Sat. Jan 22nd, 2022


Thunch. An enormous brown bird flew into metal bars crossing the lower living room window and clinging. The bird of prey was a black kite, a scavenger that looks fierce with large claws and a curved beak. I was hoping it was not about to invite himself inside.

You might not expect close encounters with wildlife in India’s financial capital, Mumbai. For this very reason, when he planned to move to the city, “everyone discouraged me,” says physicist Bivash Pandav, who was appointed director of the Bombay Natural History Society in 2020. “But believe me, the [first day] I came, I fell in love with this city. . . in no way is it depleted in game, it is very rich. ” Especially if you look up.

The sky above the world’s second most densely populated city swarms with house crows, blue rock pigeons and electric green parakeets. Elegant white herons sit on boats moored at the fish market. At the shoreline bounded by slums and mangroves, wading birds root around at low tide. The most spectacular of all are swarms of migrating pink flamingos.

For this wealth of bird life, Mumbai can thank the “great natural heritage with which it was endowed, between the coast [on the west] and the hilly forest to the east, ”says Sunjoy Monga, author of books on Mumbai’s birds. “It was a very fertile, green part of India.”

No wonder India’s most celebrated bird expert, Salim Ali (1896-1987), also came from Mumbai.

The city’s expansion has eaten up parts of those grasslands and wetlands, severely curtailing bird habitats. But in urban areas, Monga says, successful species have ridden on one’s extravagance – crows feeding on junk, for example, or flamingos apparently attracted by algae flowers that may be caused by factory pollution. “There were no flamingos in Mumbai before the 1990s, or hardly any, and now all of a sudden Mumbai is the flamingo capital of the world,” Monga says.

I ponder the collision of human and animal worlds as I watch a deft kite drag a loose electric cable across a roof. Kites are particularly successful adapters. “Wherever landfill sites are, you will find [them] like locusts, ”says Pandav.

Does not Mumbai’s air pollution affect birds? Pandav lag. “We do not think so, because birds are found in very good numbers.”

But not all species that have found symbiosis with humans have survived modernity. Take vultures, which once had a symbiotic relationship with Mumbai’s Parsees, an ancient Zoroastrian religious community. In Zoroastrian burial rites, dead bodies are not cremated or buried, but left on a high structure to be poached by birds in a “heavenly burial”. In Mumbai, the Parsee “tower of silence” is surrounded by woodland, an oasis in the city, where Monga says you can spy on rhinoceros birds and wild pea birds.

But for the past three decades, vultures have almost disappeared over India, poisoned by an anti-inflammatory drug introduced in veterinary medicine. The disappearance of the birds forced centuries-old rituals to change. Parsees replace vulture decomposition with mirrors used as solar power concentrators. Pandav’s BNHS operates breeding programs.

It is not just vultures that have disappeared from Mumbai’s air; Monga says larks have also disappeared. Other small birds are under pressure from traffic noise, over which they spend too much energy screaming, and crows crowing.

Not all natural space has been sacrificed to development. There is a wooded national park within Mumbai’s suburban boundaries, which protects lakes that quench the city’s thirst and leopards. The big cats were spotted walking around as far as the Indian Institute of Technology, alma mater of Twitter’s new CEO.

Yet conservationists are not complacent. Concerned Mumbaikars have campaigned against a proposed golf course and other developments that would wipe out vital wetlands. One piece is sublet by Reliance Industries, India’s largest listed company, with the intention of creating a special economic zone for the new city, Navi Mumbai. Fighters have sued for protected status.

The kites were displaced in my love by the crow-fighting fantail: “a little bird, restless, frolicking, an absolute dancer from Mumbai,” Monga said. “It thrives, capable of surviving against all odds, one might say.”

chloe.cornish@ft.com



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