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Have they flown the coop?

When did you last see the house sparrow that used to whiz in and out of your home? And where are all those golden-backed woodpeckers, golden orioles, and sandpipers that used to nest in the Ctiy? Time we rearranged the pecking order and took care of our avian friends, writes ANAND BALAJI.


Today, we have to travel miles to watch the balletic grace of painted storks.

PROGRESS IS necessary. But would it translate itself into a worthy achievement if it comes at the expense of sacrificing our flora and fauna? In the blinding rush for development, Bangalore stands guilty at having meted out a raw deal to its avian friends. Of the authentically recorded 1,200 species of birds in India, our City used to boast of 336.

"The Great Indian Bustard, a magnificent bird which could be seen on the outskirts of the City, though existent in the records, has disappeared altogether in reality," says S. Karthikeyan, Education Officer at Worldwide Fund for Nature - India. This is a fate shared by numerous other bird species in the City.

In Bangalore, the house sparrow, once part of every household, has disappeared. They can now be seen only close to the outskirts and in rural areas. Ornithologists speculate that the decline in their numbers could be interlinked with the alteration in the human habitations. "No one can really pinpoint the reasons for their disappearance. A variety of factors may have led to this result," says Mr. Karthikeyan.

In an effort to lay a finger on the issue, Dr. S. Subramanya, an entomologist at the University of Agricultural Sciences, who is a noted ornithologist, suggests: "Lifestyles have changed dramatically. Earlier, kitchen waste used to flow into a garden in the backyard of houses. These days, thanks to well laid-out sewerage systems, waste water is taken away through underground pipelines. As a consequence, sparrows have been deprived of those tiny morsels of food they used to depend on around the houses."

M.B. Krishna, an avid bird-watcher, postulates that the extremely high metabolic rate of the little birds may have led them to seek food sources outside their previous foraging territory. "Flight among birds requires a lot of energy. So in a kind of a chain reaction, the birds and animals from the City have been pushed out further into the urban-rural fringe and the suburbs in search of food." Since sparrows have highly specialised food requirements, it is little wonder then that they are not seen around in urban areas anymore.

"But the crow," says Govardhan, environmentalist and State awardee, "has managed to survive undisturbed because it is a scavenger."

Human intrusion has brought about drastic changes in the avian habitats. The outskirts of Rajajinagar gave Bangalore its first record of the blue-throated flycatcher and the first nesting pair of red-headed falcons which have now become a rare species here.

And it is not just improved drainage methods that have been the undoing of local birds like the sparrow. Urbanisation has been a major contributors to this trend. "The spot where the National Games Village stands today used to be the favourite haunt of pheasant-tailed jacana, wobblers, and several others species of birds. Sadly, with the decline in tree cover and encroachment of wetlands and tanks for construction, these splendid creatures have all but vanished," laments Arun Bhatia, freelance journalist and an amateur bird-watcher since 1955.

His is not a lone voice. Several other bird lovers complain there should be an end to usurping bird habitats by man. Zafar Futehally, well-known ornithologist and editor of the 41-year-old Newsletter for Bird-watchers, believes that: "Urbanisation has been detrimental to bird population in Bangalore. Our city used to have half the number of the 48 species of birds of prey in the country. But what does one get to see among these other than the pariah kite, brahmini kite or at most a black winged kite?"

Along with the wetlands, a large number of birds have almost taken wing. There are bird-watchers who say that they have to travel long distances to see egrets, pond herons, and plovers. "About 10 years ago, we could see these birds without much of a fuss at Hebbal, Nagavara, and Kodigehalli Tank and adjoining areas. But the case is the opposite today," rues amateur bird-watcher Nandan.

Dr. Subramanya says: "The outskirts of Rajajinagar where I roamed in those early days of bird-watching has changed right in front of my eyes. Those vast stretches of dryland cultivations dotted with acacia trees, interspersed with patches of open scrub, barren patches of land, long hedges that bordered fields that stretched till the horizon, no longer exist today."

