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A silent spring

Feb 12, 2013:

URBAN BIODIVERSITY

A troubling decline in sparrows is old news. But there are many species, like babblers and flowerpeckers, which have gone the way of the sparrow. The common white-headed babbler is a rarity in cities today. As native flowering bushes make way for tamed and pruned Chinese bamboo, Mexican cacti or other foreign plants, birds like babblers or flowerpeckers have nowhere to go, observes Divya Karnad

Good fences make good neighbours. Robert Frost might have been describing a different era, but the words ring true even today.

Our neighbours are defined by fences. Walls, bare and high, soaring into spikes, can only let the persistent pass. Crows are the most persistent, invading the best protected gardens. Where they go, none can follow. Only the koels, which hoodwink the crows, get some benefits. Koels are the masters of guile. Heralding the rains, they delegate the responsibilities of parenthood to their cousins, the crows.

These common birds form the music of our days in many Indian cities. A few years ago, the symphony was richer. From parakeets to drongos, several of our feathered neighbours have disappeared. All because of good gardens and fences. As we trim our hedges, erase the soil under metres of concrete, and replace our bushes with lawns, we strip our environment of habitable areas.

Birds like the drongo are good neighbours, since they are insectivores and can rid us of unwanted pests. They are also among the first birds to disappear. In spite of being relatives of crows, these smaller cousins are very sensitive to change, preferring areas that have a mix of trees, open space and bushes. With each new apartment complex bringing tonnes of concrete into what used to be green space, we are crowding our neighbours out.

Vanishing sparrows


A troubling decline in sparrows has already hit the news. But there are many others, like babblers and flowerpeckers, which have gone the way of the sparrow. The common white-headed babbler is a rarity in cities today. It used to be known as ‘Seven Sisters’.

The loud, noisy babbling could not be missed, and as the common name suggests, these babblers always lived in groups. Preferring to hide in bushes rather than confront large predators like crows, they would pick at sticks and beetles in the dark corners of gardens. Our dark corners are now empty. As native flowering bushes make way for tamed and pruned Chinese bamboo, Mexican cacti or other foreign plants, birds like the babblers or the brilliantly coloured flowerpeckers have nowhere to go.


The size of large butterflies, flowerpeckers are the Indian counterparts of hummingbirds. Their high-pitched calls would resonate through the trees, as they duetted with the slightly larger tailorbirds and barbets. True to their name, tailorbirds stitch nests out of leaves.

They preferred native trees like the Pongam, while the brilliant red, blue and green barbets flitted between the neem and mango trees. Many city roads are now lined with Mayflower trees, brought all the way from Madagascar and copper pod trees, brought in from South east Asia. They are of no use to Indian birds.

As the smaller birds and mammals disappear, so do their predators. The Indian kestrel and the shikra are some of the smallest and most aerodynamic of falcons.

Their calls were so common that the mimics of the bird world such as drongos and mynas would imitate them to scare away other birds from a potential food item. There is little danger of such mimicry in areas where there is construction nowadays because neither the falcons nor their imitators can live there.

As we complain about mosquitoes and fumigate our neighbourhoods, even the birds of the night fade away. Spotted owlets used to live in undisturbed tree hollows, coming out only at dusk.

Their loud, cheerful chirruping set a pleasant tone for every evening. The last of the rodent eating owlets have disappeared from tree holes in most busy parts of the city. The nights are now silent, except for the sound of traffic. The bats that tortured them in the film, ‘Legend of the Guardians’ have accompanied them into oblivion. Again these were insectivores that used to soar through the clouds of mosquitoes that built up over our heads when we stood outside. Now nights are only for the real denizens of the dark, urban dwellers.

‘Extinction of experience’

In 2005, a scientist from Iowa State University wrote about this phenomenon of species disappearance in a paper entitled, ‘Extinction of Experience’, where he lamented that the world’s population is becoming more urbanised and urban people are becoming disconnected from nature.

As people come to have contact with less species, they forget the traditional knowledge their families once possessed. As a result, a harmless rat snake comes to be equated to a potentially lethal cobra; both are now killed on sight.

Despite the homogenisation that humans are trying to wreak on the world through globalisation, we still gain some unrecognised physiological and psychological benefits from green and diverse spaces. Research has shown that exposure to nature hastens recovery from illness and stress, increases cognitive functioning and reasoning, and enhances emotional and intellectual development in children.

Symptoms of withdrawal from nature emerge from industrialised, developed nations. As urban America deals with an increased spate of teenage gunmen, it seems that possession of firearms is merely the tip of the iceberg in an increasingly concretised world.

Teachers of special education find that dealing with autistic children becomes easier in parks or forests, since they calm down naturally, without sedation and find it easier to concentrate on lessons. With so many potential benefits that we take for granted, urban dwellers cannot afford to ignore the human need for nature for long.
Paradise lost?

Not quite. A new generation of conservationists focusing on urban issues, along with ‘green’ architects are finding ways to integrate conservation and urbanisation. Studies on urban green spaces suggest small improvements that can make our homes less exclusionary. If bungalow and apartment dwellers would create green fences by planting Indian shrubs and trees along their compound walls, green corridors would be created to support these species.

If apartments on the ground and first floors would create balcony gardens of native flowering plants, it would give some species like flowerpeckers more options and spaces to live. Green roofs in many cities like Berlin have helped biodiversity and reduced energy costs for buildings by providing natural insulation.

In the UK, scientists have taken to documenting garden biodiversity in order to generate awareness, and create better urban biodiversity management strategies. A mosaic of gardens and parks in our cities can help both our feathered friends and ourselves. While we may not be able to keep Frost’s dream of ‘woods, dark and deep’ alive, we can certainly do our bit. 

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