Family and other animals

November 23rd, 2010

In my home live three humans, and perhaps two dozen other kinds of creatures visible to the unaided human eye.

As I read late into the night, the bedroom window, with yellow light spilling through the net, is the site of a spectacular drama. Different insects are drawn to the light depending on the season: the little flying annoyances which float in from Haryana (so I read somewhere) after the rains, nasty little black biting things the size of mustard seeds, and a variety of moths.

So along comes a lizard. Every night he (or she, I wonder?) takes up a position at the centre of the jali and waits for a tasty buzz. Every night he eats so much that I can see his tummy distended and filled up with black. Insatiable! Sometimes this lizard will slap tail or chin against the net to shake loose some bug, and then grab it, or will rush around to pick up mouthfuls from elsewhere in the buffet.

My lizard’s favourite is moths. They make him reckless. To get a moth he will leap off the net and land splat on wall or floor a good five feet away or more, to grab it before it flutters away. And woe betide any other lizard who seeks to challenge him for his territory. He stomps and bangs the window, and makes aggressive rushes towards the interloper. He hasn’t lost his perch yet.

But the window is a big, sliding one, so inevitably some of the buzzers and flappers slip in between the panels. On its way to the light a little flying annoyance might land on my finger, and then it will perch awhile before taking off with one hell of a kick. Their legs must be among the strongest of all species, given the power to weight ratio.

Then they rush toward the light — a bright fluorescent bulb — dance around it for a while, keel over in a dead faint and drift to the floor under my shoe shelf. Over there, throughout 2009, lived a lovely little black lizard, very skinny and shy, who would poke his nose out to see whether I was watching, and (when he thought I wasn’t) dash over to collect his prize. I was delighted with this chap. This year he’s gone.

In the morning, if I wake up earlier than normal and visit the toilet, I expect ants. Near the WC is an imperfectly sealed crack which leads to the shaft. Through it dash, in small numbers like scouts, tiny black ants who scurry around looking for food or a shortcut between shaft and doorjamb, or shaft and floor drain. Regretfully I kill them, because I don’t want them making free with my beloved bathroom, but they really are quite likeable creatures — businesslike, not warlike. I don’t think they have soldier variants, because I’ve never been bitten. When they come across the wreckage of one of their comrades, they put on a tremendous burst of speed and zigzag around the floor nearby. I wonder: is this because they’re busy releasing some panic pheromone, or because it’s harder to get killed if they dodge and weave? However: my slippers are large enough to get them.

Another bathroom creature: a mysterious but common little grey-brown fuzzy fly-like insect that lives around the bathroom sink. It obviously loves the damp, because it seems to be waterproof. It has a nicely incidental way of flying, nothing like the sly mosquito.

One morning I drove to office, and as I was getting out of the car — which had been parked in our damp and dusty basement during the night — I noticed a spider cocoon just hatching on the passenger seat. It was one of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen: dozens of minuscule orange baby spiders, each floating at the end of a single filament of spider silk, a parachute. I left the window open a crack and pushed off happily. In the evening they were all gone.

Large, leggy and hairy spiders are a little threatening, but small ones are entertaining. If I’m lucky one day, a garden spider finds its way into our second-floor flat. They are beautiful compact little beasts with neat short legs, a striped back, and a habit of moving in short leaps. Tickly and cute.

But the spiders I see most often are the messy ones that hang dusty webs from the ceiling or in corners. Tsk. (Want to know a trick? Go close to one such web and then hum with lips closed but your upper and lower front teeth close together so they they vibrate against each other as you hum, yoga style — that frequency seems to match the one a spider feels when something lands in its net, so it will leap up and look around eagerly.)

We have lots of books, which we protect with neem leaves dried and pressed between the pages. But one cannot escape silverfish. In Dalhousie this August I shared my musty bed with big juicy silverfish — ours, thankfully, look leaner, dustier and hungrier, and live mostly among our old files and papers. I’d rather they chewed on our old income-tax files than the books. No wonder they look ill-fed.

Birds! The sparrows who lived beneath my window AC vanished two years ago, with every one of their fellows. Even the crows, such characterful individuals, are fewer. The kites look shabbier. The noisy yelling babblers visit only occasionally, like distant relatives. A woodpecker periodically harasses the palm tree outside my window, but I haven’t seen him for a while. Only the pigeons manage, though even they no longer look sleek. What is happening?

The dogs in the lane behind used to howl companionably at 1.30 am. It was a chorus, stretching for several streets. After the dogs came the cats, yowling competitively at about 2.30 am along the back wall. Now both those schedules have been thrown off. Sometimes the dogs howl at 2.30 and the cats don’t sing at all. Is it because the little trash dump behind is cleared more often, and by trucks?

Like Delhi’s weather our animal environment is also changing in strange ways. Inside the house, where conditions stay roughly the same, wildlife flourishes. Outdoors, it’s all a mess. What will happen in five years? Will we have more and more creatures wanting to join us indoors, and fewer and fewer to lift our hearts outside? At least the “pest”-control companies can look forward to new customers. It’s all very worrying.

del.icio.us:Family and other animals digg:Family and other animals newsvine:Family and other animals reddit:Family and other animals Y!:Family and other animals