We moved to our house in Bangalore in 1992. This was before the city began growing vertically with multi-storeyed apartments, but was still growing horizontally by converting peri-urban marshes, lakes and grasslands to residential areas. Our house was situated on what used to be a marsh, and when we moved, there were more empty plots around than houses. My favourite pastime was to look for garden lizards, skinks, frogs, toads, crabs, bandicoots and birds in empty plots around. The “tee tee hakki” (hakki is the Kannada word for bird), as we called a certain bird based on its call, was a favourite. This bird, smaller than a sparrow, was so light that it could even sit on a flimsy parthenium twig. Many a baby cousin, niece and nephew have gotten through an otherwise difficult meal by watching the “tee tee hakki” skulk, lurk, and hop in shrubs in adjacent empty plots, from the comfort of our compound. I later learnt that the Kannada name for this bird is “tuvi hakki”, which probably is also derived from the call. This bird is the Ashy Prinia.
As more plots became houses, green spaces were restricted to small gardens in these houses. Frogs and skinks all but disappeared. The Ashy Prinia’s calls became rarer, making it all the more cherished. However, there is a tryst the bird continues to have with our house to this day – its annual nesting in our River Jasmine (Jasminum flexile) plant. Every year, around June, we find a nest or two. While this frenzy lasts, strict ‘no-disturbance’ guidelines are drawn up and sent to everyone at home, no one is to go near the nest, and the hatchlings’ development is monitored from afar and shared on family WhatsApp groups with much pride. This year’s batch too has graduated and passed with flying colours. This annual ritual of the Ashy Prinia reminds me of an older Bangalore, when open spaces were aplenty.
Prinias of Karnataka
Prinias are passerine birds that belong to the family cisticolidae, which has over 160 species of warblers; they are also known as wren warblers. There are around 30 species of prinias in the world, found across Asia and Africa. These small, sparrow-sized birds are drab brown or grey in colour. They are insectivorous and have a thin, slightly curved beak that aids in hunting insects. They have short wings, and long, tapering tails that typically point upwards when they perch. These skulkers are found mainly in open habitats such as long grass or scrub, and are known to nest in low vegetation.
In Salim Ali’s “The Handbook of the Birds of India and Pakistan”, 9 species of prinias have been described. A more recent book, “Birds of the Indian Subcontinent” by Richard Grimmet and Carol Inskipp, has 14 species recorded in India. In Karnataka, 5 species of prinias have been recorded.
Ashy Prinia (Prinia socialis)
Ashy Prinia or Ashy Wren Warbler is one of the most widespread prinias in India. This resident prinia is found across the country, barring the Himalaya, the dry grasslands of Rajasthan and Gujarat, and some north-eastern states. They are found in tall grasses and scrub, urban gardens, and reed-beds, but not in woodlands with a thick canopy. They have a black bill, pale cinnamon under-parts, grey head, and greyish-brown back. In the non-breeding season, their tail is slightly longer. They nest soon after the monsoon. A nest is sewn together using two or three large leaves of the plant it is built on, and is built about 3-4 feet from the ground. They lay 3-5 dark red, oval shaped eggs, about half an inch in diameter. The eggs hatch in about twelve days, post which both parents actively take part in feeding and nursing the young.
Plain Prinia (Prinia inornata)
The most widespread prinia in India, the Plain Prinia or Plain Wren Warbler has a drab grey-brown plumage that varies across its range. It also has a pale white eyebrow, and is also referred to as the White-browed Wren Warbler. Much like the Ashy Prinia, in its breeding plumage, its tail is shorter. It is commonly found in farms and wetlands, but avoids woodlands with a canopy.
Jungle Prinia (Prinia sylvatica)
One of the largest birds in its genus, the Jungle Prinia is also the largest prinia in India. It is widespread and found across India barring the Himalaya, parts of Rajasthan, and eastern India. It looks similar to the Plain Prinia, except for its size and stouter bill. It can also be differentiated from the Plain Prinia by its loud, pulsing song. It is found in dry scrub jungles and tall grass.
Grey-breasted Prinia (Prinia hodgsonii)
The Grey-breasted Prinia is also a widespread resident in India, but is unrecorded from parts of north-western India. It has a grey cap and under-parts, and a distinctive grey breast-band. In its non-breeding plumage, the grey breast-band is not as pronounced, making it appear similar to the Rufescent Prinia; however, it can be distinguished by a shorter eyebrow and a starker contrast between the pale throat and dark chest. Interestingly, this prinia can often be seen in flocks, at the edges of forests, in forest clearings, scrub and secondary growth.
Rufous-fronted Prinia (Prinia buchanani)
The Rufous-fronted Prinia is found in scrubs of dry, arid semi-deserts. It is found in dry grasslands in Karnataka such as Maidanahalli, apart from which it is found in western and north-western India. It has a rufous-brown forehead and crown, and broad white tips to all but its central tail feathers, which are prominent in flight. This species is also a resident in India.