful narrative about scientific observations well supported with pictures. Thank you Sir.

The Temple Tomb said...
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Srinidhi Prahlad said...

As usual, excellent work!! I showed all these pictures to my grand mother and she was ecstatic! Thanks for making our evening wonderful :-)

Dr S N Prasad said...
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Dr S N Prasad said...
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Suseela Sumana said...

Sir, today I am able to see the series of the pictures of the baby bull bulls. It is amazing,where as we are able to see those delicate pictures in animal planet etc..Thank u for providing nice description & awesome pictures. suseela

Priyanka Chandratrey said...

Thanks to your story... After reading this I want to share my same story too...
Same happened at my home as well from last 4 -5 week... the same steps by steps things goes on but today morning we have noticed all new born not in nest and it not seems like attacked or they fallen down...

Very mysterious ... they really shift their babies.

I also observe the voice of babies from near of another tree it might be those babies :D

God bless them ... a mystery in bird life.

Anonymous said...

Right now I am witnessing the process of the Bubbul making the nest in our roof top garden & they have chosen the same Hibiscus plant in our garden too ( in the stems which are near the wall)

Sreekumar said...


Exactly same thing happened in our house too. We found that the baby bulbuls are missing today morning even though I located one baby in the nest yesterday night and today morning. Initially, there were three babies. One day we found of these three two were missing. We suspected that some crow or some other birds might have stolen them. Hence, we were so curious and worried about the third bird. Today morning also I had taken a photo of the bird. When I came back from office for lunch, I am surprised to see that the bird is missing. Morning on wards, the parent birds were sitting and making lots of noise while feeding the baby. Now I am very much sure that the parent birds have shifted the baby bird to some other location. Still, I wonder how this is possible because the small bird may not be that light to be carried by the parent birds..

Vinay kimi said...

I have a similar story to share .. Its the exact 5th day after the eggs were hatched and today evening at around 4pm, I found that 1 of the baby had died, probably even the other baby was dead too but I'm not sure.. And later at 6:30pm, baby birds were taken away or thrown or buried by the parent birds.. Don't know what happened to the babies :(