On the wings of the wind

-By Randhir Khare

The journeys that migratory birds undertake could be a few kilometres or a few thousand kilometres, regional or intercontinental. Some travel by day, guided by the slant of the sun whilst others by night, guided by the constellations. They brave difficult conditions to make it to their breeding or feeding grounds.

‘It was dusk as I stood on a low bund amidst the salt lakes lying on the outreach ends of Calcutta’s suburbs and watched vast flocks of ducks and geese appear over the horizon and cloud the sky. They approached in waves, whistling and honking overhead, visitors arrived from distant lands, riding the wind gracefully, slicing through the dark evening sky like arrows shot from a divine quiver. Their cries evoked the mysteries and wonders of far away lakes and streams and fields and seas and mountains. They were Nature’s messengers who had come to tell us that life will go on as it always had,’ writes a mid 20th century amateur bird watcher of West Bengal. He recounts bird watching experiences in the salt lakes that defy the imagination, reeling off names of innumerable feathered visitors that are today rarely seen in those parts. Rapidly shifting climatic conditions, unrestrained development and drastically altered land use have seriously affected the migratory patterns of birds. But nevertheless, the two and fro movement goes on in one way or another – whether from one end of the country to the other or one part of the world to another

But what is bird migration? Simply put – it is the to and fro journey of a bird between two places to ensure that it always has the right place to feed, mate and breed. As such, there are considerations like length of daylight hours, climate, temperature, availability of adequate and secure nesting places and food supply. This back and forth motion is often compared to the swing of a pendulum as it is precise, well defined and repetitive. Although other creatures also migrate in one way or another, the bodies of birds are more appropriate to take maximum advantage of such movement. So a bird often travels great distances from its breeding or nesting home to its feeding and resting place and then back. According to Salim Ali, the journey can be ‘from no more than a few kilometres to several thousand kilometres.’ For long distance fliers, those who move by day are guided by the angle of the sun and those who fly by night are guided by the constellations of the stars.

No bird needs to be ‘taught’ where, when and how to travel. All it does is respond instinctively to knowledge that is deeply engrained in memory, built by custom – passed on over time. Of course the speed by which each species does this varies. It has been said for example that a plover flies 880 km, non-stop in 11 hours before taking a break. A stork does 200 kms in 6 hours in a single lap. Then there are those who fly without stopping – the Eastern Golden Plover covers 3,200 km and the Woodcock migrates back and forth between the Nilgiris and the Himalayas, covering 2400 km in a single non-stop trip.

The height at which each species fly during migration vary. It is not unusual for some fliers to float over mountains many thousand feet high or over the surface of the watery expanse of seas and oceans. No physical challenge is too great for birds as they make optimum use of the power of Nature.

Migratory routes are firmly followed as birds move from their winter to their summer quarters and back…whether in the case of long distant shuttlers or local migrants. The passage lying between north and northwest India for example is one of the most used. As autumn sets in vast streams of birds fly in from the lands far beyond through this passage and return the same way when spring starts setting in. Or, as in a number of cases – the other way around.

Through the ages, shikaris have taken advantage of this knowledge and gunned down an immense number of birds as they passed over. They were unable to avoid the barrage of gun fire or turn back, because custom and instinct drove them on – through all danger to their destinations.

There’s an account by a European shikari of a shooting trip that he went on in 1928 with H.H. the Maharao of Kutch in the Banni region on the edge of the Great Rann. He writes, ‘There was a convenient sandy island covered with tamarisk in the centre …it was here, screened by the bushes, we took up our positions shortly after 3 o’clock in the afternoon – one on either side, thus covering …two channels. We had not disturbed the birds above, and there was still the same continuous stream of ducks passing overhead! I timed their movements. Never less frequently than once in every three minutes a pack of Pintail or Gadwall, numbering anything from 10 – 40 birds, appeared above the Rann – with such regularity indeed that it seemed as though they might have been expelled from a trap – and they approached us rapidly, as do moving objects in a cinema…. And so the sport began, and raged fast and furious. Guns became too hot to hold: shots had to be fired through the ranks of Shovellers to reach the higher and more speedy chocolate-necked, white-bellied Pintail drakes above. Now a brace and then a singleton would crumple up and fall…it was the real thing – duck-shooting at its best. And only the fading light at 5.15 p.m., brought to an end the finest flighting I have ever experienced and shut out from view a spectacle which I can scarcely hope to see again. Two hours of brisk shooting had produced, between the two of us, 150 Ducks of which all but a score were Pintails and Gadwall.’

