Every morning, I sit with a cup of chai by the window in my living room and the first few things I notice are the trees, the sky beyond their canopies and the dappled sunlight. But somewhere, the eye catches a blur of movement and the ears follow the sweetness of sound, to arrive at the daily sightings of resident birds in the neighbourhood.
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Crows rule this domain in the Mumbai suburb of Khar, a low-lying marshland that was once used for fishing and salt production. Their murderous caws ebb and flow through the day, keeping other birds away from accessing the offerings of the earth. Then there is a family of pigeons nested in the balcony above. A friend once aptly described pigeons as “rodents of the sky”.
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Adjoining the palm grove is a pickleball court that is painted bright blue. It sits in a depression, surrounded by trees and must give the impression of a waterbody from the air, which is probably why the white-breasted kingfisher is a regular visitor. I’m usually greeted by a flash of blue, white and orange amidst the lower branches of the badam (country almond) tree as the kingfisher conducts its sly surveillance of the area. In the monsoon, it’s virtually a lake, then the kingfisher dominates.
The apex predator of this urban wood, however, is the black kite. It sits on the terraces of the apartment buildings and swoops down on unsuspecting creatures. When the kite descends to drink water, other birds disappear.
Bulbuls produce the sweetest birdsong. The white-throated fantails arrive in spring and depart in the monsoon. Invariably, I spot them briskly fanning their tails, as they hop from one branch to another, in a choreographed dance of sorts. Sparrows, mynahs, drongos and parakeets are occasional visitors, too. Sometimes, I am fortunate to have a rare sighting of the elusive golden oriole, whose glorious shock of bright yellow plumage never fails to bring a smile to my lips.
When I moved to Mumbai from New Delhi in the summer of 2003, I remember there being a lot of talk about the opening up of mill lands in the central districts of Worli and Parel. There were public debates on the need for open spaces in the city and that a portion of mill lands should be reserved for parks and playgrounds. Almost two decades later, most of the mills have metamorphosed into fancy office complexes, high-end malls, five-star hotels and gated communities. This culture of exclusion extends not just to the working class of humans but also to the trees, animals and birds that inhabit this shared space. A study conducted by the Bombay Natural History Society in 2020 found that 85 per cent of the bird population in the Mumbai Metropolitan Region had displayed negative effects of increasing anthropogenic habitat cover, which basically means more humans, fewer birds.
A few years ago, my wife and I (and later, our newborn daughter) lived in Pune, in an apartment on Boat Club Road, a stone’s throw from the Mula Mutha river. The apartment had a large terrace that overlooked the leafy colony of Narangi Baug and stood level with its tree line. In the vicinity were banyan, imli, ashoka, gulmohar, mango and old rain trees. We maintained a sizeable terrace garden with large ixora bushes, bougainvillea creepers, palms, succulents and other flowering plants. Needless to say, the terrace attracted many birds. Let me at this point clarify that I am not a serious bird watcher or a birding enthusiast or whatchamacallit. I have no real experience in the field and I do not own a single book about birds of the Indian subcontinent or elsewhere. This has been a natural progression of my morning chai drinking ritual.
The first birds I noticed on that terrace were the purple sunbirds that came to feed on the ixora, flying around in rapid bursts of speed. They were accompanied, at times, by the spotted munias (spice finch). A large crow pheasant often flew down from the dense foliage of the imli (tamarind) tree, its deep, resonant calls comforting us on sleepy afternoons.
Late one summer evening, there was an intense thunderstorm. As an old mango tree got uprooted in the colony, I witnessed an amazing sight. A large barn owl flew out of a tree and landed atop an old chimney pipe. It turned around to face the wind and lifted one wing, opening it out fully to catch the draft, then did the same with the other wing. I thought it was just trying to air its armpits, but after many minutes of such repetition, I was convinced that the owl was simply dancing in the rain!
Before Pune became one of the fastest-growing cities in India, the green stretch running along the Mula Mutha riverbank in Kalyani Nagar was popular as the “Yerawada birding point” and boasted a wide range of species from ruddy shelducks, red-wattled lapwings and pied kingfishers to partridges and the black headed ibis. A few years ago, a builder started fencing off a section of the park, claiming ownership of the land. Soon, a modification was issued in the city’s development plan and permission was granted to construct high-rise buildings on the river bank. Then came the Metro. Though the residents of Kalyani Nagar have resisted, the construction of the Metro line has proceeded in fits and bursts. The birds still come calling, but who knows for how long!
Siddharth Singh is a writer and filmmaker based in Mumbai. He is the author of the novel Fighter Cock