Image of Chestnut Mannikin (Lonchura malacca) from "Birds of the Philippines" (Gonzales & Rees1988).
The proud Maya has fallen into hard times. Once honored as the national bird of the Philippines and unrivaled denizen of rice fields and paddies, this feathered flyer has been stripped of its title and wrenched away from its natural habitat, quite unceremoniously and with utter derelict abandonment.
The country has replaced this chestnut beauty with the imposing Philippine eagle, since way back when. And adding insult to injury the maya has been driven away from its familiar, comfy and bountiful haunts with creeping urbanization and the subsequent disappearance of the once ubiquitous rice fields and paddies in the countryside of Mindanao’s provinces and the rest of the country.
Consigned to congested urbanized settings, it has had to make do with what it can find adaptable. Like nesting on the leafy branches of trees lining concreted city streets. Or on the occasional trees providing shade and comfort in some old city homes. Or even on any potted flora on top of the many multi-storey buildings punctuating the cityscape.
One such Maya family has honored us by nesting in one of the potted brushes of our building’s roof deck. It picked this one particular plant obviously because of its tightly-packed foliage. We had before noticed, but only upon closer scrutiny, the remains of a nest in this potted ornament but had not minded it much. Then recently, we found that it had been spruced up and fortified with more dried thicket.
Aha, we thought, a family is ready to move in and raise some chirpers.
The other day, one bright sunny morning, I almost had my heel on top of a wriggly pinkish piece of something live being attacked on all sides by a horde of frenzied black ants, on the barely-bearable heated concrete floor of the roof deck. Just the size of a little worm, and lying a few feet from the nested brush. It was only when I stooped low that I realized that that wriggly thing was a newly-hatched bird – naked without feathers, almost translucent body, a huge mound of head with discernible beak, and fighting for dear life against a determined enemy.
How did it get there?
I gave myself no time to answer that. So to shorten the narrative, picked it up, settled it inside a small shallow glass made comfy with some curled cotton threads and parts of toilet paper, and ensconce it on a little table on the shaded and airy part of the deck. Hoping the mother comes back and takes care of its young.
Sadly, when I came back the following morning, I found its dead inert body fully covered by small ants feasting on its tiny carcass. Anger and revenge got the better of me so without any second thought, decided to quickly carry the glass over to the sink. Filling it to the brim dumped it in the middle of a deep baking pan already filled to the brim with water. Pretty soon the pan was a sorry maze of dead ants and ants flailing around with nowhere to go. The quick trip to the drain ended the gory scene.
That late afternoon almost instinctively, curiosity led me back to the nest. With point and shoot camera taut and ready, this voyeur was ready to invade somebody’s privacy.
Approaching the brush slowly this predator started clicking away in some cadence. From a distance until I was mere inches away. It was almost twilight so the flash was also working overtime. Before I could bat an eyelash and squint to focus, the unnoticed mother had shot out of the nest and left home and hearth in a huff and without even a by your leave.
These are what I found inside.
Life created – elemental, naked, helpless, humble, and at the world’s mercy.
Will these two get to witness life as adults? Will both find harsh realities rewarding, or worth all the trouble?