He adds that a long, winding shallow stream, once home to small blue kingfishers and sandpipers, now reeks with sewage. Along with koels and magpie robins, of the 150 different bird species, a mere 30 remain now. The golden-backed woodpeckers, golden orioles, common, spotted, and green sandpipers are all gone too, he says. "Whenever I happen to be in the area, it pains me to see the rape of a land that spurred me to being a bird-watcher."

Dr. Krishna too alludes to this and says: "City-dwellers should pitch in their mite. Why cement empty spaces in the garden when they can grow creepers, shrubs, and hedges which are bird-friendly?"

So, in an effort to protect and preserve the remaining species of native birds in and around the City, two bird-watchers' clubs, the Bird Watchers' Field Club of Bangalore and Merlin Nature Club conduct outings to educate members and the public every second and fourth Sunday of the month.

The obvious hotspots for viewing these birds are Lalbagh, Cubbon Park, and the Indian Institute of Science campus. In addition, the members also visit Ragihalli, Shivanahalli, Bannerghatta, and nearly 100 tanks in and around the City. And bird lovers are informed through ads in local newspapers.

On an average, around 40 people go on such outings, which at times include bird-watchers from abroad too. The best time of the day to view several species of birds is between 7 and 9 a.m. And the appropriate month would be February, as local and migrant species gather in the City. Come April and they begin their breeding season.

The aim of these clubs is to educate the people about the different kinds of birds and their intricate lifestyles. "A bird lover should be aware of the fascinating connection and importance each bird has in connection to the environment it lives in," says Mr. Futehally. Therefore, one who is keen on bird-watching should first learn to identify a species with his naked eye.

Experts say that it is important to know the common name and scientific name of the bird one encounters and ascertain whether it is local or migrant. "Only then can one progress further, for each bird is unique in its traits and appearance," Dr. Subramanya points out.

One must follow the cardinal rule of maintaining silence while bird-watching, an exercise that requires tremendous patience. This coupled with drab clothes that blend with the foliage, a pair of binoculars, and curiosity make up for the true-blue bird-watcher.

Of late, the internet has become a tool for bird lovers across the globe to interact with each other. For example, bngbirds@yahoogroups.com is one such discussion board.

"Inquisitiveness is the key. If anyone makes a serious effort to take up bird-watching by visiting natural habitats, referring books and speaking to experts, he'll end up with a lifetime's hobby," assures Mr. Futehally.

All the ornithologists collectively agree that the first step towards conservation of existing birds is to grow a whole lot of native species of trees like the banyan, peepal, tamarind, and the Indian beech. "I feel that there is a need to identify bird rich habitats around Bangalore and protect potential sites as Important Bird Areas for conservation," says Dr. Subramanya.

Speaking on similar lines, ornithologists cite the example of a policy followed by the British Government which states that if a rare bird has been found nesting on a particular variety of tree, it is notified as a site of Special Scientific Interest. "It will not be sufficient to merely set up bird sanctuaries, as an entire habitat may be in need of attention. So we should strive to implement a well-rounded policy which takes into consideration all these factors," says Dr. Krishna.

Several bird lovers harp on the fact that there should be a check on the use of pesticides that are harmful to birds frequenting fields in search of food. "In the '70's, the peregrine falcon nearly became extinct in England due to the indiscriminate use of pesticides and the subsequent pollution it caused. Thankfully the authorities concerned woke up in time!" says Mr. Futehally.

Though India has dedicated 4 per cent of its total land area to forests and wildlife sanctuaries, the country has not done much on the avian front.

It is time we realised the loss of these irreplaceable creatures will cause to our fragile ecosystem, or eventually the life of our own species will take wing too.

(Those who want to make a beginning in bird-watching may contact J.N. Prasad of Merlin Nature Club on 6644682. Dr. Subramanya may be contacted at 8467070 or UAS-subbus@bgl.net.in.)

Photo: K. Bhagya Prakash

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