And mynas with the evil eye!

This story about a minor myna war evolved from a well-meaning and highly enthusiastic public campaign offering to pay anyone SAT 0.20 (about N$ 0.75) per myna delivered to the offices of the Samoan Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, dead or alive.

There are some 450,000 Common Mynas (Acridotheres tristis) in Samoa.

They were introduced to the island in the seventies (!) on the strength of a clearly retarded idea that these birds would help reduce cattle parasite loads. Little did they realise what a pest they had introduced! They breed like mynas ;-), so a well-designed extermination programme could potentially generate a tidy sum for someone with the right mixture of stubborn patience, fly trickery and appropriate resources to catch these extremely smart invasive aliens.

I write this little note in memory of Professor Gordon Maclean, a most excellent teacher, as many who had the privilege of being taught by him can attest. He passed away earlier this year, having retired from his University of KwaZulu Natal professorship in 1997. Gordon had an awesome knowledge of birds, especially those of arid zones, and it was he who got me excited about Namibia, 28 years ago. He also taught me to respect the English language and, fondly remembered, the difference between ‘dissect’ and ‘disect’. I dissected many mynas, but never chopped any in half .

In 1980 Gordon insisted I undertake a Zoology honours project on the thermoregulation of the Common Myna, and, in order to perform various physiological and behavioural experiments with captive birds, I was obligated to learn how to catch mynas. Live, by hook or by crook. As it turned out, no mean feat.

Where my fellow zoology students were catching fish (yeah, I am still pissed off by that! ), recording bat acoustics or exploring the sex lives of helminths, I had the misfortune of having to catch several mynas before I could do any kind of experimental work, let alone develop some meaningful hypotheses about panting and feather ruffling.

I guess this was as much a test of my academic aspirations as it was of my character, and I did hear evil sniggers and snorting sounds coming from Waldo Meester in the staff room, then head of the Zoology Department, a man who claimed he was half dutch, half afrikaans but mostly african. Another excellent teacher, may he also rest in peace. I’m sure he’s missing his particularly vile Gauloise cigarettes, which he smoked with regimental discipline, one every hour, day and night.

Getting back to the mynas, though. I still maintain that, alongside Black Crows and certain migrant Nightjars (another story:-)), they are the only species of birds which have a devious, if not outright malicious, sense of humour. Sure, there are loads of species which have developed great sense of irony (penguins and yellowfin tuna come to mind), but aside from the regular primates and odd cetaceans, most animals (and plants) lack a sense of humour (geckos bark, and crickets chirp, but I have no first hand experiences to help interpret these amusing anthropomorphisms).

I mean, what species go to such great length to pretend complete ignorance of your trapping intent, that they’ll even pretend to get caught (for a little while anyway) to encourage your continued and very generous “baiting” (read feeding) for weeks, only to roll around in the tops of surrounding trees, howling with hilarity, while you remove vast quantities of other (equally well-fed!) non-target species from the nth variety of trap you’ve set for them in the sprawling gardens and parks around Pietermaritzburg. And then fly off, giving you the evil eye!

I am not barking mad. They do give you the evil eye (in place of a middle finger), and for want of any immediate logical reason, I suspect that (Common) Mynas are angry reincarnations – after all, what life can there be after death by bean-pulse-and-red-hot-chilli-pepper-consuming colonic cancer in subcontinental Asia ?

But I procrastinate. I eventually caught several mynas. With a variety of walk-in traps, nets, and narcotics. Day and night. Persistent trapping efforts. Hundreds of man-hours.

I got into terrible trouble with the narcotics. In spite of it still being the best solution for catching large quantities of mynas in any one baiting exercise. Works like magic. However, it does have negative spin-offs, and risks to mitigate. Especially given the unusually high density of cat and doggie-loving society in Pietermaritzburg.

After one particularly badly disturbed narcotic baiting session in one of the quieter parks near campus, I had to escape the wrath of several cat and dog owners in the area who had to deal with deeply anaethesized pets following their copious consumption of manna from heaven. Figuratively speaking. Mynas and other species dropping out of the sky in a 4 kilometre radius around the baiting site, disturbed by a dear old biddy walking her pack of neurotic short-haired Irish terriers in the park where I had successfully managed to dope some 250 hungry mynas, feral pigeons, starlings and an untold number of house sparrows, 20 minutes priorly.

to be continued…

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Posted in birds, Gordon Maclean, indian myna, Pietermaritzburg, Samoa, Zoology

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