K.V. Sudhakar on the birds that once flocked our homes, how books on wildlife deepened his interest in natural history and his outings with the Madras Naturalists' Society
Urbanisation is a major factor impacting wildlife. Before the days when grains began to be sold in neatly packed plastic covers at supermarkets, they were kept in open gunny bags and were sold, folded in old newspapers. As a result, a spill of grains was always found near the thresholds of poky little retail shops. Sparrows would feed on these spills. Even methods employed by wholesalers favoured these birds. When they were loaded and unloaded, sacks of grains would be lifted by sinking iron hooks into them and this practice caused spills. Dwindling numbers of such shops and more sophisticated methods of storing and transporting grains are among reasons for sparrows deserting Madras.
Not just sparrows, other birds that were once taken for granted have become a rarity. When we lived on Saravana Mudali Street in T. Nagar, our grandmother would show me and my brothers palm civets that clambered up coconut trees. Night herons would roost in the trees of our garden. As they made the sounds ‘waka! waka!', we called these herons ‘waka'.
Our interest in wildlife deepened when my brother K.V. Prabhakar found The Black Panther Of Sivanipalli by Kenneth Anderson in the collection of the Local Library Authority (LLA) on Mount Road. A copy of Vallikannan's Tamil translation of Robert C. Ruark's The Old Man And The Boy opened our eyes to the necessity of conserving wildlife.
Adyar Estuary being a haven for birds, we began to go there regularly. On one side of the estuary, the Theosophical Society served as a sanctuary for woodland birds. On the other was an open area — what is today the MRC Nagar — where ground-nesting birds congregated. Among them was an impressive number of yellow-wattled lapwings.
As bird-watching had become our foremost pastime, we began to hope for guidance from experienced birdwatchers. Our prayers were answered on May 17, 1978, when a group of around 40 birders met at the house of R.V. Mohan Rao. He had taken the trouble of getting their addresses and inviting them. A Bangalore-based group that ran a newsletter for birdwatchers helped him with the names and contact details of its members living in Madras. The meeting birthed the Madras Naturalists' Society (MNS). Founder of the Photographic Society G.K. Bhat was appointed as the Society's president. A visit to Point Calimere in December, 1978, was our first major expedition.
In those days, V. Shantaram — who now lives in the Rishi Valley — was the major guiding light for the fledgling group. He lived in Santhome and he took maximum advantage of its proximity to the Adyar Estuary, visiting it regularly and creating an exhaustive list of the estuarine birds. He was the driving force behind the Sunday trips to the Estuary. At 4.30 p.m. every Sunday, we assembled there and watched birds until one of these winged creatures asked us to ‘pack up' and go home. The stone curlews served as our time-keepers. They would pipe up always around 6.45 p.m. They would go ‘pick! pick! pick!” We also enjoyed listening to the cries of the red-wattled lapwings, which went “did did did did-you-do-it! did did did did-you-do-it!” Jokes in our group always centered around the calls and features of birds. The loquacious members were called open bills (a reference to openbill storks).
The weekend communion with Nature and the company of friends was so refreshing that we began to live from Sunday to Sunday.
BIO K.V. SUDHAKAR Born in 1954, he is a chartered accountant and a committed naturalist. With the Madras Naturalist Society since its inception, he now serves as its president.
I REMEMBER In those days, most birders in Madras relied on the slim-sized Book of Indian Birds by Salim Ali to identify birds. Every birdwatcher desired to possess Ali's ten-volume Handbook of the Birds of India and Pakistan, which was incredibly exhaustive but came at a steep price. A birder friend received the 10-volume set as a wedding gift. On that day, he was the most envied man in all of Madras.