From flamingos to Sika deer, a range of wildlife is being spotted in urban centres across a world under lockdown. But does it mean anything?
A little over a week ago, social and mainstream media in India (and, eventually, in other parts of the world) were abuzz with excitement as spectacular photographs of thousands of flamingos gathered in Navi Mumbai emerged. From an elevation, the scene looked surreal: The TS Chanakya wetlands in the area were studded with pink dots, like flower petals strewn all over the water. It sent people into a tizzy.
The moment was of a piece with a series of unusual sightings in the preceding days as vast swathes of humanity went into lockdown to escape the covid-19 pandemic. Sika deer were spotted roaming around the city of Nara in Japan and visiting subway stations. A herd of Cashmere goats trotted on the empty streets of Llandudno, in Wales, while in Monmouthshire, a flock of sheep decided to stop by at a children’s playground and frolic on the empty rides.
In keeping with the spirit of the age, there were some fake videos as well. Much as the idea may appeal, dolphins did not return to the canals of Venice, nor did drunken elephants invade China’s Yunnan province. The visitation by the flamingos is an annual occurrence, though the numbers have risen from 120,000 in 2019 to 150,000 this year. And even though real dolphins were spotted in the seafront on Mumbai’s Marine Drive, biologists say they were always there. We never looked out for these creatures—or, at least, not intently enough.
The same holds true for the myth of birds returning to urban spaces. As the lockdown forces people to stay home, factories to remain shut and vehicles to ply under restrictions, the sky seems cleaner; the air feels breathable (reports say Delhi’s air quality this March was the best for the same month in the last five years). With a drastic drop in noise pollution, bird calls and song fill our ears. But the sky, the air, the birds were always there, to restate an obvious fact—it is we who are experiencing them anew as we eke out our days at home, at a pace that’s slower than usual.
THE BLUNT TRUTH
Around the time the first phase of the lockdown was about to be extended, I spoke to wildlife experts to understand this phenomenon that registered with common citizens as a sudden resurgence of wildlife, especially of birds, in Indian cities. The answers were, without exception, sobering.
“I don’t think anything has happened to birds or animals in a 21-day lockdown—mostly, it is humans seeing things they are too busy to see otherwise, and also recording and sharing more," says Vivek Menon, founder and CEO of Wildlife Trust of India. “I am inundated by messages from people who are seeing parakeets and barbets from their windows or balconies. So what’s new? They have always been there. You have never looked!"
As a professional in the field, Menon must find our naïve enthusiasm exasperating but amateur birdwatching is suddenly on the ascendant. Balcony birding is a trending hashtag on Instagram. On social media, people report sighting orioles and Paradise-Flycatchers; those living in high-rises are noticing raptors. Seasoned birders are keeping lists of species they are spotting, says K.B. Singh, a well-known figure in the community based in Delhi-National Capital Region (NCR). Some have reportedly spotted over 50 species from the comfort of their homes; Singh’s personal count is 38. Recently, he launched a home birding challenge on Facebook that saw an overwhelming response, not only from inhabitants of Delhi-NCR, at whom it was initially targeted, but also from other parts of the country.
“India has more than 1,300 species of birds, of which around 400 are commonly seen in the cities," says Nikhil Devasar, the Delhi-based wildlife photographer, writer and CEO of Enchanted India, a travel company. If we kept our eyes and ear alert, we should be able to spot many of these in our daily lives, in lockdown or not.
“Currently it is breeding season, so there’s a lot of activity among birds," Devasar adds. Outside his bedroom window, for instance, two spotted owlets have built a nest. As evening falls, these neighbours embark on their hunt, screeching and calling.
Plastic surgeon Kiranmoy Sarangi, an avid birder, reports large murmurations of rosy starlings in the uncharacteristically clear sky above his home in west Delhi. Other “rooftop birders" like him, Sarangi tells me, have seen house sparrows in the city, a species that had all but disappeared from our lives. Such trends may be encouraging but city dwellers have a long way to go before they can begin to harbour the slightest tinge of optimism.
“If the lockdown lasts for a much longer period, it is possible that some species of birds may return to urban spaces," says Shashank Dalvi, a wildlife biologist based in Mumbai. “But no such predictions can be made for the short term." In areas like Rajgad, in Pune, which is already greener than the big cities, more number of migratory birds seem to be flying in.
Dalvi also adds these are the months when many avian species move from their wintering grounds to potential breeding grounds—as is the case with the flamingos, whose favoured breeding ground is in Gujarat’s Kutch region. “A friend recently noticed a large-billed leaf warbler and Brown-breasted Flycatcher in Chennai," he says. “These species spend winters in south India and Sri Lanka, then fly to the Himalayas to breed. They take the same flight path every year but may not have been visible as widely as they now are in the clear skies."
The damage human beings have done to the ecosystem cannot be abated, let alone undone, by a few weeks of lockdown. No amount of romanticizing can heal the environment, especially when the whole world, reeling under economic strain, is desperate to get back to business as usual.
“If a few animals or birds are coming into areas they were not seen in, they are the most habituated and common species. It is even more dangerous to think that nature is reclaiming things as that is not the case. We still have to do things right for years before anything reclaims," Menon points out. “To think that 21 days of rest brings nature back to normal or, even worse, that rare species are saved, is naïve and puerile."
Most children growing up in Indian cities may, at a stretch, be able to point out crows and pigeons. But there is a rich diversity of birds surrounding them. Birds In Your Backyard And Beyond (Red Panda, ₹299), by Arthy Muthanna Singh, Mamta Nainy and Kaustubh Srikanth, with art by Aniruddha Mukherjee, guides young readers into the colourful world of birds.
“The idea is to encourage children to observe different birds around them, understand their sounds and ecology, take conservation steps, and even form their birding clubs," says the Delhi-based Srikanth. To most people, birdwatching means of trips to distant places, fancy gear, and nerdy literature. In reality, it is an activity that can be carried out every day—as we drive out of our homes or take a walk around the local park. “A friend tells me that he sees some 15 species of birds as he walks his children from home to school, roughly a kilometre away, every morning," Srikanth adds.
From do’s and don’ts to starter kits to activity sheets, the book has tips for young birders that should perk their interest. There are diagrams of the salient features of avian anatomy and ideas to protect birds that even adults could learn about—did you know, for instance, that it’s not a good idea to feed birds? As the book shows, far from being “bird-brained", birds are some of the smartest creatures on earth.