Wake up call
Disappearing urban birds
“And I thought this would be a fun project!,” muttered 10-year-old Hemant under his breath, as he rummaged through the ancient trunk, stowed away in the attic. He was in trouble. He had barely a week left of his summer break and he had not been able to even begin his assignment on ‘Birds in your neighbourhood’. It had all sounded so easy when Mrs Sharma explained the project to the class.
“Watch out for them when you are standing in your balcony, or playing in the park. Observe the ones that perch on your window sill. Find out what they are called and their scientific names. Then try to draw them. See if you can find the matching colours in your paint box!”
Hemant had tried his best. He stood for hours next to the huge glass window of the living room. And all he had in his kitty till now was some House Crows (Corvus splendens), and a few House Sparrows (Passer domesticus)! How booring was that!!! Now desperate measures were required. So Hemant was searching the trunk that contained old scrap books, text books, magazines, discarded by the family.
Maybe he would find something of use! Aha…what was this? ‘Birds in my city’ by Mrinalini Sen. So maasi, too, had suffered like him, thought Hemant. But his eyes widened in shock as he turned the pages of the scrap book. What a riot of colours! Little Green Bee-eater (Merops orientalis), Curlew Sandpiper (Calidris ferruginea), Spotted Dove (Streptopelia chinensis)….
An agitated Hemant rushed to the balcony where his maasi was sitting with his grandfather. “Hey, hey, which sanctuaries did you visit to complete this project?”, he asked as he waved the book in his hand. But Mrinalini smiled as she looked down on the bright pictures. “Oh I found them all here…around this house,” she said. She turned to her father and said, “Remember that vacation baba? I was sick and spent most of it lying on bed. All I could see in my room was the courtyard and the gulmohur tree behind it.
And I could fill up half the pages of this book just painting the birds that flocked there from the morning to dusk!”, she said. “Yes, we used to store all our grains near the stairs then, and the courtyard used to be strewn with them. No wonder we had an army of our feathered friends visiting us!,” laughed grandfather. Then both of them looked at Hemant—who was now staring at them open mouthed.
“The gulmohar was cut down when that block of flats came up,” said Mrinalini, “And we don’t feed the birds any more. Where have all the parakeets and bulbuls gone?”.
Mystery of the missing birds
Well, Mrinalini, bird-watchers across the globe are trying to find an answer to this! Because the skylines of almost all the cities in the world today are haunted by this ‘Mystery of the missing birds’. Listen to this. According to a study conducted by the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), there has been a 75 per cent drop in the population of sparrows in London during the past decade! In fact, it looks like the entire country is going sparrow-less.
30 years ago, there were about 24 million of them, now less than 14 million can be traced. And as these ornithologists delve deeper, they are coming up with some pretty scary facts. In the last 300 years, out of 8700 species of birds world over, 80 have become extinct. Today the rate of extinction is more than one per year.
Clueless in India But at least in Britain they are counting. In India we are not. The disappearance of sparrows in India, too, has been widely reported. But since we have no reliable scientific documentation on bird populations, we don’t know how many we have lost already. No one is monitoring or keeping records.
And this is true not only of sparrows but most of the common bird species in our country. Just because they used be found in abundance, we just assumed that they would remain ‘common’ always. Now that the alarm bells are ringing furiously worldwide, we have been jolted out of our slumber. The search has begun for the sparrows, the parakeets and the swallows.
What are the basic things required to keep the birds alive? Safe and sufficient food, water and a comfortable nest, right? But what if the grains and insects they feed on are poisoned? What if loads of chemicals are put into the rivers and water bodies that destroy the fish population and pollute the water they drink? Yes, the birds are being poisoned, slowly.
But we have not uncovered any new fact here. This damaging piece of evidence was first revealed in 1962, by Rachel Carson in her book, Silent Spring. Carson told a shocked global community how pesticides sprayed on crops was wiping out bird populations and even entire species in the United States.
