Our Family and Other Animals

An edited version of this blog post was published in my March 2022 column of ‘Rooting For Nature’ in Deccan Herald. The blog post has more images that didn’t make it to the print column.

The Gerald Durrell-inspired title probably gives away the theme of this post. So here goes…..

School vacations are busy periods at Navilu Kaadu. The Dasara and Christmas vacations late last year were no different. Our days on the farm are packed from dawn to dusk with innumerable tasks to accomplish, before heading back to our city existence.

A Solitary Trail

We spend much of our time at the farm planting, harvesting, mulching, making and dispensing 1000-litre batches of Jeevamrutha* to nourish saplings, and attending to electrical, plumbing, fence and drip irrigation pipe repairs.

While we are at it, we also venture out often to explore nearby villages and befriend locals during morning walks, encounter intriguing creatures we share the land with, and discover solitary trails around the farm. Each day is as exciting and full as the next.

Till recently, we would leave behind a clean cottage when heading back to the city only to find it littered during our next visit. Baffled about the origins of the mess in the locked house in our absence, we arrived at an unconvincing theory of stuff somehow making their way in through the joints of the roofing, until we fortuitously chanced upon the culprits.

During our Dasara visit, we caught a family of field mice nesting on our bedding when we unlocked the house. The white bed sheet with prints of pretty pink roses was shredded to bits. Mercifully, the mice had left the bedding intact. The boys ushered the mouse mother and her brood out of the house with gleeful screams, as we turned our attention to the onerous task of cleaning-up the mess.

The mice had discovered a secret pathway into and out of the house — a faulty plumbing beneath the kitchen sink with a loose pipe. The plumbing now repaired, the house stays tidy in between visits. I have a hunch the mice and their kin are assiduously investigating another way into the house and will soon make their way back in!

Common Wolf Snakelet

Early next morning, as is my routine on the farm, I was tidying-up and organizing the front porch, and happened to pick-up a sack full of cowpeas (alasande kaalu) harvested the day before.

Curled beneath the sack in neat coils, lay a tiny snakelet of the non-venomous Common Wolf Snake species (Kattige Haavu in Kannada). It had a reddish-brown body with striking cream-coloured bands.

Cowpea Harvest

The cosy shelter hoisted up, and its repose rudely interrupted, the snakelet looked peeved as it slowly uncoiled. Our farm hand Chinnaswamy coaxed it out, and the little snake slithered away seeking the cover of the underbrush beyond the front yard.

So far, the highly venomous Russell’s Viper (Kolaka Mandala in Kannada) and the non-venomous Common Wolf Snake have made an appearance on the farm. In the early days at Navilu Kaadu, farm hands were bemused by my ‘do-not-disturb bird nests or baby hares’ and ‘do-not-kill-snakes-at-sight’ diktats. They informed me matter-of-factly that they killed all snakes that crossed their path unless it happened to be a Cobra, revered as it is in the Hindu culture.

‘Mutthugada Mara’ or ‘Flame of the Forest’ in bloom near Navilu Kaadu

Their fears aren’t unfounded given that they have probably witnessed the deadly consequences of snake bites at close quarters.

According to a 2011 study published in the PLOS Neglected Tropical Disease journal, snake bites kill anywhere between 45,900 to 50,900 people in India annually with several more crippled for life.

These numbers make up about half of the world’s snakebite deaths, saddling India with an unenviable reputation of having the highest number of snake bite deaths in the world.

We encourage our farm helpers to wear protective gear while at work, and try to make them aware of simple snake-facts……‘leave a snake alone and it will stay out of your way’, ‘killing snakes indiscriminately could lead to increased crop damage by rodents in your fields’, and other similar reinforcements to help them view snakes in a positive light.

We have stocked-up on  protective gloves for farm helpers when they need to work in areas with dense vegetation. As for protective boots, we are still trying to convince them about the need to wear them, albeit unsuccessfully.

We wear protective boots too when venturing into uncleared areas to minimize risky encounters with slumbering snakes. Equipping ourselves with the whereabouts of the nearest medical facility with anti-venom medication is high on our list of priorities.

Peafowl Eggs

Sometime around noon the same day, my band of women helpers at Navilu Kaadu discovered a peafowl nest with a clutch of four large, pale-brown eggs in a thicket just inside our fence.

Momma peahen took flight as the women picking cowpea unknowingly approached her nest. We left the area undisturbed thereafter. We saw her a few times around the area over the the next few days, possibly during breaks in between incubating her eggs.

During a subsequent visit, we found the nest abandoned, with pieces of broken egg shells. I fervently hope the next generation of peafowl chicks hatched, grew strong and made their way out of the nest undisturbed and safe.

Praying Mantis Egg Case

On Christmas Eve, the boys found a strange object in a pile of freshly-cut grass, set aside as mulch material for our mango saplings. Little bigger than a marble, the light-weight structure with hardened froth reminded me of a meringue. It was possibly an egg-case of some insect, but who was the mystery mom?

A quick enquiry with Karthikeyan S, my prodigiously knowledgeable mentor for all matters concerning nature, revealed that our find was an egg case or ootheca of a praying mantis. The female praying mantis lays her eggs in a frothy substance produced from the glands in her abdomen, which then hardens.

We placed the egg case in a plastic cup and left it beneath a tree. At Navilu Kaadu, we are learning to leave nature undisturbed and unfettered. A couple of days on, Arnav called-out excitedly one morning. Over a hundred newly emerged baby mantises or nymphs were milling around the egg case.

Praying Mantis Nymphs

As if by magic, the seemingly inert and lifeless egg case had spouted so many new lives waiting to go forth into the wide world. We watched intrigued. The little praying mantis nymphs moved tentatively as they made their way to get on with the all-important business of life.

Flowering Cowpea

Praying mantises are ‘ambush’ or ‘sit-and-wait’ predators and feed exclusively on live prey. Their presence keeps crop and garden pests at bay. They feast on aphids, moths, roaches, mosquitoes and most insects considered troublesome by farmers and gardeners. These little creatures, like many others, are critical for the health and well-being of our crops at Navilu Kaadu.

The field mice and the praying mantises on our farm feed on insects that pose a threat to our crops, the snakes on our farm control the rodent population, and the peafowl keep the snakes in check….and we just sit back and watch the beauty of it all.

The web of life unravels itself wondrously, all within our tiny patch of land. We have come to realize that at Navilu Kaadu, there’s ample to go around for everybody — predator, prey and with a bit of luck, for us interlopers too.

Dusk at Navilu Kaadu

Read the edited version of this post in Deccan Herald here.

*Jeevamrutha – Used in the Subhash Palekar Natural Farming (SPNF) method, Jeevamrutha is a fermented blend of the dung of the native Indian cow, gram flour and jaggery, with soil enriching microbes.

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