Where have all the birds gone?

The sixth-big extinction event is already upon us – and is largely due to our activities. Well, I checked my notes and, to my horror, discovered that several “little extinctions” had already occurred in my little neck of the woods, and here I’m only talking about birds.

Heading the list, of course, are house sparrows. Not long ago, a “relict” population still used to hop around in the garden from time to time, but I haven’t seen them for a while now—they seem to have been replaced by tiny, squeaking spice finches, aka scaly— Breasted munias. Every October, a gentleman redstart would report at the garden gate and greet me gravely, bobbing his head and shivering his tail before flying down to the lawn to check out what delicacy was on offer. He’s been absent for many years now and may have passed on, but obviously didn’t let on about his private secret garden. White wagtails that used to saunter about on the big common lawn like a convention of prosperous landlords, no longer do so, and the genteel hoopoe clad in salmon and zebra-stripes is also missing in action. Also absent is the diminutive gray-headed canary flycatcher that used to sit on the cemetery wall and dive down after insects.

A gentleman redstart would bob his head and greet us before flying down to the lawn to check out what delicacy was on offer; he’s missing too (Credit: Ranjit Lal)

While families of jungle babblers are thankfully still around, their larger cousins, the large gray babblers have vanished and the common babbler whose call is like a football referee’s whistle (which drove my dogs nuts), has gone too. This year, too, I’ve noticed that the collared dove – that pale-beige dove with an over-powdered face and black collar no longer spirals up into the sky and descends, calling and marking out its territory. Rose-ringed parakeets still shriek and clown and rocket about the place, livening things up, but their lovely cousins, the plum-headed parakeets with their questioning “tooi-tooi” whistles have vanished too.

Tailorbirdsshouting like electioneers at 120 decibels, still hop excitedly on the bougainvillea outside my bedroom, but their sleek cousins ​​the ashy prinias, so smart in their gray and russet and who prefer to hop around at the bottom of the hedges, no longer do so .

Many years ago, a pair of white-eared bulbuls, so lovely with their sunshine bottoms, nested in the garden hedge once but never after that. I believe they prefer drier habitats than well-watered gardens in Delhi. From about a month preceding the monsoon, I keep an ear out for the ringing, joyous call of the swashbuckling Jacobin Cuckoo, earlier called the pied-crested-cuckoo, which is supposed to signal the onset of the rains, but really haven’t for the past several years. (They have been reported from other parts of Delhi though.)

Rarities, like the magnificent crested-serpent eagle would make a stop-over in the Nicholson cemetery next door every October or November en route to wherever it was spending the coming winter: no longer. The jaunty families of gray partridge (francolin) that sauntered about or stood on tiptoe yelling “pateela! patela! pateela” (or Kapil-Dev, Kapil-Dev, Kapil-Dev!’) have either been eaten or have migrated to the Quidsia Gardens across the road. Lovelies like the little minivet are long gone, too.

In fact, when we first settled here, I spent hours sitting on the cooler in my balcony watching the birds in the Nicholson Cemetery next door and made a list of over 60 species; I now wonder if there would even be half that number.

On the Ridge nearby, where I walked for around 30 years (until the macaque-dictatorship took over completely) there have been birds that are AWOL too. The scummy (at the time) serpentine pond used to attract that wonder of wonders, the paradise flycatcher, both in full breeding attire in March and then again post-breeding casuals (minus coat tails) in July. The common (really not so common) kingfisher with its sapphire head and back, and fire-orange breast used to fish in the pond – a sign that the water was clean: now gone, of course.

The plum-headed parakeets with their questioning “tooi-tooi” whistles have vanished. (Credit: Ranjit Lal)

These absentees give you a feeling of dread in the pit of your stomach, as though they are forebodings of worse to come. So, I guess it’s better to appreciate the birds that have stuck it out and which seem to have done well for themselves: The barbets (especially brown-headed) seems to be prospering and, I know, that there is a family of shikras hunting in the cemetery along with clans of spotted-owlets.

A few days ago, a baby hornbill perched on the towel in my balcony and visited again this morning. Sunbirds and bulbuls (both the red-whiskered and red-vented) abound. A bunch of monocle-wearing white-eyes inspected the bougainvillea thoroughly, quite recently, and this April, the ringing “kil-lil-kil-lil” call of the white-throated kingfisher rang through the cemetery indicating that perhaps somewhere there, the birds were nesting. The koels are going demented and unashamedly wake you up at 3am, as do the peacocks that are strutting around these days, trailing their bejeweled cloaks behind them. A pair of hysterical red-wattled lapwings has nested on the terrace: one potential stood guard at the edge of the terrace every morning, cocking its head this way and that for danger from every direction.

Salim Ali always stressed the importance of keeping field notes, and I am glad that I have done so. Otherwise, these birds would have just slipped out of my sieve-like memory unnoticed and unmarked. The big looming question for many of them remains of course, why have they vanished?


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