Avian symphony

Anand PendharkarI hear a coppersmith barbet emitting its metallic call, even as a jet black koel flies across my window. All this, while I'm frantically trying to concentrate on the work at hand. It's November, and my team is gearing up for our annual nature festival, Earth Mela. Our volunteers and interns are busy preparing clay curios and sending out invites to schools, colleges and corporate houses; some designing posters of various lectures, workshops and competitions; while a few are struggling through the schedule. Some are having fun sorting out fossils, rocks and other terracotta artefacts. But, the best task is that of sorting through photos, poems and paintings we received for display in the exhibition.

I respond to the humdrum and chaos around by focusing on some bird song in the distance, be it a tailor bird, black kite or a fantail flycatcher courting its mate. This is my urban symphony, my Bach and Beethoven. Within seconds my mind blocks out all the traffic sound, honking and even fights that may be occurring on the road below. The songs of these birds have such magical powers.

Black drongo
Black drongo

Most Mumbaikars think our city is sterile and birdless with the exception of crows, pigeons and some stray mynas. But, our city probably ranks among the most biodiverse cities as far as birds are concerned. There are over 325 species recorded in the Mumbai Metropolitan Region (MMR) extending from Virar in the west to Karjat and Panvel in the east, down till Colaba. Compare this to the 2,000-odd bird species recorded in the entire country. The city gets a large variety of migratory bird species from Europe, Africa, various parts of Asia and even some altitudinal migrants from within the Indian Himalaya, bringing with them their own colours, dances and songs.

Our city’s long coastline is a fabulous location to watch these migrants court, display and threaten their potential partners. The lesser and greater flamingos of Sewri are famous for their strutting dance and magnificent colours. But the chasing sand plovers, ruddy turnstones, curlews and sandpipers, bring in varied songs — twittering, mourning, shocked and gurgling. The flocks of red, scaly-breasted and silverbill munias almost whisper and one has to have a sharp ear to hear their mumbling songs. The most populous and noisy members in our urban avian world are probably the Alexandrine, rose-ringed and plum-headed parakeets. Of course, their sounds are no comparison to the monotonous and irritating humming of courting blue rock pigeons.

Hardly a winter day passes without me listening to the elaborate 8-10 note songs of magpie robins, fantail flycatchers, purple-rumped sunbirds and the night gawks of barn owls. But my favourite winter avian singers are the black drongos. They are such fantastic mimics and include the songs of various other birds in the repertoire, such as bulbuls, mynas, common ioras, orioles and even the astute hunter, shikra. They are so much fun to watch, diving and attacking each other and going after bigger predators, such as cats, kites or even eagles.

Very few locations have the luck of listening to the long drawn squeals of grey hornbills or the metallic ring of the red whiskered bulbuls. I truly miss the daylong chatter of rosy starlings in my neighbouring Bhend and Indian coral trees, but after recent redevelopment projects, these birds have lost their homes and the city its voice. Just like my dispersed team re-convenes from all over the world around the Earth Mela, look around you, it's that time of the year when birds of feathers flock together into Mumbai.

Write in to Anand Pendharkar at sproutsonline@gmail.com

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