Monday, January 21, 2013

Wheat fields, flooding, snakes and storks

The setting of winter in the northern Indian landscape signals a major change in the crops. After harvesting the rice, farmers plant mustard and wheat. Unlike the rice, that requires to be flooded, wheat needs the soil to be just wet. Farmers achieve this by flooding the fields intermittently. This sets off an unanticipated set of events. Mice and snakes in burrows recently dried out are forced out again and again.

Large waterbirds in Uttar Pradesh seem to have figured this circumstance out - to their benefit. In this set of photographs, I share our observations of a Woolly-necked Stork successfully dispatching a keelback. 

We missed seeing how the stork actually caught the snake, but the photo below shows the bird with the struggling snake, shaking it violently. As we watched, the snake became visibly weaker and nearly stopped attempting to escape altogether. 
 A Woolly-necked Stork with its catch of the morning - a keelback - in a wheat field.

The stork picked up the weakly struggling snake, carried it over to a drier spot near the dike and began beating the head with its beak. The photo below shows the snake - that is hopefully dead by now - with its bloodied head.
The bloodied and hopefully dead keelback awaiting the swallow.

Storks swallow snakes headfirst, and whole. This is easier said than done when the snake is a mite bigger than the usual small prey items that storks swallow. The photos below, that took well over a couple of minutes, show the difficult process.

Head-first is how storks like to swallow snakes.

The biggish keelback presented a bit of a problem to the Woolly-necked Stork, but it managed.
In the keelback went, and the serious swallowing began!

After a few minutes, many many swallows later, the snake completely disappeared visible only as a bulge in the stork's neck (above).

Though a snake being swallowed by a stork is pretty commonplace, given that snakes are commonly taken prey by these birds, what we watched represented much more. Human habits (planting wheat and intermittently flooding them), animals attracted by crops (rats in burrows, that in turn attracted snakes), and other wild species (here, a Woolly-necked Stork) all came together to make for a memorable viewing. 

(Photos information: Taken in Etawah district, Uttar Pradesh; taken on 5 Jan 2013.)