Sunday, November 1, 1998
Seeds contain very little water. So sandgrouse, pigeon-like bird of the arid regions, has to drink water frequently for which it often flies 20 or 30 km to its favourite water holes. Young birds who are even grown up take several months to become strong enough to accompany their parents to the water source. In such a situation every species of the arid region has to adopt some technique to fulfil the needs of its offsprings. Namaqua sandgrouse of the dry south-western Africa has devised a novel way of carrying water to their young. When parents visit any water hole to quench their thirst, fathers crouch in the water and allow their breast feathers to get fully soaked. After that they fly back to their nests where chicks suck moisture from their fathers breast. This also helps in keeping eggs or chicks cool in high temperature.
In birds usually feathers do not soak easily, but with sandgrouse it is different. Their breast feathers have barbules which are not hooked together like in other birds, and this causes loss of water-shedding properties of the feathers and they act like a sponge. These breast feathers soak so much of water that despite long journeys, from water sources to nests, enough water usually remains for the young to drink by sucking. Females too adopt this technique, but their feathers are not so absorbent.
These birds have short legs and long pointed wings which enable them to fly fast to get away from predators. They spend most of their time on the ground where they are camouflaged by their soft grey, brown or buff plumage. With their short legs and crouching posture they cast little give-away shadow which further enhances their camouflage. In these birds the males are more brightly coloured than the females, often having a contrasting breast band. Unlike pigeons, the sandgrouse has no patch of bare skin at the base of the bill.
They roost in hollows on the ground, often in flocks of several hundreds, made up of small family groups. Their soft, thick plumage provides warmth during the cold desert nights. It also protects them from the heat of the sun. Unlike other birds, these birds have feathers covering the base of the bill which help in keeping the sand out of their nostrils. Their spreading toes enable them to walk on the soft sand without any difficulty.
These birds feed mainly on seeds, pecking frequently at the ground and walking quite fast as they feed. They store the seeds in their crop, an extension of the gut, and digest them later in a safer place. Seeds have hard shells, and the sandgrouse often swallows grit to help grind them down. The crop of these birds is highly elastic and can hold around 9,000 seeds at a time.
These birds, like pigeons, are able to suck up water by dipping their bills in it, whereas most birds have to raise their heads after filling their beaks with water so that it can trickle down the throat. While dipping their bills in the water, the sandgrouse birds close their nostrils with the help of small flaps which prevents the water from entering inside.
Sandgrouse birds lay their eggs on the bare soil, sometimes in a shallow unlined scrape. The normal clutch is of three eggs, pale greyish or yellowish stone in colour, spattered with numerous specks and spots of brown. When chicks emerge from the egg, they are already protectively covered and are able to run about as soon as they hatch. This helps them whenever danger threatens
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