Down in jungleland – come into my parlour

Ranjit Lal
Free Love: The burrowing owl. (Source: Getty Images)

As we saw in this column last week, the plant kingdom uses bribery in a big way to get what it wants. But there are other, more diabolical forms of corruption used by Mother Nature to ensure that life on earth goes on.

Many of our spy thrillers use honey traps to make their plots intriguing. Intelligence agencies and even the police use these in real life. One clan of fireflies takes this to another level. We all tend to romanticise fireflies, as they flit through trees, winking their frosty green lights. The gents will flash their lights at specific intervals and look for similar responses among the bushes where the ladies will be coyly waiting and winking back. When they receive an acknowledgment, they ll fly down and then the romantic fireworks begin.

The females of the Photuris genera of fireflies wink their seductive lights all right but at frequencies which are used by the lovely ladies of the Photinus genera. When a gentleman belonging to the latter clan sees this, he wafts down, his heart, no doubt, beating fast. He lands, and his heartthrob, far from being the luminous emerald belle he imagined, turns out to be a monstrous Photinus-eater. Forget about making out, this femme fatale murders and eats him. But as her defence lawyer would argue, the lady has her reasons . You see, the murdered gentleman s clan possess defensive chemicals which our murderess does not and which are, in fact, vital for her own survival because they will make her henceforth (as it did the victim) unpalatable for predators like hairy spiders and rapacious birds. So, she only did what she did to save her own life. Surely, that is a good enough reason to commit murder?

Another thing which we (especially the goody-two shoes among us) admire is fidelity. There are many species in which partners remain faithful to each other for all their lives. But too often all is not what it seems. Behind the scenes, a lot of hanky-panky goes on. When the lord of the manor and harem is strutting his stuff and showing off to a rival, or busy with other matters (as with meerkats), one of his dark-eyed ladies might just slink off for a quickie behind the bushes, with a sneaky rake. Of course, there will be hell to pay if she s caught but she thinks it s worth it: big bosses can be so boring and full of themselves. The weaver bird is a serial bigamist, maintaining two or three wives in their respective nests.

So yes, hanky-panky happens but perhaps the best way to get away with it (and not make it seem like a corrupting, evil influence) is to not hide it at all. One of my all-time favourite birds is the little burrowing owl of the New World. It s related to our own little spotted owlet and I m hoping our desi owlets will imbibe a lesson or two from them. Burrowing owls live in the drier regions of the USA and nest in colonies of underground burrows often purloined from ground squirrels. These may be in fallow fields, deserts and even golf courses. I like to believe that burrowing owls inspired festivals like Woodstock, because these birds are firm believers in free love.

The dude in one burrow will pay visits to the golden-eyed nymphet living next door just as his own pretty lady might check out the beefcake that has caught her eye in another neighbouring burrow. The babies in one family often have only one genuine parent living with them: the other might have been a passing fling or the dude or bimbo next door. Far from being traumatised, the little owlets take this in their stride and often wander into neighbouring burrows to sleep over or even be raised by the good-natured adults there. It s all like one big, happy family. To the sanctimonious among us, this might seem like the epitome of all evil and if the little burrowing owls lived here, surely they would be lynched. But there s a lesson here which I think many of us (especially those in public life) are already aware of: nothing is corrupt unless you think it is.

This is why, when we discovered that the easiest way to send our dog to bed was to bribe him with a couple of Marie biscuits, that s what we did. He d want to stay downstairs after everyone had gone up and watch TV till late. You just had to open the biscuit jar and say, Waggy bribery-corruption! and he d be up the stairs in a flash and curled up on his bed, waiting expectantly.

And no, we never reneged on the deal.

Ranjit Lal is an author, environmentalist and birdwatcher.