A harsh sound from the tree outside the house called my attention. As it repeated for some time, I was curious and slowly approached the window near the canopy to see a yellow-and-black bird sending out the calls. No answering calls came and after some time it went away.
The next day sometime in the morning, the call sounded again for a few seconds, and the day after that, and on. It has been more than a week now and the Black-naped Oriole comes daily, looking probably for some lost partner. And goes away. I have not been able to discern any fellow member up there.
A few months ago, it was the turn of the tailor-bird to send out such frantic calls. It was approaching dusk and the pair had brought up two fledgelings who had taken wings. This one was calling out frantically and relentlessly for almost 20 minutes, perched variously on various branches, trees and electric wires. The constant call had almost brought on an ache to my throat as I watched on from the terrace. Finally, there came an answering call and all of a sudden all was quiet in the bird world outside my window.
Yesterday, again, it was the turn of the bulbul who went on sending varied calls and listening carefully, twisting its head in different directions, amidst the vehicular noise pollution. Sometimes a squealing brake seemed like an answering call but soon the bird realised it was not. The notes kept changing from a long series of enquiries to short throaty ones. Finally, both of us heard a distant echo of its call and the bulbul went flying in that direction, hopefully gathering its mate or child before sunset.
The same pair, probably, regaled us a month ago with their flying lessons for Junior. Around 4 in the evening the whistles would start and a threesome went from tree to building-top to electric wire to another tree.
Whether it be the antics of the crow splashing in the bowl of water on the terrace or the smooth flight of the pigeons, the swooping eagle with a big twig in its beak or the mynahs talking loud across two trees, the fluffy little bundle of a tailor bird flitting on the creeper or the lone heron that comes home to the tree daily, the whistle of the bulbul above the noise of the road or the occasional visit of a wagtail family, life in the chaotic city has been more than enlivened for me by these creatures from the heavens.
Ironically, in what has been declared the Year of Birds by National Geographic, National Audubon Society, and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, dedicated to celebrating and protecting birds and their habitats, 2018 has begun rather tragically for our feathered friends who are being culled in large numbers across the globe due to avian flu.
The current panic from the highly pathogenic virus H5N8 has seen domestic poultry succumb to the flu and thousands culled to spread the infection in regions as wide apart as the Netherlands and Korea, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and India.
Experts believe the avian virus has been carried by migratory birds for quite some time, without causing much harm to them. It is the large number of dense populations of domestic birds (chicken, ducks, geese, turkeys and quail) associated with industrial poultry production that has come as a large boon to the virus as it spreads easily. Unhygienic practices have aided the spread.
The fingers squarely point to man as the main culprit. If the virus undergoes mutation with some related human virus, it could eventually turn into a pandemic. Poetic justice?
A look at the IUCN's Red List shows more than 90 percent of the endangered lot of birds have been hit by habitat loss from degradation or development activities, as also poaching. Newly-discovered species like the Antioquia wren quickly entered the endangered list when more than half of its habitat was threatened by a single planned dam construction. In 2017, the list featured 1,460 birds across the globe, of which around 150 are from India.
In India, pressures from a rising human population and growth perspectives of the government have seen bird and animal habitats shrink and degrade over time. High-tension wires from renewable-energy parks are the latest threats to some large bird species in India, especially flamingos and bustards in Gujarat and Rajasthan.
While flamingos are still sizeable in number, that is not the case with the Great Indian Bustard, whose numbers range anywhere between 50 and 130. In the Critically Endangered list now, the bird is predicted to become extinct in 10-15 years.
The bird has disappeared from Madhya Pradesh, and has small isolated populations in Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Maharashtra and Gujarat. As part of the Rs 12-crore Project Bustard, there have been plans to conserve its habitat and protect the species.
But with the slew of wind turbines erected over the region and power lines to transmit electricity to the grid, the bustard faces new threats to its existence. The big bird with an eyesight not too sharp runs into the lines before it can change flight course and gets strangulated or electrocuted. Expert studies have recommended that the lines be taken underground in the core areas of the Desert National Park in Rajasthan, the last home of the bustard.
Despite promises to address the issue by taking the lines underground or attach bird flight diverters onto the lines, nothing much has been done, according to news reports.
The slow deterioration of bustard numbers in India from an estimated 1,260 in 1969 to 300 individuals in 2008 is a clear indicator of anthropogenic pressures on the species.
Much of the dry bush and grassland which constitutes the bustards habitat are gone or badly degraded. Governments have always tended to treat both grasslands and deserts as wastelands, suited for development projects.
Sandpipers, lapwings, vultures, etc face the same future as the bustards.
Birds play a big role in the ecosystem, something we learn back in schools, and then forget. Not only do they pollinate plants and disperse seeds, they help recycle nutrients back into the earth. By keeping a check on pests and rodents they help humans more directly.
Beyond such utilitarian value, birds bring joy by their sheer presence and inspire humans to pen poetry to philosophy. Is there anyone who has not experienced an upliftment of the spirit, at least momentarily, at the sight of a bird?
Notwithstanding the misnomer "bird brain" they display ingenuity in the way they build nests and fight predators. Tailorbirds that had stitched together a nest from the leaves of a plant outside my study came back next season and neatly recycled the material for another nest a little farther away. Spotted doves, said to be among dumber of the birds, came back to use the sparingly built nest of the last season, but sadly lost their precious egg to a predator! Birds have adapted to life in cities in amazing ways, so easily shifting residence from trees to high-rises, and eating garbage in place of the early worm!
Numbering over 10,000 species, birds can be found in diverse habitats be it hot deserts or the cold Siberian plains. They come in all sizes too, from the large ostriches and albatross to tiny tailorbirds and hummingbirds. From plain ugly-looking plumage to gaudy and classy colours, birds seem to dip into the rainbow at will and come out in resplendent shades.
While some birds take residence in one place, many others undertake yearly journeys across the globe. Almost 50,000 robins go together on their annual trip from Canada to Mexico. One individual Canadian Arctic tern has been recorded to have travelled more miles than separate the Earth and the moon in its lifetime! Some birds fly across the oceans without a stop.
Bird calls are quite another thing. From the raucous call of the common crow to the whistle of the thrush, the varied calls of the mynah or bulbul, rat-a-tat of the barbet, the tweet of the sparrow and tailorbird, the song of the cuckoo, it goes beyond any human symphony in sheer diversity.
However, despite the fact that birds still surround us in the harsh urban conditions, the fact is that many of the lesser adaptable ones are losing the race. The top reason, of course, is the loss of habitat from pressures of human population, and also climate change.
As intelligent, compassionate beings it becomes the duty of humankind to protect these creatures, who are very ancient occupants of the planet. Unless we take responsibility and act to preserve their range, these things of beauty will disappear, taking the joy out of life forever.