The graceful flamingo is falling victim to electrocution by high-tension cables at its breeding ground in west Gujarat

A flock of flamingos are the most beautiful birds with their flaming shades of rosy pink. Collectively wading in blue lagoons, the pink birds make a profound statement for any casual onlooker. However, for the birdwatcher, they are a thrilling sight to behold when viewed through binoculars. It is not just because they are tall and slim but they also have gorgeous contours. Above all, they are not easy to find because of their rarity in the Indian sub-continent.

When on the wing, the flamingos’ flamboyance is even more fascinating as they light up the azure sky with pleasing plumage. Their extra long necks and lanky legs make them look like flying sticks attached with feathers. These fragile birds are presently in trouble in their favourite feeding and breeding grounds at the Rann of Kutch in the hinterlands of western Gujarat. Here they often either accidentally collide with or get electrocuted by high-tension cables. Ornithologists from the region lament that they witness falling flamingos across the region, as they virtually drop dead in dozens.

Though no authentic figures are available to substantiate the death numbers, the Gujarat Forest Department admits it has recorded accident fatalities, especially in west Gujarat. The death zone is mostly concentrated in areas where there are power lines to and fro from the grid.

Though no systemic study has been done to estimate the number of flamingo deaths taking place, a sample survey by ornithologists Anika Tere and B.M. Parasharya mapped seven sites in Kutch, Bhavnagar and Jamnagar where high tension cables run close to flamingo breeding sites. With very few flamingo breeding grounds across the world, the necessity of taking steps to save them is paramount.

Ms. Tere, who is with Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda, says, “During my studies on flamingos, I discovered that collusion with power lines occurs regularly and so it is prudent that power cables should be laid underground even if it involves more money and effort. This can be taken up not only in Gujarat but across the country so that other big birds like cranes, vultures and storks are also saved from collisions and electrocutions.”

India hosts 1,250 bird species of which there are seed-eaters, insect-eaters, flesh-eaters, fruit-eaters, nectar-suckers and the array of beaks they deploy in feeding is astounding. But the flamingo has the weirdest beak of all that is large and crooked as they are niche filter feeders. Extraordinarily structured, the beak is for specialised eating habits as it feeds on microscopic water plants and animals. While feeding, the bird lowers its beak upside down in the gooey mud to sweep and seep to separate organic microbes with comb filters in its voluminous bill. Strangely, even blue whales, the largest creatures on earth, have similar oral features and also feed on tiny organisms. While the food, in the form of miniature crustaceans, worms, algae, plankton and aquatic insects is retained and absorbed, the brine and grime is filtered out. Hence, the flamingos devote long sessions for breakfast, lunch, dinner as they truly have a beak to fit the bill.

Of the six species of flamingos in the world, only two dwell in our country — the greater and lesser flamingos. Both species are choosy in selecting feeding areas as they prefer shallow water bodies. On October 20 while at Aurangabad with a fellow birdwatcher, we learnt that flamingos had arrived at Jayakwadi dam on the Godavari. We scurried to the site at dawn to find flamingos frolicking in the backwaters unmindful of our close presence. There were sixty gangly flamingos sharing shore space with 5,000 terns and other water birds.

The word ‘flamingo’ comes from the Spanish and Latin word ‘flamenco’ which means fire, and obviously refers to the colour of the feathers. A group of flamingos is called a ‘stand’ as they gregariously rest on one leg or ‘flamboyance’ as they flutter gracefully in the air. I witnessed thousands of them enacting the same in the Nal Sarovar sanctuary, situated 77 away from Ahmedabad.

Unfortunately, insufficient rains, inadequate water bodies and polluted lakes are some of the many problems faced by flamingos today. Hence, they desperately roam the countryside in search of undisturbed shallow waters filled with their favourite food.