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Cotton Pygmy Goose: Is this Thumbelina among water lilies reduced in numbers too?

A male Cotton Pygmy Goose at Nemam lake. Photo: Rama Neelamegam  

Amidst work-from-home, many now organise their soirees around the telly and root for their IPL team, with diehard supporters wearing face paint and twirling a real white cricket ball.

So, here are two ready images from these unusual times to get a grasp of the Cotton Pygmy Goose’s dimensions.

Hold that cricket ball in the paw to feel this bird’s weight. Expect the bird to be a couple of grams lighter. Hold that 10.1-inch WFH tablet to picture the bird’s length from bill to retrices. Expect the bird to be a couple of millimetres shorter.

A Cotton Pygmy Goose flock at Chembarambakkam lake in February 2021. Photo: E Arun Kumar

A Cotton Pygmy Goose flock at Chembarambakkam lake in February 2021. Photo: E Arun Kumar  

The Cotton Pygmy Goose is the Thumbelina of the anatidae family which is constituted by ducks, geese and swans. While Hans Christian Andersen’s Thumbelina emerged out of a flower, the Cotton Pygmy Goose commonly glides around water lilies.

Reasonably undisturbed freshwater lakes on the outskirts of Chennai and sections of Kancheepuram and Thiruvallur are known to support small populations of this pint-sized resident bird.

A lone presence
  • Seen in pairs, the Cotton Pygmy Goose is the waterfowl-equivalent of the Laughing Dove.
  • Mister and missus would tamely and devotedly follow each other’s tail as they paddle around the lilies, hardly seeming to tire of each other’s company. Even in a flock, the species maintains a picture of domestic harmony, each bird seemingly at peace with its partner.
  • “Most of the time, you can see the male and the female flying together,” remarks birder E Arun Kumar.
  • Partly due to what is popularly expected of the Cotton Pygmy Goose, a lone female bird at the Sholinganallur marsh land, also known as the Perumbakkam wetland, has attracted greater attention among birders.
  • Birder Rama Neelamegam underlines how this particular bird reconciles two seemingly antithetical behaviours. It does not seem troubled by not having the company of its own kind, but does seem to enjoy and seek the company of other species.
  • Rama observes, “Surprisingly, at the Sholinganallur marsh land, there is this lone female Cotton Pygmy Goose that is seen hanging out with moorhens and coots.”

Sufficiently filled, if not to the brim, waterbodies that have always enthusiastically hosted the Cotton Pygmy Goose come across as even more of a generous host.

Over the last one month, birder E Arun Kumar has found Cotton Pygmy Teals paddling around in relatively good numbers at Nayapakkam, Nemam and Chembarambakkam lakes.

A lone female Cotton Pygmy Goose that is said to be regularly seen by birders at the Sholinganallur marsh land, in January 2021. Though removed from the company of its own species, this bird is at home with moorhens and coots. Photo: Rama Neelamegam

A lone female Cotton Pygmy Goose that is said to be regularly seen by birders at the Sholinganallur marsh land, in January 2021. Though removed from the company of its own species, this bird is at home with moorhens and coots. Photo: Rama Neelamegam  

“I have been seeing a good population of this bird at all these three lakes. At Nemam, on an average, 15 to 20. At Chembarambakkam, 8 to 12. At Nayapakkam, which is readily associated with Cotton Pygmy Goose sightings, it is 15 to 20,” elaborates Arun Kumar.

For most other species, flocks of this size are hardly anything to chirrup about. For the Cotton Pygmy Goose, they make a significant number.

Let us recall that the State of India’s Birds 2020 report has placed the Cotton Pygmy Goose under a concerning list — “Common Birds Showing Strong Long-term Declines”.

Freshwater lakes and even ponds, its precincts rarely hoofed, and its expanse generously sprinkled with aquatic vegetation, particularly lilies, make a rule-of-thumb formula for assessing which habitats would suit the Cotton Pygmy Goose.

“Wherever you have suitable vegetation, particularly constant lily growth, there is a good chance of sighting the Cotton Pygmy Goose. Thenneri and Nayapakkam are among those places. Right outside SSN, there is a small lake marked by lily growth, and it has a flock of ten birds,” says eBird reviewer Vikas Madhav Nagarajan. “Chembarambakkam lake is the best place to sight this species. It has a very healthy population, so does Nayapakkam”

The nest facts
  • In India, the Cotton Pygmy Goose breeds between June and August, seeking tree hollows to build its nests. The species belongs to a category called “perching ducks”.
  • Birders around Chennai are given to speculation if the bird could be breeding around certain locations popular for sighting this species.
  • Waterbirds’ movement is dictated by availability of water. With many lakes around Chennai still sufficiently filled, can the bird be expected to breed in nearby locations?
  • That is a possibility, concedes ornithologist Santharam, and goes on to make a broader but pertinent observation about the breeding behaviour of birds in areas where the North-East Monsoon is the primary monsoon. “The breeding season for most waterbirds as given by Salim Ali and others coincides with the South West Monsoon. In the Chennai area, many birds do not breed during that time. They skip that part because they do not have enough water and they start breeding only a little later, waiting for the North-East Monsoon, when at Vedanthangal and other places birds are actually nesting, that is in October and November, which is actually very different from the rest of the country where June-July-August is when the breeding happens.” Santharam further observes: “Resident birds can also engage in local migration for the purpose of breeding. For example, the Pond Herons and Cattle Egret disappear from neighbourhoods around Chennai in mid-June, and would be seen flying towards the north. And then in mid-October and early November, a large number of these birds can be seen flying southwards.”

The bird is conspicuously rare within urban Chennai, a fact underlined by the scant records of the species from habitats one would intuitively expect it to be drawn to.

It is remarkable that freshwater lakes in the outskirts that are not significantly marred by pollution fare better in drawing the Cotton Pygmy Goose. A study of the records of the bird in and around Chennai bear this out. It suggests that the bird has a lower tolerance threshold for polluted waterbodies.

“The Pygmy Cotton Goose prefers waterbodies a little cleaner than the ones found in the urban environment. That is an area that needs to be validated with more observations,” says ornithologist V Santharam.

Is this bird likely to be found in ponds?

What applies to the lakes apply to the ponds as well? At pain of repetition, ponds with suitable vegetation, particularly lilies, may appeal to the Cotton Pygmy Goose, provided they meet two other critical requirements.

A male Cotton Pygmy Goose at Chembarambakkam lake, around water lilies. Photo: E Arun Kumar

A male Cotton Pygmy Goose at Chembarambakkam lake, around water lilies. Photo: E Arun Kumar  

“Any lily pond found in a place marked by quiet, and where the birds would not be easily disturbed can technically be a place for this species,” says Vikas. Arun Kumar weighs in: “I have not seen them in ponds around our place, only in Rajasthan and Gujarat. In Gujarat, a guide once took me to a place to show me what he called a rare bird. He led me to a small pond and showed me the Cotton Pygmy Goose. I did not want to dampen his excitement, and so played along, sounding surprised.”

(’Home Ground’ is a weekly column about the resident birds of Chennai and surrounding areas that are not commonly seen)

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