Tuesday, 06 March 2012

Vervet monkeys and garden birds

Did a talk about monkeys in the Port Edward library hall on Thursday last week, and when it came to audience comment and question time, sure enough the same old cliches about the destructive nature of monkeys were dredged up. As they they say, "nothing new under the sun"!

Anyway, the one that I find exceptionally irritating is that "monkeys are breeding out of control and have destroyed the birdlife in my garden/neighbourhood/nature reserve and more". This is, of course a load of twaddle!

When I tell the grumpies this, they are most indignant. Then I hear about the Laughing Doves, the Dusky and Paradise Flycatchers, the Sunbirds, etc, etc, who used to nest in their gardens for years until along came the over-breeding monkeys, ate the young or eggs and broke the nests before tossing them to the ground. Even the Weavers, who usually get the sharp edge of the grumpies' tounges for destroying Palm and Fever Tree foliage (yes, the same Fever Tree that is really endemic to northern KwaZulu-Natal and doesn't actually belong in the so-called "indigenous" gardens of most of the rest of KZN) are in favour when the pesky monkeys come around and help themselves to Weaver eggs and chicks. Let a Gymnogene raid the same Weaver colony and the bird lovers are ecstatic!

So why is this claim that monkeys are breeding out of control a load of twaddle?

Fact is that anyone who takes a minute to see what is happening to urban monkeys and those on farm lands will see that the huge numbers dying every day make it impossible for monkey numbers to be on the increase, and our statistics and troop monitoring tell us very loudly that, on the contrary, the number of monkeys in these areas is steadily on the decrease.

So, if not the monkeys, who or what should take the blame because some folk are no longer experiencing the joy of indigenous birds breeding in their gardens and neighbourhoods, if in fact this really is the case?

Firstly, I would like to see the results of some unbiased research on the subject. Then I would also like to see if the researchers have established whether or not the displaced breeding pairs have simply decided to nest elsewhere due to interferences, including that caused by naturally foraging monkeys because the birds had unwittingly chosen to nest in the resident Vervet troop's daily foraging path.

Surprising as it may seem to the "gotta have the birds breeding in my garden and eating off my bird-feeding tables" folk, there are many other factors impacting on the birdlife in their gardens and surrounds. Many other bird species such as certain Shrikes, Coucals, and Gymnogenes routinely raid the nests of birds. Raptors such as Sparrowhawks and Goshawks catch the parent birds and so also condemn the young to death by starvation, and believe me, the abundance of bird tables with their over fed avian patrons makes the life of these raptors just pure joy. Then there are other natural predators such as Genets, certain Mongooses (and I have personally witnessed Slender Mongooses taking Glossy Starling chicks from their nesting hole in my neighbours Natal Fig), and arboreal snakes who forage freely in our leafy gardens by day or night and who certainly don't give any on-the-nest parent bird or their eggs or nestlings a miss. Of course we cannot deny the fact that domestic cats, both owned and feral, as well as introduced rats, and even terrier dogs such as the Jack Russell, all take a heavy toll on the birdlife in our gardens and neighbourhood. Add to this the birds dying from being shot with airguns (pellet guns) and catepults, struck by motor cars, flying into electric fencing, getting caught on razor wire, and also from smashing themselves into reflecting window panes on houses and shops, and suddenly we see that monkeys are carrying the blame when in fact they are mostly just a very small contributor to a much bigger picture.

Bottom line is that if the numbers of certain bird species in urban gardens and neighbourhoods are dropping, look for the real reasons as to what is causing this. Just because monkeys are forced to forage throughout their historical territory along routes that bring them into "your" garden, makes them visible to you, and gives you a regular target for your frustrations, doesn't make them the destructive criminals they are branded by a small, but dangerously vociferous, frequently violent, minority!

My advice to the people who hate monkeys and use the "but they destroy all the birdlife in my garden/neighbourhood" moan to prop up their indefensible, xenophobic-like attitude and behaviour, is to take some time out and just observe the monkeys the next time they visit your garden. Then you will learn what truly amazing little animals they are, and you will realise what a privilege it is to have them around!

Come on, give the monkeys a break! And while you are doing this you might even let your mind wander to the possible effects that habitat destruction, road noise, light pollution, construction activity and noise, and even global warming, are having on the nesting success and presence of many bird species that used to frequent your garden. And whilst you're about it, don't forget that curse called FIREWORKS, that at the time of Diwali and Guy Fawkes, even New Year's Eve, chases terrified parent birds off the nest when many have young or eggs in the nest, causes them to suffer broken wings, legs and beaks or to die from collision with tree branches, powerlines, and other obstacles they can't see at night.

Monkeys really to blame for a drop in urban bird numbers? I think not!

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