Pesticides such as Dichlorodiphenyl- trichloroethane or DDT, were sprayed by farmers in the United States to get rid of pests and worms—hoping for a bumper yield. But what they did not know was that the chemical was lethal not only for the pests but for birds, and animals as well.
Realisation dawned when the lilting notes of the American Robin, that heralded in the spring season, were silenced. The robins were dying, and so were the swallows and owls. DDT had ushered in a silent spring… Carson first warned us that the use of chemicals in agricultural farms was polluting food and water and that this process could have a dangerous impact on animals and humans alike. It was already leading to genetic damage and death of species. And the US government put a ban on DDT.
In India, too, we have stopped spraying it in the agricultural fields. But it is used by the public health departments of the government to get rid of mosquitoes — carriers of the deadly malaria virus. Why? Because, unlike in the US, such vector (carrier)-borne diseases are very common in India. They often erupt in epidemic scale. And in such emergency situations, DDT remains the cheapest and the most effective weapon to deal with the crisis.
Anyway, substituting DDT with other varieties of pesticide has not really solved the problem for the birds. Because these chemicals now kill the worms that the birds feed on, forcing some species to literally starve to death. This is how it happens.
Nothing to peck on...
On an average, a sparrow or a starling or a mynah eats about 1000 worms and insects in a year. Certainly a better way of getting rid of these pests than using chemical pesticides that are known to have harmful side effects! These poisons, on the other hand, kill caterpillars and soft worms— which form the basic diet of infant sparrows. While adult sparrows can survive without insects, they do need them to feed their young. Result? Infant mortality rate is extremely high among sparrows, swallows and starlings.
But the farmlands are in the villages, how are the poisons sprayed here affecting city birds? “The chemicals are not only infecting the worms but the soil and the water as well. Streams and rivulets carry the poison from agricultural fields to the towns and cities. And people living in cities use pesticides in their gardens, too. Ponds, lakes—all urban water bodies—are polluted. So how can the urban birds, which drink from these, and peck on the fish, remain immune?”, explains Lalitha Vijayan of the Salim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History (SACON).
It’s not a case of poisoning alone. Changing lifestyles of the city folks affect the food habits of the avian species in other ways, as well. Like in Hemant’s house, cleaning grains like paddy and wheat in the courtyards, used to be a daily chore in almost every household.
And the gunny bags in which these were stored, provided scope for ample spill overs. Sparrows, swallows and parakeets survived by pecking on these grain spills. Now ready-to-cook cereals are bought in sealed polythene packs. Result? No more backyard cleaning, no more spills. And a dwindling bird population.
So their food is neither safe nor sufficient. Now lets find out if they have enough space to nest and breed. Windowsills, parapets, ventilators, crevices in tiled rooftops, chimneys, balconies, parks, hedges, and bushes—these are their ideal nesting spaces. Right? The Indian baya (weaver bird), pigeons and finches are known to build their homes in small grooves in buildings and hedges. We all know that. But in the changing urban landscape, it is getting increasingly tough to find these familiar nesting nooks and crannies any more.
Also, most of the birds are choosy about their roosting places. Sparrows, for instance, avoid living in the same tree canopy with other birds like crows, mynahs and parakeets. They try to find trees that are close to their feeding zones—like parks, gardens, waterbodies. Finches, starlings and bayas look out for grassy meadows, shrubs and hedges. They use grass as fibres to weave their nests and, of course, peck on the insects that usually thrive here.If green patches go, so do the birds.
Dr Abdul Urfi, an ornithologist in Delhi, says, “Open windows used to be the favourite site of pigeons. Now thanks to the invasion of the air coolers and air conditioners, most of our windows are sealed off. The birds have lost their domain.” Sparrows used to build their nests below tiled roofs. Now such roofs have became a thing of the past, and sparrows have lost their nesting spots.