In an article written by H.H. Maharao Shri Vijayarajji in 1912, in the Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society, there is a graphic description of a Grey Lag goose shoot which is ridden with the romance of the “hunt”. The fag-end of the article appears to be the high point: ‘If four decent shots shoot for three days they can easily get 300 geese’, it says.

Knowingly or unknowingly, these avid shikaris were gunning down flocks of birds on their annual migratory journey, coming into the country from far away places, almost magnetically headed towards their destinations in various parts of the country – the jheels of north India, the region in and around Bharatpur, the wetlands of West Bengal, the Chilka lakes on the east coast and scattered locations in south and western India. To get a feeling of the sheer scale of migratory distances, a look at the migratory ambit of a few of our visitors.

The Siberian or Great White Crane breeds in parts of Russia and flies into India during the winters. The Demoiselle Crane travels (in many cases) from Southern Europe, North Africa and north and central Asia, White or Rosy Pelicans, Dalmation Pelicans and Pintail come in from parts of Europe and the Middle East, Rosy Pastors include eastern Europe and central and north Asia in their ambit whereas Shovellers and Curlews have northern Europe-India- northern Europe in their annual travel plans.

A great number of our birds are local migrants – moving back and forth across short distances or covering vast distances that span the peninsular. There are the Bee Eaters, various families of Mynas, Green Pigeons, quite a large variety of Ducks, Stilts, Woodpeckers, the Golden Oriole, Thrushes, Warblers, Wagtails and Ibises… the list is endless. With rapidly altering climatic conditions, the patterns are being forced to change, leading to chaos and the drastic dwindling of bird species on the sub-continent.

As usual the struggle for survival is on between humans and Nature’s creatures – in this case, birds. After all it wasn’t only independent shikaris who caused havoc with their indiscriminate slaughter but also regular bird trappers. The belt which stretches across Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal is notorious for organised bird snaring. So are the Chilka lakes of Orissa. Not to say of course that this doesn’t happen in other parts of the country. But the reality is that land has not expanded – human population has.

Now it isn’t that all birds are unable to adjust to these changes. There are still many who manage. Paradise Flycatchers, Bee Eaters, Green Pigeons, Rosy Pastors, four types of Mynas and many other species have been spotted in the busy metropolis of Mumbai, flocks of Flamingos visit the creeks of the city, Pune has its fair share of local and long distant visitors, Delhi and its environs also witness a seasonal influx. Not long ago a flock of Minivets was spotted hovering around a garbage dump in a suburb of Kolkata. The desperate need to survive persists – only annihilation resolves the struggle.

As a result of these changes, several deviations have emerged. Stragglers lost in migratory transit due to natural or manmade interferences have set up home in new areas, birds who were long distance travellers have increasingly shortened their distances and opted for nearer breeding or feeding grounds, feeding and nesting habits are being altered and a subtle process of so called mutation is being set in motion. In the town of Bhuj (Kutch) for example there are two lakes that are usually crowded out with winter visitors. These have often included several types of Ducks, Geese, Pelicans, Stilts, Curlew, Red Shanks, Green Shanks, Flamingos, Lesser Flamingos, Godwits and a host of other water birds. As winter dwindled out and spring came, they would move away and dissolve into distances leaving behind only local residents.

However, in time, this pattern has begun to change. Families of pelicans remain along with other migratory birds. Even the lake outside the walled town of Mandvi now has permanent residents. It almost appears that they have nowhere else to go and now depend on local hospitality. Eight or nine summers ago, flocks of Pelican were seen wheeling about almost aimlessly under a brutal summer sun in search of water as the lakes had virtually dried up. Several collapsed with exhaustion and came plummeting down with a thud on to the earth.

Perhaps there’ll come a time when the great migratory patterns that survived the ages will have shifted out of gear and new rhythms, more conducive to rapid change, will emerge. Who knows? Entire species might be wiped out in the bargain. So until then, let us delight in the pleasure that our feathered visitors give us and bless them for being such courageous and adventurous creatures.

Nityaasha Foundation