India: The World’s Worst, and Best, Habitat
There’s this thing about India that’s hard to reconcile.
Well, point of fact, there is no shortage of things about India that are hard to reconcile – the nation is a surfeit of contrasts you never imagined co-existing – but if we’re talking about birds the point I’m trying to make is that despite the fact that the entire country appear to be a low-density landfill there are birds literally everywhere. Perhaps this should be expected. After all, birders know about the relative productivity of landfills and wastewater plants, but on this issue India seems on a level all alone. The trash situation is over-whelming. While the predominant Hindu – and in this part of the country, Jainist – religious beliefs discourage harming other living things, this apparently does not preclude the chucking of garbage everywhere. As distasteful as I found it, I have to have some sympathy. This is a nation without even the basest civic infrastructure in many cases. Trucks run everywhere ferrying goods but I never saw a garbage truck. And without any governmental agency picking up the slack there’s little else for people to do than to just toss the garbage on the street where it piles up over weeks and months and years. It’s a very strange thing.
In any case, this amalgamation of garbage, along with the fact that Indians appear to be indifferent to, and often actively encouraging toward, wildlife in their midst means that there’s simply a lot of life around. My first morning in India was spent on and around the hotel in which we’d been put up in Ahmedebad, the capital of far western Gujarat state. From the roof I, along with a couple South African birders, picked up about 15 species in 20 minutes. Common Mynahs and Rose-ringed Parakeets were the most common but Black Kites, a species that I always associated with European pastures, are present in concentrations that are jaw-dropping. Peering into nearby yards we found Indian Peafowl and Jungle Babblers. A gorgeous male Purple Sunbird worked a bush covered in magenta flowers. A small flock of Comb Ducks flew past and a Red-naped Ibis perched in a tree a couple blocks away. It was, in short, mind-blowing.
But perhaps the truest realization that we were not just in a foreign country but in a place utterly foreign to our western birder sensibilities came when we had to stop for an indeterminate amount of time to await a bigger bus for our party (which never came, incidentally. Another oddity about India is that nothing happens on time, a fact you just have to roll with or slowly go mad). As we sat on one of Ahmedebad’s busy streets we decided to make the best of our situation be piling out and checking out the birds. On first glance, the small creek that ran beneath a nearby bridge did not seen to be anyone’s idea of a hotspot, colored as it was by ominous dark brown swirls while nearby trees were festooned with plastic bags. More, we could see no fewer than a dozen people using an upstream field as a public toilet, completely oblivious to the dozen binocular and camera clad individuals not more than a few hundred meters away. But this was arguably the best birding of the trip, and an introduction to the possibility and profanity of this nation.
We didn’t expect much at first, but quickly realized the situation we were in. The field guide was fetched and we held a quick introductory lesson in Asian birding as species after species turned up, including several that we’d not see again during the trip. Prinias, warblers, multiple herons and egrets. A White-breasted Waterhen was a highlight. A pair of Red-wattled Lapwings on a small island added a flash of noise and color. Rosy Starlings and Bank Mynahs flew out and back and all the while Black Kites circled above.
Rose-ringed Parakeets are everywhere. It’s hard to get over seeing Psitticids where they are supposed to be seen, particularly this species which has a strong feral population in Florida. They are loud and social, but you’d expect nothing less from a parakeet.
Finally something unequivocally Old World. Asia offers much in the way of cuckoos, but this Asian Koel was unexpected in this setting. The male is a sleek black while the female (just out of frame and obstructed, unfortunately) is a dapper brown speckley thing. Like many of the Old World cuckoos, it’s a brood parasite, and being as it’s a very big bird its targets are usually House Crows, which is pretty awesome actually. With that evil, red, eye I have no doubt that House Crows involuntarily step aside to have their nests parasitized.
So many of the birds we saw that morning ended up being common roadside birds, despite the fact that they seem like they shouldn’t be. These Green Bee-eaters will blow your face off the first time you see them, but remarkably continue to do so despite being as common as Eastern Bluebirds on power lines all across this part of India. They are incredible.
Black Kites are about as common as pigeons in the cities, but more or less absent away from people. I was told this is because they feed on food scraps, particularly around butchers who toss the offal out into the streets. According to wikipedia, the density in Indian cities can be as high as 15 birds per square kilometer, and from what I saw that seems about right. It’s really bizarre to see raptors present in such high densities.
We ended with about 35 species in this little mildly disgusting patch of wetland, and that’s even before we realized that there was a largish lake on the other side of the street that hosted unidentified cormorants and terns. But by the time we had built up our confidence to cross the crazy busy street, we were being called back onto the bus to head out into the wilds of Gujarat (a trip that takes about 12 hours on suspect roads, not that we knew it at the time).
India was calling, and we were ready for it, warts and all.