The solitary signaller of dusk

This ‘marble plopper’ is our resident Indian Nightjar (Caprimulgus asiaticus), a crepuscular, nocturnal ground bird. Crepuscular beings are active at twilight.
Last Updated : 28 April 2024, 02:49 IST
Last Updated : 28 April 2024, 02:49 IST

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As the summer sun melts beneath the horizon, and stars dot the night sky, the call of a mysterious creature rents the air at Navilu Kaadu. It sounds not unlike a marble bouncing off a smooth floor, with two distinct plops followed by quicker plopping noises. The marbles begin to plop at the same time every evening, at around 7 pm.

This ‘marble plopper’ is our resident Indian Nightjar (Caprimulgus asiaticus), a crepuscular, nocturnal ground bird. Crepuscular beings are active at twilight.

As Navilu Kaadu’s daytime avian chorus recedes, the Indian nightjar signals dusk with its solo. Some bird calls are melodic, some startling, some eerie, and a few downright bizarre. Over the next few columns, let us get acquainted with a clutch of Navilu Kaadu’s avian denizens with outré vocals.

Now about the nightjar. The only time I’ve ever spotted one, was when my boys and I were cagily driving through elephant territory one evening, returning to Navilu Kaadu from a friend’s farm in Bandipura. While we mercifully did not encounter pachyderms, we did come by a nightjar sitting by the mud track, stunned by the headlights of a car ahead of us.

Nightjars are medium-sized birds that live in scrublands, grasslands, and woodlands. They belong to the family Caprimulgidae. Some clever adaptations help this species thrive as ground birds, in most parts of the planet, except in Antarctica.

Navilu Kaadu’s wild, open, undisturbed fields make for a cosy nightjar habitat.

While some of us like accessories that match our clothes, these solitary birds like to match their plumage with roosting spots on the ground. And they do this not to stand out, but to blend in. As they sit still, their streaked grey-brown feathers render them invisible to prey and predators alike, akin to Harry Potter’s Invisibility Cloak.

Other cool adaptations are large wings with soft feathers. These feathers function like wing silencers, helping nightjars stealthily swoop in on prey, with nary a sound giving them away.

Adult Indian nightjars average between 9 and 10 inches long, with wingspans twice that length. They have big eyes too, equipped with scotopic vision, aka night vision. These unique adaptations let them hunt on the wing at dusk and dawn.

Nightjars have mouths custom-built for insect predation. Short beaks and sensory bristles encircle a wide mouth, as they hawk insects mid-flight. Moths are nightjar delicacies, while an assortment of crunchy cicadas, butterflies, grasshoppers, mosquitoes, beetles, spiders, and scorpions too find their way into a nightjar’s gaping mouth.

An insect swarm that flies over nightjar territory is doomed for swift decimation. They may devour an odd lizard, frog, or bird too, for variety. These squat birds have short legs and long toes that aid perching on trees, where they patiently await unsuspecting prey.

A male nightjar resorts to extensive aerial acrobatics during courtship, to win himself a fetching lady. Mated pairs breed during summer. They are unfussy nesters and lay a pair of delicate pink, patterned eggs on bare ground. Sparse strands of dried grass pass off for nest lining. The speckled eggs are designed for camouflage. The mum incubates the eggs during the day. Egg-warming duty is shared by night.

Once the chicks hatch, the doting parents feed the young with a protein-rich diet of regurgitated insects. My boys are relieved they don’t have nightjars for parents!

Like nightjars all over the world, our Navilu Kaadu nightjars too keep the insect population from exploding, lest they raze the flora on the land. Having nightjars for neighbours means a healthy ecosystem with plentiful prey and undisturbed ground cover.

These birds, though adaptable, are susceptible to habitat loss from intensive farming and infrastructural projects, which can leave them without roosting and nesting sites. Noxious pesticides frequently sprayed on crops kill off insects, leaving these enigmatic birds without prey. These birds are classified as being of ‘least concern’. Yet I worry they may end up on the brink in a trifle, with the wanton destruction of natural habitats. In the next column, you will meet a neighbour of the nightjar’s, a fellow groundbird, whose raucous calls had us in a tizzy in our early days on the farm.

Write in if you’ve guessed which one!

Rooting for Nature is a monthly column on an off-kilter urban family’s trysts with nature on a natural farm. 

The author chipped away at a software marketing career before shifting gears to sustainable entrepreneurship and natural farming. She posts as @ramyacoushik on Instagram. Reach her at bluejaydiaries@gmail.com

Published 28 April 2024, 02:49 IST

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