In fact, modern architectural trends are proving to be a real menace for the avian population in more ways than one. For instance, veterinarians working in the Jain Bird Hospital in Delhi say that they treating a growing number of patients with a hitherto-unheard-of complaint. Injuries caused due to pecking at glass-walled high-rise buildings!
Exposed rafters, lofts in car parks, ledges over rolling shutters and open eaves — common features in almost all the cities now — are death traps for the birds. Because they can be accessed easily by natural predators like cats, dogs, crows and kites — leaving the bird population completely vulnerable to their attacks.
Survival of the fittest
But not all of them are dying. Some like crows and kites are thriving. Why? Because they have been able to adapt themselves to the changing environment, faster than the other birds.And have simply taken over the domain of the less adaptive varieties.
According to him, in most India cities, kite population has increased because kites are natural survivors. They feed on the ever-expanding dump yards and prey on the smaller and more vulnerable species. “I noticed that the arrival of a flock of kites is always announced by wild chirpings of sparrows. Then I realised that this was because the kites rampage the nests of sparrows, and drive them away!”
This is true of the entire corvid family—crows, ravens, magpies and jays. SACON in Coimbatore has found that while the city has recorded a rise in the number of crows, its swallow population has dropped. Some ornithologists have even attributed the surge in kites to the dying vultures! Now that there are fewer vultures to feed on animal remains, kites are getting a larger share of the dead!!
‘Wing’ing them back
A rather dismal scenario. Can we do something about it? Is it really practical to suggest that we must change our lifestyle to make cities more liveable for the birds? Can we carve out more space for birds in our cities, when there is hardly any available even for human beings? Nah…But we can share our habitat with them again. Provided we plan our cities keeping in mind its avian dwellers as well. Here are some ‘do-able’ ideas.
Built for birds
Leave the water bodies alone: green patches, hedges, bushes, parks, trees, even building crevices—if they are located near a lake or a pond, they form the ideal living space for all kinds of birds. So as we expand our cities, we can try to keep these precious sites untouched. They not only sustain birds, but all living creatures, including human beings!
Opt for clusters: a group of small buildings built around a central space or a walk way is known as a cluster design.
This kind of architecture ensures a lot more open space, in contrast to the run-of- the mill strategy of constructing a large building right at the centre of the site. And more open area ensures more birds..
Preserve natural vegetation, as much as possible— often shrub layers, small plots of trees and and green patches are cleared out to make way for buildings. Sometimes they are even replaced by artificial fibres!
This spells disaster for the birds. Because dead plant material, and other woodland debris harbor insects—the food that birds need to survive.
Avoid placing structures on ridge tops: birds tend to follow these routes during migration. Every year millions of birds are killed when they strike power lines, windows, and towers.
Ok, this is food for thought for all of you—the future architects, town planners and ecologists. But that is the future. You can play a very important role in helping our feathered citizens even now.
Return of the nightjar
The nightjar, a once endangered nocturnal bird, has made a comeback in the North York Moors in England. Their numbers have increased by 250 per cent in the last 12 years. Traditionally, nightjars nested on shrubs but when this habitat declined, their numbers went on a tailspin. But now they have returned in replanted forest areas, which provide shelter and plenty of insects for food.
Go organic. Manage pests by using neem, turmeric, garlic or plants like marigold and chrysanthemum. Use waste material like dead leaves, coconut fibre, peanut husk, left over food, instead of chemicals.
Grow a green thumb: Grow small shrubs and grass in balconies. Preferably local grass varieties.
Grow food: You can plant fruit-bearing tomatoes, onions and tulsi in earthen or old plastic trays, in terraces or balconies.
Offer nest options: Can be done by hanging matkas or clean boxes in balconies or window knobs. Keeping some clean water and a handful of grains will certainly help!
Keep them safe: make the space off-limits for cats or dogs—they are predators after all!
It’s not so difficult really. A little more effort and….the Hemants of the future may still be able to fill up their scrap books with a rainbow of feathers.