Ranjit Lal takes copious notes every time he steps out of his house — to document the sights and sounds of winged creatures and animals he spots in Delhi, where he lives. Some of these jottings find place in his new book, Wild City: Nature Wonders Next Door. Lal spoke to Lounge about making city children animal-friendly and the right places to take them to, for wildlife gazing. Edited excerpts:
Most animals that children see in their day-to-day life don’t arouse their curiosity because they’re so used to seeing them.
All it takes is a little patience. Slip in zapping facts about animals from time to time. For example, spider’s silk is stronger than steel wire of the same diameter, and spiders recycle this by eating their webs when they’re torn and tattered. For kids, usually baby animals and birds hold the maximum appeal. Introducing them to these, however, needs to be done very carefully. They will empathize with baby birds and animals, but if you’ve rescued one, then it’s best to take it (and the kids) to an animal care centre and show them what’s being done.
In the wild: One of Lal’s earlier books is The Crow Chronicles. Harikrishna Katragadda / Mint
What are some city animals that fascinate you?
Monkeys and young men, because they’re virtually identical, especially when they meet. Cats, because they’re always on their own trips, cool, always on the lookout for something to kill — any unusual call from them merits investigation. Crows, babblers and mynas making a racket usually indicate that a raptor may be about — probably a shikra (a kind of small hawk) or an owl or, who knows, even the crested serpent eagle? The sharpchhttr! call during the monsoons may indicate the presence of the Paradise flycatcher. I also love the tiny tot warblers that turn up every winter after magnum journeys from Siberia.
Suggest a day-long animal/bird-spotting trip in Delhi or any other city.
In Delhi, start off (having taken permission, of course) with the Yamuna Biodiversity Park. In winter you can see a variety of migratory waterfowl up close. Then there’s the Okhla Bird Sanctuary, again a bird haven. Or you could traipse over to the Sultanpur National Park (45-50km away) and spend the whole day there. In Mumbai, you can spend days at the Borivali National Park (now called the Sanjay Gandhi National Park). I used to bunk college to go there during the monsoons!
What are some of your encounters that didn’t make it to the book?
Watching mongooses have an orgy early one morning at the Okhla Bird Park; a recent trip to Sonapani; and a tiny kitten that yowled ferociously outside my dining room and then climbed up my leg, demanding a titbit.
What’s the most interesting animal drama you’ve come across in the middle of a city?
A fascinating soap opera involving two pairs of sparrow families nesting in the veranda outside my bedroom. Lady at Nest 1 made eyes at and cuddled up with gent in Nest 2, whose wife did not approve. But she cuddled up to her husband and hurled curses at Lady 1. Then Lady 2’s husband got wind and thought Gent 1 had seduced his wife, Lady 2. The screaming and murderous beak-to-beak combat on the balcony floor went on from 11am to 2pm and I had to make sure the dog didn’t eat the combatants. At the end of the day, I think it was a draw, but one wife sat woebegone on the bougainvillea looking pretty beaten up.
How can children be taught to make our cities congenial for animals?
Interfere as little as possible in animals’ lives. A lot of people feed birds and strays. I guess that’s fine provided they keep that commitment and it’s not done whimsically. The “freeing” of captive birds to please the gods is nonsense. All it does is encourage trappers to catch more birds — and most of these are protected species. Just don’t buy them. The same holds true for pet birds. Instead of keeping a parakeet in a cage, show your child the flocks scream across the skies every morning and evening and see how happy they feel.
Your next project involves children.
Yes, I’m writing a work of fiction for kids. The story’s still developing, so I don’t know exactly where it’s heading. Another book, The Simians of South Block and the Yumyum Piglets, is recently out.
Did you Know
(Interest your child with these quick facts)
# A cat may kill at least 100 birds in a year
# An average cat can run at a speed of 48 kmph
# A cat’s eyes are the largest in proportion to body size of any mammal and six times as light-sensitive as ours
# Female spiders eat male spiders and that meets the protein requirement of their eggs. Baby spiders may eat each other, too, if food is scarce.