It took the disappearance of the sparrow – Passer domesticus – to kindle interest in birds. There are hundreds of bird-watching clubs and annual events where thousands compete to record avian species in their backyards. Even congested cities like Mumbai have bird sanctuaries. Today happens to be World Migratory Bird Day, a UN-backed campaign dedicated to raising awareness about migratory birds and the need for international cooperation to conserve them. And yes, there’s a World Sparrow Day too, on March 20.
The lockdown helped increase the population of sparrows and birdwatchers also spotted species normally not seen in cities. There are some 9,700 species of birds, of which around 1,350 are found in India; 81 of them are endemic to the Indian subcontinent. Surprisingly, some 200 species can be seen in each of our four metropolitan cities.
We’re the culprits
So, why don’t we see them? Questions like this show who really is bird-brained. We don’t see birds simply because we have destroyed their habitat. There’re hardly any foliage, open space, wetlands or water bodies. Worse, housing societies cement their compounds to use every inch for parking and modern architecture leaves no nooks and niches for birds. And it is only now that we are realising that exotic trees such as Peltophorum, Gulmohur and the raintree, which heavily outnumber the native Indian trees, don’t support avian life as they don’t produce any fruits that birds or insects can eat and their branch structure is unsuitable for nesting.
Now, how many have seen the native Palash tree with its bright orange-red flowers that are regularly visited by birds for the nectar? No wonder we are left with scavengers such as crows and pigeons. Incidentally, the yellow-footed green pigeon (Hariyal in Marathi) is the state bird of Maharashtra. Unlike its city cousin, the rock pigeon, it’s a shy bird which prefers wooded habitats and lives on fruits.
This doesn’t mean that one has no chance of sighting a bird in the concrete jungle. Those who live near a creek or a forested patch, a housing complex with native trees and a garden can spot several birds from their windows. And those with terrace or balcony gardens are rewarded with daily visits of the shiny sunbird, flying jewel.
Wildlife photographer and conservationist Sunjoy Monga has spotted a dozen species from his Lokhandwala flat; the red-vented bulbul, the red-whiskered bulbul, the oriental magpie-robin, the common tailor bird, the Asian koel, the white-spotted fantail, the purple-rumped sunbird, the rose-ringed parakeet, the Alexandrine parakeet, the Eurasian golden oriole, the white-throated kingfisher and the coppersmith barbet.
The last named is the official bird of Mumbai. The tiny coppersmith barbet is green with a red head, yellow cheeks and a yellow throat. Its characteristic call – tuk, tuk, tuk – sounds like a coppersmith striking metal with a hammer. The bird carves out holes inside a tree to build its nest and is predominantly fruit-eating, though it has also been observed eating insects.
Vile Parle housewife Madhuri Deshmukh photographed some 25 species of birds during the lockdown from her seventh-floor window which looks down on a giant peepal tree. She’s also part of a team that has compiled a three-minute audio-visual on birds that can be seen in Mumbai’s residential areas. The AV features images and calls of 19 birds and it’s a delight to hear the sharp cry of the Indian golden oriole, the persistent harp of the common tailorbird and the passionate song of the oriental magpie robin. However, words, even AVs, fail to capture the beauty of a bird and the thrill of spotting it in nature.
If one looks carefully, one can find birds even in open fields. The desert wheatear, the common stonechat, a migrant from Central Asia, the long-tailed shrike and wagtails have been spotted at the Mahalaxmi racecourse in Mumbai.
The mangroves and wetlands along the coast of Mumbai and of neighbouring Thane and Navi Mumbai are the best sites for birding apart from the national park. At one such spot, the Lokhandwala lake, Monga recorded 122 species, including migratory birds such as the northern pintails which fly all the way from Europe.
Talking of migratory birds, the Arctic tern holds the long-distance migration record for birds, flying between Arctic breeding grounds and the Antarctic each year. Great snipes, small stocky birds which wade in the marshes, make non-stop flights of 4,000–7,000 km, lasting 60 to 90 hours. Some bar-tailed godwits, a large wader which feeds on bristle-worms and shellfish on coastal mudflats and estuaries, have the longest known non-stop flight of any migrant, flying 11,000km from Alaska to New Zealand.
Remembering Salim Ali
Around 50 million birds migrate every year. India falls under the Central Asian Flyway for the north-south winter migration. If Salim Ali, the Birdman of India, were alive today, he would have been happy to see that India has launched a national action plan to protect 29 wetlands frequented by migratory birds. He would have been saddened though, to see the destruction of wetlands and mangroves in the Uran-Ulwe belt in Navi Mumbai, one of his favorite birding spots.
Gulls, terns, shorebirds and flamingoes ringed in Central Asia, Persian Gulf, Eastern Asia and the Indian Ocean islands have been recorded on Maharashtra’s coast. Flamingoes, most of which come from Kutch in Gujarat, are the biggest draw in Mumbai. They migrate mainly at night and can travel 600km in one night.
There are 15 Indian birds on the critically endangered list, headed by the Great Indian Bustard. Weighing up to 15kg and growing up to one metre in height, it’s one of the heaviest flying birds. Less than 200 of them are left now, of which about 100 are in Rajasthan.
As for the most beautiful bird of India, it’s undoubtedly the rarely seen Himalayan Monal. It resembles a peacock, but is much smaller and has distinguishing features such as an iridescent rainbow-like plumage, a wiry metallic head and crest, and a reddish-brown neck. The satyr tragopan or the crimson-horned pheasant, again a Himalayan bird, and the Asian paradise flycatcher with its amazingly long tail are the other eye-catchers.
Actually, we need birds more than they need us. They are such efficient pest-eaters that nest boxes have become a pest control practice throughout Europe. Birds spread seeds and humming birds and honeyeaters help in pollination. Vultures act as scavengers and curb disease. Birds respond quickly to changes in the environment and are our early-warning system for climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution. As Amy Fraenkel, Executive Secretary of the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals says in her message for World Migratory Bird Day: “The journey of a migratory bird knows no borders and therefore, neither should our response to the planetary crisis.”
As for us, we should apply the green mantra, ‘Think global, act local’. It’s time we start creating bird parks just as we have butterfly gardens. Come to think of it, a bird in the bush is worth its weight in gold for a generation that hasn’t seen a sparrow.
The writer is an independent journalist based in Mumbai. He welcomes feedback on email@example.com