Monday, September 19, 2011

Brahminy kites, tortoises and Bearded vultures

Have you ever seen a Brahminy Kite feeding on a tortoise? And it drops the tortoise from the sky on a rock to break the shell, as a Bearded Vulture plays with a huge bone?

I never seen or heard such incident, or any report on such behaviour by Brahminy kites. Anyway, I came across an account that describes how Brahminy kites feed on tortoises. It was from an old book written by Sir Edward Robert Sullivan, published in 1854 by Richard Bentley in London. “The Bungalow and Tent or A visit to Ceylon” is an account on his travels in Sri Lanka. Edward Sullivan was not considered as an ornithologist, but a great traveller. Most of his publications were on his travels, especially to American continents.

There were a great quantity of tortoises or land turtle in the bed, and on the banks of the river where we camped, and the coolies brought them to us in numbers: one species is good to eat, and our respected old friend made some very tolerable soup from them. There were also a great many Brahminy or red kite, a Swamy bird that is worshipped and never destroyed by the natives. This kite is a great enemy of the tortoise; they cannot break the shell of the latter with their beaks, but they carry them up in their claws to a great height, and then dash them on some stone or rock. …..

It is not certain that he observed this behaviour by himself, or penned it based on an account he heard from someone else. Or did he adopt behaviour of much familiar bird Bearded vulture? Or did he make a mistake when he saw a bird accidentally drop something on the wings, and later fed on a dead tortoise? There was no reference to such feeding behaviour of this bird by any of the later naturalists such as Captain Vincent Legge, who extensively observed avifauna of the island. At least I couldn’t find such account.

It is hard to believe that ancient Sri Lankans worshipped this bird as he described. Hindu devotees in India consider the Brahminy Kite as a sacred bird. They identify it as “Garuda”, the vehicle of God Vishnu. Sullivan admits that majority of natives in Sri Lanka were Buddhists at the period. He describes the Brahminy Kite as a great destroyer of serpents. However, he says that natives believe the bird does not feed on Cobra, as it is a sacred animal that helped Lord Buddha in many occasions.

Brahminy Kite (Haliastur indus) is a common bird species found in the Indian subcontitent, and also found in South-East Asia and Australia. Its distinctive coloration, White head and Chestnut brown body resulted its name, as it resembles the robes of Brahmins. Brahminy Kite is commonly found around large water bodies, mainly due to its feeding habits. It is considered as a scavenging bird and mostly depends on dead fish and some invertebrates. It is also capable of catching live animals including fish and small mammals.

Bearded vulture (Gypaetus barbatus) who feed on bone marrow, break open large carcass bones by lifting them into the air and dropping them into rocks. This video shows how this bird breaks the hard bones.

Download the book “The Bungalow and Tent” here.

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