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Flights Of Fancy

Flights Of Fancy

This small Common Kingfisher  feeds mainly on fish, caught by diving, and has special visual adaptations to enable it to see prey under water. Common Kingfishers are important members of ecosystems and good indicators of freshwater community health. Photo Credit: Rajendra Dhage.

Saturated with water and pulsating with life, a living wetland is a joy to behold. When traversing India’s most popular tiger reserves, trekking the high Himalaya or exploring the Western Ghats, I find myself magnetically drawn to small and large water sources where I am able to sit in quiet contemplation and allow the natural world to wash over me.

Not surprisingly, I am utterly fascinated by frogs, pond skaters, dragonflies, snakes of all descriptions… and kingfishers, such as this tiny jewel, the Common Kingfisher Alcedo atthis, captured by Rajendra Dhage as it etched an ephemeral furrow on the water’s surface of a swamp in Wai, near Mahabaleshwar, Maharashtra.

Water largely determines food availability and therefore dominates adaptation, natural selection and speciation, the very stuff of evolution. All too often, on field trips to distant wildernesses, I lull myself to sleep by torchlight with random passages from one or another of my two trusty companions, The Origin of Species and the Descent of Man. Both these seminal works are explorations of the mind, as much as they are of nature itself. In the former, Darwin deliberates on “whether habits generally change first and structure afterwards; or whether slight modifications of structure lead to changed habits,” concluding that “both probably often change almost simultaneously.”

Evolutionary biologists believe today that this kingfisher, all birds for that matter, originated from a branch of dinosaurs. Some actually suggest with a twinkle in their eyes that birds are living dinosaurs! Whatever… this we know… flight offers remarkable evolutionary advantages to animals in an era of changing climate and geography.

Thanks to the Wright Brothers, Homo sapiens must be included in the fortunate club of species that are able to migrate more easily to condusive climes when the going gets tough, a great gift in an era of climate change. But the wisdom of the Masai suggests that in the long run, this might just prove to be yet another flight of fancy. One of their songs speaks of the impending loss of pasturelands. It goes something like this: “The Sahara is creeping slowly southward, but you who live to the north… be not complacent, for the world is round.” be not complacent, for the world is round.” amazon cruise

by Bittu Sahgal, First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol XXXII No. 6, December 2012


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