In Massachusetts, I discovered the wonder of hummingbirds. Tiny and iridescent, they hovered at a feeder just outside the window where Rom and I lay in bed watching them. Determined to create a similar experience at our home in rural Tamil Nadu, I bought a bird feeder.
I reconstituted the feed, following instructions on the package, hung the bottle under the eaves, and waited for sunbirds, the nectar-drinking Old World relatives of hummingbirds. For a few days, nothing happened.
Early one morning, the hummingbird feeder was empty. Sunbirds weren’t creatures of the night. At dusk, I watched the refilled feeder from our living room window to catch the slurper. A bat flew from the garden, landed on the bottle, and as bottle swayed back and forth, quaffed down the red liquid in minutes. I brought the feeder in every evening and hung it out early the following morning. By the time I ran out of hummingbird feed, I had failed to attract a single sunbird.
Since then, I realised feeding animals creates monsters. Hand-fed wild monkeys think of people as ready food dispensers. They regularly scratch and bite the hands that don’t feed them. Buses stop along our road and passengers feed monkeys that have become wayside fixtures. After the vehicles leave, the animals dart across the road to scrounge leftovers, causing automobile accidents and their own deaths.
Pilgrims to Sithulpahuwa shrine in Yala National Park, Sri Lanka, feed wild elephants. These giants lose their fear of humans, and a few have been shot dead in recent years (see ‘Why did Raja die’ September 8, 2012).
Ecologist Rauf Ali said a bull elephant stands on the Joda-Barbil road along Orissa’s border with Jharkhand, demanding bananas from passing trucks. On YouTube, I watched the handsome tusker sniff inside trucks, often his entire trunk disappeared inside the cab, and pull down sacks from the roof carrier. Called RTO, he’s killed four people, but in each case, the Forest Department decided the elephant wasn’t at fault.
Iguanas are harmless, and even if humans fed them, there is little likelihood the reptiles would chase or bite them. So what could possibly be wrong with feeding them? In the Bahamas, tourists feed grapes and ground beef to these herbivorous animals. Many rock iguanas suffer diarrhoea, high cholesterol, and parasites.
If feeding mammals and reptiles has such disastrous consequences, does feeding birds cause any problems? In Portal, Arizona, a popular birding destination, a resident complained of rattlesnakes colonising her garden. One of our friends, a snake expert, was called to help. He figured seed from the bird feeder spilled on the ground, attracting rats and squirrels. The fat rodents drew rattlesnakes like magnets.
In the West, opinion is divided. Some say bird feeding gives people enjoyment, connects them with Nature, and aids bird conservation. Others say feeding delays migration, impacts chick production, and spreads disease.
Everyone agrees feeding has a big impact on bird survival and reproduction, but there is little information to suggest if it helps or harms birds in the long run. We know even less about the consequences of feeding tropical birds.
Even though I was aware feeding may cause problems, I really wanted sunbirds outside our windows. I convinced myself one little bottle couldn’t have a major impact. I wrote to Bikram Grewal, an authority on birds, for advice on suitable food. Instead of answering my question, he suggested planting ixora and hibiscus plants. I wanted to hang artificial feeders, and he was adamant I shouldn’t. Left with no choice, I planted flowering plants.
Watching sunbirds flit from flower to flower, I’ve come around to Bikram’s way of thinking. The birds had no difficulty finding the flowers nor did they have to compete with bats. Best of all, the feed was natural and not artificial sugar water. Besides, flowers are prettier than plastic-capped bottles.