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Fall of a bird

Pigeons have happily adapted to human presence.

Pigeons have happily adapted to human presence. | Photo Credit: Illustration: Sreejith R. Kumar

Who is at fault, we or the bird?

My daughter asked in exasperation, “Mom, how do I get rid of the pigeon’s nest outside my bedroom? There are always eggs or grey lumpy squabs and piled-up droppings.” Her initial fascination and posting in our family WhatsApp group pictures of the pigeons’ progress has turned into frustration. She worried whether her child’s wheezing was triggered by the birds’ droppings.

Much as she wanted to get rid of the nest, it was never empty! Eggs would be laid as soon as one set of fledglings leaves. My explanation about the pigeons’ adaptation to coexist with human beings and frequent procreation when food is in abundance did not address her concern. I told her to keep a close watch and get the nest removed as soon as the last chick leaves and block the cosy gap between the AC unit and the wall. I pepped her up with a happy emoji.

Gruesome loss

The next WhatsApp message was from an environment group planning to erect a memorial to a bird, the great Indian bustard ( Ardeotis nigriceps) that had dashed against a high-tension power line in Jaisalmer and died. The death marked one more blow to the fast-dwindling numbers of the State bird of Rajasthan. The bustard (pronounced as bust-uhd and locally known as Godawan) is unique to India and was a contender for the title of National Bird. It is believed that the possibility of mispronunciation as an expletive made the bird lose the title and earn the abbreviation GIB. The name bustard originated from an Anglo-Norman French blend of old French words bistarde and oustarde, derived from Latin words avis tarda, meaning “slow bird”.

Apart from the problems posed by its name, the GIB has some evolutionary (dis)advantages. The bird of the savannah is designed for running and is endowed with strong legs and three forward-facing toes. The absence of a hind toe makes it impossible to perch. This ground bird is a slow breeder, laying mostly a single egg on the ground and it takes about a month to hatch. Such a breeding pattern is not safe anymore. Over the years, the bird has been forced to leave its vast terrain that extended from Tamil Nadu to Punjab and Odisha to Rajasthan. As the grasslands considered wastelands got converted for agriculture, farming, industries and so on, the GIB is relegated to the western corner of India. Even here, its precious egg is more likely to get trampled by cattle or devoured by dogs. In the past 50 years, the GIB population has plummeted from 1,200 to 120. The bird used to flying in the unobstructed territories of grasslands and scrublands is not designed to fly amid windmills and power lines. It never had the need to look forward while flying; instead it was useful to look down for any prey. But now, this flying habit often causes death by collision. Raising a monument to the dead GIB is an attempt to raise awareness of the plight of the bird even in its last refuge on earth.

The paradox of the perpetually breeding pigeons adapted to human presence and the Great Indian Bustard staring at extinction reflects two extreme ends of man-bird relationship. If the critically endangered GIB does become extinct, shall we blame the bird for not adapting to the human-dominated world and absolve ourselves of all guilt? Or shall we own responsibility and give the bird its rightful place on earth? If we choose the second option, there is an urgent need to rethink and realign our actions to coexist with the bird. We cannot wait for the GIB to evolve like a pigeon and survive. Time is running out.

vijayacardio@gmail.com


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Printable version | Aug 4, 2022 5:47:50 pm | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/open-page/fall-of-a-bird/article65543713.ece